Is Climate Anxiety Bad for the Planet?

The Source Weekly interviews the Land Trust's upcoming Nature Night presenter, Sarah Jaquette Ray, about climate anxiety.
By Sarah Mowry
The Source Weekly


Lovers of the natural world know that the signs of climate change are everywhere. Record warm temperatures and low snow in winter, early wildflowers in spring (or winter!), smoky skies and fires in the summer, and the new lexicon of heat domes, atmospheric rivers, and bomb cyclones. It's easy to get overwhelmed when we see the places we love change so dramatically and hear about climate impacts in the news every day. But how do you not let that stress turn into climate anxiety—or worse, climate inaction?

Climate anxiety, psychologists say, is the mental stress "related to the climate crisis—an overwhelming sense of fear, sadness and existential dread in the face of a warming planet." It's the next layer beyond the physical impacts that climate change is having on our planet. It's the background strain we feel physically in our bodies when we hear about another flood, extreme storm or endangered plant or animal. It's the sadness we feel when our favorite forest burns, when it's too smoky to go outside, or when we realize our children will never be able to experience the outdoors we love in the same way.

Dr. Sarah Jaquette Ray advocates for a "cultural transformation" that values life and works to preserve it, rather than seeing people get overwhelmed with the enormity of the climate-change problem.

Climate anxiety is increasingly showing up in the therapy room, as a recent New York Times article pointed out, and it's impacting our children in new and profound ways. A study published last fall asked young people 16-25 how they felt about climate change and the government's response to it. The results were eye-opening, with nearly 60% saying they felt "very worried" or "extremely worried" about climate change, and 45% saying their feelings about climate change impacted their daily lives.

So, now that climate anxiety is a very real thing, how should we all manage this stress so it doesn't get the better of us? Enter Dr. Sarah Jaquette Ray, a professor of environmental studies at Humboldt State University, a leading researcher on climate anxiety, and author of "A Field Guide to Climate Anxiety: How to Keep Your Cool on a Warming Planet." Ray is the featured speaker for the Deschutes Land Trust's March 2 Nature Night all about climate anxiety, and she shared some insights in advance of her talk:

Source Weekly: Why did you start researching climate anxiety?

Dr. Sarah Jaquette Ray: I started researching this topic because my students—and seemingly, an entire generation of people—were experiencing it, though I didn't have the word at that time. I realized they were ill-equipped emotionally to handle the turbulence of the world they were inheriting, and that I, too, wasn't able to face reality without better tools. Realizing that there was never going to be some utopian time when we'll never worry about climate change again, and that diminishing the bad news in my classes by sprinkling a little hope here and there was no longer viable, I wanted to know: what are the tools we will all need to stay engaged in climate work for the long-haul?

SW: What worries you most about climate anxiety and how it is impacting people?

SJR: I'm most worried about people giving up before they've even tried because they think they can't do anything to fix the problem, and their anxiety is so overwhelming, they just want it to go away instead of addressing the root causes of it—the climate crisis. This perception is a question of scale: I'm too small, and the problem of climate change is too big. That perception becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, before we even begin to try to address the problem! We give up because the negative feeling of not being able to fix the whole problem is greater than the positive feeling we get from helping just a little. People will give up even though every little bit does count; every harm not done is that much more bit of life protected, resilience built. Anything we can do to make the problem smaller (breaking climate change down into manageable parts) and make ourselves bigger (by seeing ourselves as part of a collective, for example) also helps. We are much more powerful than we think, and the planet needs us to tell a better story about what's possible.

SW: Can the tools you offer to help cope with climate anxiety help climate change itself?

SJR: Yes—climate anxiety should not be "mental-healthified," meaning, it's not a problem that individuals should "cope with" or "get fixed." The solution to our feelings isn't comfort; it's fixing the source of the problem in the first place. Emotions are always political; they're never just meant to be worked through in the privacy of a therapist's office, though that may be needed, too. But what we need isn't more pedicures, self-care or solace; what we need is the medicine of cultural transformation. We need to live in a society that values rather than destroys life. Our climate anxiety is an excellent indicator of this need, which is the first step it helps us take toward addressing climate change itself. Then, it's a force to be harnessed for change. We need all the emotional and mental resources to address climate change; in this sense, addressing climate anxiety is addressing climate change.

March 2 Nature Night:
Is climate anxiety bad for the planet?
March 2 at 7pm

Dr. Sarah Jaquette Ray's upcoming talk tackles the notion of climate anxiety and what people can do instead of getting overwhelmed.