Writing in Nature Climate Change, psychology researchers Anne van Valkengoed and Linda Steg make the case that the sickening anxiety many people feel about how fast Earth is heating up is a "healthy and empathetic" response to the incalculable loss of millions of species and human lives that we're told is in the cards.
Citing recent research and interviews, they go on to argue that climate anxiety manifests not from people's fears of how they may personally be impacted, as other researchers have suggested, but out of concerns for "global and societal consequences of climate change and impacts on animals and vulnerable populations."
"At least in the Global North, many people experience climate anxiety primarily out of concern for others and the natural world," the pair from the University of Groningen in the Netherlands write in their commentary, a response to an earlier article suggesting that climate anxiety stems from personal risks to people's livelihoods.
For those in low-lying island nations, the direct impacts – of rising sea levels, stronger hurricanes, and increasing storm surges – may rightly be their biggest and most immediate concern. The effects of climate change are already hitting hard and uprooting communities.
For those of us watching from afar (for now), we may hold fears for their future and that of younger generations, who face increasing heatwaves, droughts, and crop failures.
Recognizing how this empathy gives rise to anxiety "has key implications for how people can cope with climate anxiety," van Valkengoed said on Twitter.
This has key implications for how people can cope with climate anxiety. Adapting to climate change risks will unlikely be a helpful strategy for people who experience strong climate anxiety, in contrast to what previous authors have argued:https://t.co/J0j4eTfYoF— Anne van Valkengoed @valkengoed.bsky.social (@AnneValkengoed) June 29, 2023
"Adapting to [personal] climate change risks will unlikely be a helpful strategy" for coping with climate anxiety so long as the threat to other people and nature remains, she adds.
That said, if more research can help health professionals understand when and why people experience climate anxiety, they could better offer appropriate strategies for dealing with it.
The initial commentary from climate modelers Jeremy Fyke and Andrew Weaver suggests that individuals may benefit from finding ways to reduce their personal exposure to climate hazards rather than just coping with feelings of anxiety.
"Starting to plan personal climate adaptation actions is a powerful tonic for sustainably reducing climate anxiety," they write.
Being proactive may help people regain a sense of control, and joining community-led initiatives fosters connections, which may be a salve or the first kindling of hope.
But many people might not have the financial resources to relocate or fortify their homes. And it takes time for the outcomes of collective actions to materialize.
So we still need strategies to cope with feelings such as grief that may arise and which many scientists share while banding together to take steps to switch to renewable sources of energy and be done with fossil fuels.
Because it almost goes without saying that seeing governments and companies actually reducing emissions to address the root cause of climate change itself would go a long way to easing people's anxiety about the trajectory of our planet.
The point of this academic back-and-forth is no one can jettison themselves from global climate change, though some people will feel the heat more than others, and it's empathy for our fellow planeteers that moves us towards a better future for all.