Getting angry for good: wellbeing in the climate crisis

Image: SewCreamStudio/ People protest climate inaction
7 February 2024

Hearing the latest updates on climate change can be overwhelming.

The size of the issue, coupled with pace of change, can make it hard to face up to the realities of a heating earth. It may seem easier to look away.

The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, released in 2023, found there is a more than 50 per cent chance we will surpass 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming above pre-industrial temperatures by the early 2030s.

So how can we deal with these scary probabilities, without being overcome by anxiety?

Managing our emotional climate

Dr Zoe Leviston, who researches psychological responses to climate change, says climate anxiety is still “a construct in development”, but it’s generally characterised as a feeling of distress and unease that is focused on the impacts of climate change.

Due to how new climate anxiety is as a concept, more longitudinal data is needed to understand whether it is growing. But there is evidence that these emotions are more pronounced among younger age groups.

“Not to pathologise these eco-emotions, because they’re perfectly rational, but it’s a particular challenge for the younger generations,” she says. “This is really a challenge from a mental health perspective.”

But anxiety is not the only common emotional response to climate change. Eco-depression and eco-anger are also being observed and are often driven by frustration with environmental action, or a lack thereof.

Quantitative research completed by Leviston, and lead by ANU Research Fellow Dr Samantha Stanley, found that eco-anger is a more beneficial response.

“We found that eco-anger predicted a greater tendency to engage in pro-environmental behaviours on a personal level, and also collective action behaviours. Eco-anxiety didn’t – it had the reverse effect,” she explains.

“But we also found that people higher in eco-anger had better general wellbeing outcomes in terms of depression, anxiety and stress using diagnostic criteria.”

Coping with change

Of course, simply switching gears to anger from anxiety is easier said than done.

Leviston points to various coping strategies for dealing with climate anxiety, though she notes that people finding themselves regularly overwhelmed by these issues should talk to their GP or a mental health professional for further advice.

These strategies can include emotion-focused coping (looking for ways to de-stress), action-focused coping (taking action to tackle the threat) and meaning-focused coping (reframing anxiety as an expression of important values).

“If you can find climate actions that are both sustainable for you and that are aligned with your values, that’s going to create a sense of meaning for you,” she says.

Associate Professor Siobhan McDonnell, Senior Lecturer at ANU Crawford School of Public Policy with experience as a lead negotiator for Vanuatu and Fiji on climate change, says her work has been key for her to manage feelings of anxiety towards the future environment.

“I’ve got my own practice to maintain my own health and wellbeing, which is something that I think everybody should do, but I am really conscious of who I’m often sitting alongside. I’m working with Pacific Islanders and Pacific Islander leaders who are experiencing this as part of their everyday reality,” McDonnell explains.

“I operate in these pretty privileged spaces — I’m working on cases that are heading towards the International Court of Justice, I work on climate negotiations. I have an outlet for the anxiety that I’m feeling,” she adds.

Despite this, she says taking the first steps towards community action can create a similar outlet.

“If you have the energy — use it, mobilise,” she says.

“There isn’t enough of a political cost in Australia for choices made, like opening up more mines or allowing various kinds of [mineral] exploration to occur.

“Mobilising your agency, in whatever form that takes, can be a really nice set of actions to take when the world becomes confusing.”

How to avoid burnout

After taking the first steps to action, the next challenge is maintaining energy and effort.

“I think there is a risk of people who are highly engaged and effective at agitating for change tipping over to a point of almost fatalism or nihilism,” Leviston says.

“We need to support people who are involved in pushing for change, have proper mentoring in place, help with peer to peer interaction so they can check in with each other.”

Providing support through appropriately resourced and targeted mental health services can also ensure that the wellbeing impacts of climate change don’t inflict a secondary mental health crises.

This could mean long-term planning through mapping vulnerable communities and areas of under-resourced mental health services, including regional areas where we expect the most severe, abrupt impacts of climate change to occur.

Growing evidence shows that Indigenous communities are more susceptible to the wellbeing impacts of climate change – requiring their voices to be centred any efforts to alleviate mental health stressors.

“Ecological change can be profoundly affecting for Indigenous communities and can compound intergenerational trauma due to colonisation, which is linked to the drivers of human induced climate change,” Leviston says.

McDonnell suggests engaging with communities of people who want to work towards similar goals as a way to keep momentum.

“It’s easy to think of these things as depleting your energy and depleting your resources, but people get a lot of energy from fostering community and the community around engagement in a cause has meaning behind it,” she says.

Leviston supports this idea.

“A lot of the proffered solutions that people hear, including in school education, are targeted at the individual. That puts a huge amount of guilt on people to do the right thing,” she says

“I think we need to push back on the narrative of sole individual responsibility for fixing or helping ameliorate climate change.”

It takes a village to enact change.

This article was first published in ANU Reporter