No time for bystanders

Leaning into climate anxiety, say psychologists, is the only way out 

Simple climate action    //   I S S U E   # 2 0    //   C L I M A T E   D E S P A I R 

Breaking the silence

What would happen if you and I got serious about solving the climate crisis ourselves? Not through the government, but as individuals. It’s not an easy question to ask because the answer is even harder. We’d have to change our lifestyles. Political priorities would shift. Our careers might even change.  

Perhaps most of us haven’t accepted, deep down, the dangerous implications of climate change for ourselves and future generations — even as 1,860 local authorities declare an official climate emergency for their one billion citizens. 

One reason is perfectly human: our psychological defenses fend off this terrible knowledge. But people, and societies, can change in a heartbeat when threats arise. We saw this during World War II, and experienced it again during the coronavirus pandemic. 

It turns out the only thing we’re waiting for is each other. As we’ll see this week, it’s incredibly difficult to act unless other people are. This ‘bystander effect’ has been repeatedly demonstrated in psychological experiments since the 1960s. Though people would act in the presence of danger when alone, they do nothing if other bystanders are passive as well. 

The good news is it only takes one person to break the spell. “Millions of people are alarmed by the climate emergency, but don’t talk about it and don’t necessarily know how to,” says Margaret Klein Salamon, an activist and clinical psychologist. “Break the silence.  Ask your friends and family how they feel about the climate emergency and tell them how you feel. It works.” 

Taking that first leap of faith, speaking honestly to family and friends, remains hard. Every day, more and more are doing it. That’s what we’ll explore this week.   

Mike Coren

The antidote for climate anxiety is each other

Being the first one to act makes it possible for everyone else 

By Thomas McMullan

Tom Collins worries about the climate crisis. A lot. 

“It makes me very anxious,” he says. “It’s the existential threat to human society, the loss of any sort of semblance of cooperation between humankind. It’s people fighting for resources. The more I read about the medium and long term impacts it makes me wonder about having kids, whether I want to raise children in a world where those things are no longer a hypothesis but something racing down the tracks towards them.”

Tom is 32, and works at a software company in Nottingham, England. He’s not a climate scientist nor a diehard activist. But he paints a familiar picture of rising distress about the scale of the climate crisis that can feel overwhelming, even paralyzing. It’s a danger he finds himself unable to escape. “If you were anxious about an exam or something at work, there are steps you can take to get towards a resolution,” he says. “This feels like there is no resolution”. 

Climate distress is being human

Of course, Tom has reason to worry. The past six years have been the hottest six on record, according to European temperature data. Last year wildfires raging across the Arctic released a record 244 million tonnes of CO2 within the Arctic Circle. Climate scientists have warned of a “ghastly future” of mass extinction and climate disruption. Faced by headlines about rising sea levels and raging wildfires, Tom and others find themselves wracked by an underlying sense of dread: “It permeates a lot of my life and a lot of my decision making,” he says. “There have certainly been girlfriends who didn’t want to hear about it.”

The stress of manmade climate change has attracted the attention of researchers and psychiatrists. Often called climate anxiety or eco-anxiety, the American Psychological Association (APA) defined this phenomenon in 2017 as “a chronic fear of environmental doom.” Finnish academic Pihkala Panu points to 2017 as the year when the mental health impacts of climate change began to break into the mainstream, citing student activist Greta Thunberg’s encouragement of young people to express their feelings about climate change.

Psychologists have resisted reclassifying this phenomenon as just another anxiety disorder. Rosemary Randall, a psychotherapist and founding member of the Climate Psychology Alliance, prefers not to see this as a diagnosable condition, but as a natural human response to an existential threat. At her non-profit organization, psychologists, academics, and social workers use the term “climate distress.” 

“The things that people describe experiencing are much wider than anxiety,” Randall tells me. “People describe feeling overwhelmed, out of control, powerless, angry, very sad, feeling guilty, and ashamed. You look at yourself and ask what kind of life you can live. What are my values? What can I do?”

Randall explains a common reaction to these feelings is denial or disavowal. You may be aware of the scale of the climate crisis and how it could fundamentally change your way of living, but that awareness is too overwhelming. On some level, we deny its reality because of the potentially traumatic associations. 

A lot of people live with this contradiction, she says: aware of what is barreling towards them, but locked into highly consumptive patterns that accelerate the problem.

“You see the same form of denial in government, which will say on the one hand they are proud of their commitment to carbon reduction and on the other hand announce a new road-building program,” says Randall.

