Commentary: More people feel climate anxiety, and government inaction makes it worse
Climate change is emerging as a chronic stressor to people worldwide, and eco-anxiety emerges as a rational response, say climate advocates.
SINGAPORE: You might have read about plastics in landfills or seen footage of devastating wildfires. Or braved torrential rain on your way to the supermarket. The next day, the exact same trip might leave you drenched in sweat because of the unrelenting heat.
Climate change is rapidly becoming our reality. While the impacts of climate change on our physical health are obvious, it affects us psychologically and emotionally too.
The emotional reaction from a realistic threat perception of impending doom – even if spared from the direct trauma of experiencing extreme weather events – is gaining recognition as a phenomenon.
Eco-anxiety, eco-guilt, ecological grief, biospheric concern are some of many terms currently used to describe this phenomenon. But they generally share roots of powerlessness, despair, or uncertainty in anticipated or actual environmental changes.
In a September survey of 10,000 youths worldwide led by Bath University, close to 60 per cent have felt “very” or “extremely” worried about climate change, with 45 per cent reporting that their feelings about climate change negatively affected their daily lives.
Eco-anxiety affects people with existing mental health conditions too. In a study on obsessive compulsive disorder by the University of Sydney, patients have reported concerns directly related to climate change, leading to actions such as checking and rechecking light switches, taps and stoves.
Singapore has not been spared. A 2021 Pew Research centre study of advanced economies found that about three-quarters of people surveyed in Singapore are concerned that climate change will harm them personally.
Prominent public forums such as The Good Space and the Singapore Writers Festival have been facilitating conversations about eco-anxiety.
ECO-ANXIETY AS A RATIONAL RESPONSE TO CHANGE
“Change can affect us unconsciously and we can become traumatised without that understanding of why,” Dr Denise Dillon, lecturer in James Cook University (Singapore) who studies environmental psychology, explained in a podcast interview exploring the intersection of health and climate change.
“When there’s too much conscious focus, which relates to morbid rumination, the anxiety could be really bad. On the other hand, too little conscious focus means there is avoidance or denial, and people could keep going down a trauma hole,” she added.
Social media has also made us extremely prone to doomscrolling, which refers to the tendency to continuously scroll through disheartening news without the ability to step back.
During the height of January 2020, just as news of COVID-19 broke, the Australian wildfires dominated media channels. Footage of fires filled Instagram stories and Twitter feeds, wildfire updates headlined major news sites alongside information on the developments of a global pandemic.
Conscious focus on such overwhelmingly bad news can take a toll on anyone.
NOT A FIRST WORLD PROBLEM
The anxiety posed by climate change could also amplify existing anxieties in a few ways.
Climate change will impact people’s daily lives as it affects our food systems, economics and politics.
For communities who depend on natural systems for their livelihoods, climatic impacts will result in lower yields, rising costs and greater financial precarity. Individuals living in vulnerable geographic areas may experience forced migration and displacement.
Individuals or communities that are marginalised and exposed to the impact of climate change are likely to face outsized anxiety. Though levels were high through all participant countries, in the Bath University study of 10,000 youth, respondents from poorer countries expressed greater worry and functional impairment.
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Climate disasters are also extremely stressful events to those who experience it. After the devastating Australian wildfires in 2020, Australia’s national bushfire recovery not only covered physical damage but also an A$76 million package (S$76.5 million) allocated to mental health services for affected persons.
Approximately one in five people in highly affected communities experience persistent post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and psychological distress.
To draw a parallel to Singapore, the Southeast Asian hazes in the summer months saw cancellations of outdoor events, air quality warnings, health cautions to individuals with respiratory and medical vulnerabilities and to those with no access to air-purifiers or air-conditioning.
As we are learning from our experience with COVID-19, daily inconveniences of isolation and unpredictability could have adverse effects on individuals’ sense of autonomy and control, heightening stress levels.
CLIMATE CHANGE A CHRONIC STRESSOR
While negative responses to stressors such as work, family or financial issues are well-established – eco-anxiety, a complex blend of emotions including fear, anger, grief, despair, guilt and shame, is increasingly recognised as chronic stress in its own right.
The result of eco-anxiety could have a drastic impact on demographics. A 2019 Business Insider report found that nearly 30 per cent of Americans agree that a couple should consider the negative and potentially life-threatening effects of climate change when deciding whether to have children or not.
In a 2018 survey by The New York Times of 1,858 men and women ages 20 to 45, one-third of respondents reported planning to have fewer children than their ideal number. Another 11 per cent chose climate change as a reason for not wanting children.
But the converse can be true too – climate change may induce inaction as a defensive response, and individuals may suppress or deny negative emotions. This can look like disengaging from environmental initiatives, tuning out of environmental news and feeling like every action is insignificant.
This apathy can be overcome when individuals engage in actions that allow them to regain some level of agency be it going into nature, volunteering and organising with like-minded people.
“Rituals of mourning … can provide some structure or some recognisable pattern of activities in times of bewilderment or disorientation, to reorient people back into what their connections are,” Dr Dillion suggested.
“It could even be the point of the petitions to save Dover and Clementi forests. That is them taking some kind of responsibility to do even some small thing.”
STATE INACTION ADDED TO MIX
While eco-anxiety has sparked interest as a mental health phenomenon, eco-anxiety should also be seen as a reaction to inaction of decision-makers.
The perception that governments as failing to acknowledge or act on the crisis in a coherent, urgent way, or respond to their alarm, the Bath University study suggests, leads to feelings of betrayal and abandonment, and hence eco-anxiety.
If one views climate anxiety as merely an individual’s natural response to impending ecological disaster, the solution would be psychological resources, or coping skills. Yet, climate change is a stressor that individuals cannot change alone, or in the foreseeable future.
The natural reaction to doom and gloom is not about taking more action to live more sustainably, but about taking action collectively. Channelling despair into such work is not easy, but the guilt can be relieved when the burden is shared among like-minded people who can care for and support each other in difficult times.
These relationships built by communities affirm us that we are not in this alone.
COP26 will see state representatives take to a global stage to discuss climate action. While such platforms are inaccessible to regular people, community leaders can push for sustainable solutions in their spheres of influence.
When people or countries come together in collective action, instead of helplessness, everyone can find hope or empowerment.
Ann Hui Ching is a final-year medical student at the National University of Singapore, and host of Third Spacing (@thirdspacing), a podcast that explores issues on the peripheries of clinical medicine. Qiyun Woo is an environmental communicator that heads the projects The Weird and Wild on Instagram (@theweirdandwild) and Climate Commons, which explore climate change and public empowerment through creative visuals and graphics.