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The Psychology of Climate Change

Updated: Dec 13, 2022


Last week I heard from almost every client I saw that the smoke in the air was such that they could not go outside. Recess was cancelled and forget about outdoor exercise or your regular bike commute. Some people feel like the entire summer was plagued with wildfire smoke so much that they never even got to enjoy summer. It is impossible to not grapple with climate change when we live amongst it’s reality. Many of us notice that the weather has changed drastically within our lifetimes. In Seattle and Portland as soon as 10 years ago homes did not really need air conditioning because temperatures never climbed too much above a perfect 85 degrees. Hospitals and police officers in the Pacific Northwest grappled with 500 heat deaths when temperatures shattered records last summer. Those high temperatures are only expected to continue.

Wildfire statistics help to illustrate past U.S. wildfire activity. Nationwide data compiled by the National Interagency Coordination Center (NICC) indicate that since 2000, an annual average of 70,072 wildfires has burned an annual average of 7.0 million acres. The acreage figure is more than double the average annual acreage burned in the 1990s. From 2012 to 2021, there were an average of 61,289 wildfires annually and an average of 7.4 million acres impacted annually. In 2021, 58,968 wildfires burned 7.1 million acres. As of October 3, 2022, nearly 54,200 wildfires have impacted about 6.9 million acres this year. And wildfires are also expected to get more frequent and larger.

“In general, the climate in the Northwest is cooler and wetter than in most low-elevation areas of California,” said lead author Jessica Halofsky, a research scientist at the UW School of Environmental and Forest Sciences and with the U.S. Forest Service. But the Northwest summers are now dry and warm. “Climate change will accentuate dry summers, and Northwest climate will become more similar to current-day California climate, leading to more and bigger fires.”

When thinking about or experiencing the very real current crises related to climate change we may feel anxiety. Sometimes a low to moderate level of anxiety is a healthy response to such an existential threat but sometimes feelings of suffocating anxiety and depression can become concerning.

I wanted to explore managing the real trauma and psychological issues that can arise related to climate change. Counseling those who struggle with this issue is an area of interest for me and I believe that therapy can help one to overcome the very real existential stress that exists when we live in a world that is being destroyed and as we actively experience the consequences.

Climate change effects our feelings more than we may be aware.

Recognizing the unsustainably of every part of the earth and our lives can certainly lead to anxiety. Feelings of fear, helplessness, and depression are normal human responses to current climate change events and the assured destruction of nature.

The fact that our mere existence causes harm to the the earth and depletes it’s resources is tough to face. Chronic feelings of what’s been termed “eco-anxiety” by The American Psychology Association (APA) are currently being researched. Eco-anxiety is defined by the APA as “the chronic fear of environmental cataclysm that comes from observing the seemingly irrevocable impact of climate change and the associated concern for one's future and that of next generations.”

The consistent coverage of climate change events on social media and news platforms affects our perception and understanding of the climate crisis. Activism in this arena is one consequence but watching destruction all over the world and it’s aftermath in real time can cause feelings of fear, grief, anger, hopelessness and despair.

Over identifying with eco-anxiety can cause extreme guilt particularly when making decisions about the future. For example the ethics of having children:

A 2018 survey conducted by Morning Consult for The New York Times found 33% of the 20- to 45-year-old people surveyed cited climate change as a reason they had or expected to have fewer children than they might have wanted in different circumstances, and a newly published study in The Lancet revealed that, in a global poll of 10,000 people aged 16-25, 39% are hesitant to have children because of their climate anxiety.

The idea of bringing children into a future of sure increased climate crisis can feel morally wrong. Or if one has young children or is grappling with the decision to have children they may have overwhelming fears about the earth their children will inherit. Both situations can cause one to feel guilt and despair.

So what do we do about eco-anxiety?

One way would be to address how our systems provide support.

The new WHO policy brief recommends 5 important approaches for governments to address the mental health impacts of climate change:

  • integrate climate considerations with mental health programs;

  • integrate mental health support with climate action;

  • build upon global commitments;

  • develop community-based approaches to reduce vulnerabilities; and

  • close the large funding gap that exists for mental health and psychosocial support.

Another is obtaining “Climate-Aware Therapy”

Moments of climate anxiety should not be dismissed as catastrophizing or overreacting. These are often healthy response to an existential threat. But if you find yourself feeling depressed, anxious, or overwhelmed by the climate crisis, you can seek out a climate-aware therapist. Whereas some therapists might pathologize or dismiss eco-distress, climate-aware therapists understand it as a natural and reasonable reaction to what is happening—a sign of one’s connection to and care for the world—and provide perspectives, tools, and techniques for coping.

So I guess I can now call myself another thing - a climate aware therapist. I think how I guide clients when working with the issue of climate change is to direct them to recognize that:

Internalizing the external destruction does not transform the earth.

And that

How you direct your energy matters.

To cope and find resilience we must forge ahead individually and collectively.

The ability to adapt to challenging circumstances is a strength we have as humans.

It takes courage to be awake to both destruction and possibility and to keep working together towards a future full of life. I invite you to consider how you can collectively take action about something you care about with others in your community. And I ask you to perhaps spend time in nature enjoying what it means to notice all the natural resources both within and surrounding you.

~ Rachel

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