How I deal with climate anxiety
Climate anxiety can lead to depression and inaction, but having a sustainable game plan might help
Fresh off a huge win (the passing of ACC2), the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Air Quality Control Board is set to consider another rule next week - the Health, Equity, and Environment Impacts (HEEI) regulation. HEEI is seen as a lifeline for some Albuquerque residents but has been heavily opposed since it was introduced to the air board earlier this year.
I bring this up for two reasons: 1) you should inform yourself about HEEI and submit a public comment once the hearing starts, and 2) this quick turnaround to another big rulemaking is a reminder that the climate fight is non-stop, exhausting, and sometimes anxiety-inducing.
After ACC2 passed last week, I took a breath of relief - only to realize that the HEEI hearing starts next week, the controversial COP 28 meeting started Thursday, the NM legislative session is right around the corner, and, in the grand scheme of the climate fight, this is only the beginning of what needs to happen. The massive task of defeating climate change is hard to comprehend and overwhelms many people to the point of anxiety and depression.
A study from Yale shows that about 64% of Americans are worried about climate change. Those Yale scientists argue worrying about climate change is healthy as it can translate into real action. But 9% of Americans are so worried that they “report feeling down, depressed, or hopeless… because of global warming.”
There is limited research out there about climate anxiety, so it’s tough to say if it’s a growing phenomenon, but internet searches for climate anxiety have risen over the years, suggesting growing anxiety within the public. And we know for sure it’s worse for young people.
According to experts at Yale, climate anxiety is defined as:
…distress about climate change and its impacts on the landscape and human existence. That can manifest as intrusive thoughts or feelings of distress about future disasters or the long-term future of human existence and the world, including one’s own descendants.
Anxiety about an existential threat like climate change is a natural response, but anxiety can lead to depression. Depression is often the enemy of action - and the climate fight will take a lot of action from all of us. If we get too depressed to act on climate change, how will we beat it?
Recognizing your mental capacity to focus on climate change is the first step. Social science researcher Susanne Moser suggests “burnt-out people aren’t equipped to serve a burning planet.”
Furthermore, climate anxiety researcher Dr. Sarah Lowe reports from one of her studies that, “…climate change anxiety was associated with higher depression symptoms only for those students who were not engaged in collective action. For those who were engaged in collective action, climate change anxiety was actually not associated with depression.”
In other words, worrying about climate change can be a good thing that leads to action, but if one’s climate anxiety leads to depression, climate action may come to a halt.
Now, I’m not qualified to write at length about mental health, and if you are dealing with climate anxiety or depression, you should reach out to a qualified professional. Do not take this article as medical advice, but rather as input from an econ blogger with limited experience in combatting massive, anxiety-inducing tasks.
Once upon a time, I was a pretty good middle-distance runner. Through running, I learned a big lesson: you can’t get into championship-level fitness in one day, one week, one month, or even one year. It takes several years of daily sacrifice and individualized workouts to become a better runner.
Similarly, the climate fight is a years-long endeavor that requires patience, planning, and baby steps.
Planning “bite-sized” climate-friendly actions, at a cadence you can mentally manage, can help bring the massive scope of climate action into focus. I try to provide these bite-sized actionable items (like public comment opportunities) in this newsletter most weeks, but climate action, for you, should be as individualized as a distance runner’s training regiment.
Climate action can be a lot of things:
Choosing public transit over driving
Protesting oil and gas development
Investing in renewables
Participating in your local Strong Towns chapter
Becoming a paid subscriber to Complex Effects
Donating to environmental non-profits
The list is endless…
If anyone attempted to do all of this all the time until the climate fight was “over” (and it will never really be over), that person would likely burn out and quit. Plus, many of these things are simply impossible to do all the time - public transit doesn’t always go where you need to, you may not have money to donate to charities often, etc.
Instead, go easy on yourself. Pick a couple of ways you can fight for the climate that fit into your expertise and interests, dilute those ideas into bite-sized chunks of climate action that you can perform weekly (or daily), and once you become accustomed to the discipline of your added climate-friendly tasks, add another one.
Pace yourself. The climate fight is a marathon, not a sprint.
Maybe you’re reading this and thinking, “I’m not that worried about climate change… it seems like the government and everyone else has this thing covered.” I hate to break it to you, but despite annual UN climate conferences, federal government investments, and local environmental justice initiatives, we don’t have this covered - we need you to be the right amount of worried - and we need you to allocate a small part of your week to bite-sized climate action.
For your next bite-sized action, consider learning more about the upcoming HEEI hearing and submit a public comment to the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Air Quality Control Board next week.
In conclusion, it’s good to be worried about climate change, and I hope my distance-running metaphor helps you turn that worry into sustainable action. This is how I deal with the weight that climate change presents, but if you find that your climate anxiety is too much for you to handle, please seek professional guidance. We need everyone in good health and ready to do their bite-sized part as we venture into the most crucial years of the climate fight.
If you’re interested in learning more about climate anxiety, I’d recommend the following resources:
Gen Dread, a substack about coping with the reality of climate change.
Eco-Anxious Stories, a collaborative space focused on normalizing eco-anxiety.
In other news:
Strong Towns, Albuquerque Chapter, had its first meeting on Thursday, November 30th at High and Dry Brewery. There were probably around 50 people in attendance. When the next meeting is scheduled, I will distribute the details.
Strong Towns’ mission: “We seek to replace America’s post-war pattern of development, the Suburban Experiment, with a pattern of development that is financially strong and resilient. We advocate for cities of all sizes to be safe, livable, and inviting. We work to elevate local government to be the highest level of collaboration for people working together in a place, not merely the lowest level in a hierarchy of governments.”
Mayor Tim Keller: “We’re making significant progress on our climate action goals this year, including becoming the first city to create an equity committee in support of the federal Justice40 initiative… We are focused on making our home a more climate resilient place for our families, and for the future families of Albuquerque.”
Do you have a story you think should be on Complex Effects? Reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org