Accept that we need to grieve 

Paradoxically, to confront this denial we must grieve. When working with patients dealing with climate distress, Randall uses classic techniques to process grief and loss

A four-stage process developed by psychologist William Worden begins with accepting the reality of the loss, both intellectually and emotionally. Then we talk through and acknowledge how we feel, mourning the person that is gone. The third is a period of adjusting to the new environment, and reshaping your identity. This can finally lead to a new life in a world without the deceased but with their memory. Crucially, this is a process the mourner has to actively talk about in order to process and heal. 

Applying this process to climate change allows people a way to mourn the loss of the future they imagined, and a natural world that is vanishing around them.

“You can't change the fact that emissions are stacked up and already having an effect,” says Randall. “But out of that awareness comes a gradual and painful reshaping of life where you see that life might still be worth living, and that there is a way of living with this new knowledge running through it.”

For Randall, working through difficult feelings is the precursor to taking action. Otherwise, the response is too premature, a superficial distraction rather than reinvesting this emotional energy into something productive. 

It’s a sentiment shared by Caroline Hickman, a psychotherapist and researcher in the psychology of climate change.  “It irritates me when people say the cure for eco-anxiety is activism,” she says. Protest and ecological activism play an important role, she notes, but our actions must come from a place of emotional resilience that acknowledges the reality of the situation. Without this emotional work, simply ‘doing something’ can block out those difficult feelings. Worse, it may reinforce denial of the fundamental uncertainty of our moment, drawing ourselves into paper-thin utopias instead.  

“We have to face the reality, process the feelings,” says Hickman. “Build resilience and then we can take action based on the truth — not on wishful thinking or the delusion that governments or technology will save us.” 

I ask if confronting all these risks makes the climate crisis feel even more overwhelming and intractable for most people. In some ways, she responds, it’s the opposite. Focusing only on the individual parts is what’s dangerous, like weeds in a garden. “You decide to pull up one patch but they'll pop up somewhere stronger,” she says. 

Instead, Hickman advises people to accept the complex interconnection of our world which could mean talking about climate change in terms of other issues, considering the ways campaigning for social justice are connected to environmental action.   A new generation of climate activists are doing just that linking biodiversity loss, global injustice, and systematic racism. “They're connecting things, quite rightly, that are an indication of a worldview based on the belief we can continue to exploit our environment and exploit others with no consequences,” she says. 

Volunteering shows us new possible futures

Reweaving the fabric of modern society will be no small task. Eliminating net emissions by mid-century, as scientists say is needed to stabilize the climate, will require nothing short of rebuilding communities and the global economy without relying on the fossil fuels that have powered it for generations.

But both Hickman and Randall speak about the value of finding smaller, tangible aims that create steps along this path. Volunteering brings you into an active, supportive community that enables the next, bigger step. Kim Bryan, the communications lead at 350.org, an environmental organization dedicated to phasing out fossil fuels, advocates doing things that contribute to the building of “other possible worlds”.

“Campaigning against things all the time can be very draining,” she says. “It's a long process and it can feel like change isn't happening quickly enough. But there are also positive projects that seem to be rolled out very quickly by local community groups, that can also be used to challenge climate anxiety. Reach out and find other people to connect with who share your concerns.”

The right action will be unique for every individual. But in all my conversations, the unifying sentiment was the value of acknowledging that we are not alone. 

“We’re all dealing with reality and using a lot of psychological defenses,” says climate activist and psychologist Margaret Klein Salamon. “Part of that is helplessness. But if we have the feeling I can make a meaningful difference, that’s the conversion experience. Then it’s not climate alarmism. You’re converted to, ‘I’m on a mission.’
The climate emergency becomes real when we see the urgency in those around us. 

Salamon compared it to a classic 1968 experiment in psychology. Participants were left alone in a room as it filled with smoke: 75% quickly left to report it.  But in a room where bystanders were instructed to ignore the smoke,  only 10% of the study’s subjects left the room.   “How people react is almost entirely based on how other people are reacting, especially leadership,” says Salamon. “But if one person says, ‘Holy shit guys, there’s smoke,’ it breaks the trance.”  Our silence contributes to this effect. Telling out friends and families shatters it. 

That was true for Tom during lockdown. With a lot of time to think, he has been speaking to friends and planning for the future. “Me and a friend have discussed going to council meetings once they are available again,” he says. “Even if it's just to understand at a local level what kind of changes people can make.”

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Hothouse is a weekly climate action newsletter written and edited by Jemima Kiss, Mike Coren and Jim Giles. We rely on readers to support us, and everything we publish is free to read.