We’re scared about the climate crisis. Now what?

In this article I explore environmental psychology and ways in which we can begin to move past our anxieties about climate change.

Headline after headline, study after study, heat wave after oppressive heat wave… is it any wonder more and more people around the world are developing chronic anxiety and deep feelings of grief over our climate crisis? 

How could we possibly feel any other way? 

For more than a decade now, I have been communicating on climate change for international organizations. But it wasn’t until I began developing my environmental children’s book series that I started to delve into the emerging field of environmental psychology. My motivation to learn more about this field was to make sure my books would empower young kids to protect our environment, rather than fan any anxieties they may already have.

The more I learn about environmental psychology, the more I wish I had started keying into this research a long time ago. Because it’s not just our children who need help and coping strategies to move past climate anxiety and eco-grief. To know about the problem is to be profoundly scared by it, no matter how old we are.

I’ve started to realize that people like me – well-meaning climate change communicators, activists, NGOs and politicians – have done the climate crisis a disservice by not understanding where the conversations need to begin about the state of our planet.

When it comes to framing conversations about anxiety and grief, it turns out psychology already knows a lot about this. In her recent Ted Talk, How to turn climate anxiety into action, environmental psychologist Renee Lertzman asserts that conversations about our climate crisis need to begin with the rather simple act of ‘attunement’. Dr. Lertzman describes attunement as a way of meeting people where they are, and making them feel understood and accepted without shame or judgement.

“It’s deeply painful to face what is happening on our planet right now… It’s easy to feel totally overwhelmed, maybe a bit helpless, powerless, angry, numb, disconnected. Perhaps all of the above. These messy, complicated feelings make total sense. I wish someone had said this to me 30 years ago,” she says.

That’s attunement. That’s the starting point that psychology already knows works with many other forms of anxiety. I don’t know about you, but it makes me feel better every time I hear it. 

I feel better, and then I feel sheepish. How many times have I crafted a headline with the latest doomsday statistic on global warming? How many times have I tried to balance these scary headlines with a lede about the latest hopeful solutions? I now realize that both miss the mark, because neither one of these approaches meet my audiences where they are now. 

We need to lead with attunement. Admit that we don’t have all the answers, but we are all in this together, and we can do this. We are scared but we can do this,” says Dr. Lertzman. 

I can’t help but wonder if people like me had used this starting point years ago, would we have been able to move the needle a little faster? And then I remind myself of one of my favourite Maya Angelou quotes:

Maya Angelou Quote

So, that’s exactly what I’m trying to do. I’m reorienting the starting points I use to connect with my audiences where they are before talking about where we need to go. I’m convinced that thisis what has been missing in our conversations on the climate crisis up until now. And I’m as motivated as ever to keep learning, adjusting and trying new approaches until we effect the scale of change needed to bring balance back to our planet. 

Further Reading

I recently discovered the BBC’s Climate Emotions article series. There, you can find several really constructive pieces looking at fear, hope, blame, among other facets and feelings on climate change. Really worth a read.

Also, in April 2020, I participated in an online conference called “Climate of Emotions: Supporting Youth Wellbeing”, hosted by the 6seconds Emotional Intelligence Network. Some great speakers participated in that conference, including Dr. Lertzman. Lots of good takeaways on how we can acknowledge and navigate our fears and anxieties about climate change.

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