Act: Inspiration

Climate Change is Scary: Here are 7 Tools to Help You Keep Your Cool on a Warming Planet

February 5, 2020

Ed. note: This post is excerpted from A Field Guide to Climate Anxiety: How to Keep Your Cool on a Warming Planet, coming out on Earth Day with University of California Press. You can find out more about the book here.

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Pink cherry blossoms in Central Park. Fires, hail, and dust storms in Australia. Floods in Jakarta. Layers of environmental crises continue to pile on in Puerto Rico. And 2019 beat the record for the hottest year on the planet.

It seems like it was only a few years ago that the threats of climate disruption seemed slow, distant, and imperceptible. Now, climate change is hitting us in the faces. Those displaced by rising sea levels and bushfires are experiencing what Australian philosopher Glenn Albrecht calls “solastalgia” – the feelings of homesickness and trauma resulting from environmental change. Meanwhile, scientists counting the extinctions of the planet’s biotic life and those of us who are witnessing these forms of devastation are also suffering eco-grief and climate anxiety. We empathize with those on the frontlines of climate disruption because we know that none of us can be insulated for long; if we take the Intergovernmental Panel Report on Climate Change seriously, nobody will be able to escape the emergencies that are predicted to unfold over the next quarter century.

There are no easy solutions to the problems we are facing. Addressing climate change will take a lot of work by a lot of people all over the planet. The fight against our climate crisis is not a sprint, it’s a marathon. For this reason, we will need to protect our internal, psychic resources as much as we will need to protect the planet’s biocultural resources. We will need to learn how to build resilience of our interiority as much as we engineer resilient communities and infrastructures.

Here are 7 strategies to make sure you have the stamina to keep engaged in this work for the long haul. Sure, other things will need to change in order to create a world we can all thrive in –  we need to shape political will, move public sentiment, and shift to a post-fossil fuel economy. But there is a lot we can do – right now – to get ready for what is required of us. It won’t be long before denial and apathy are no longer options. Climate trauma will become part of all of our lives, if it isn’t already. We might as well start practicing what it would feel like to not just survive, but thrive in a climate-changed world.

Learn how your emotions affect your decision-making

Learn how feelings like self-loathing, guilt, anxiety, and fear affect decision-making and the ability to cope with climate disruption. Learn how the grieving process works. A whole field of mental health is growing around climate anxiety and disaster response. Read up on it. For example, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, suicide and suicidal ideation more than doubled; one in six people met the criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), while 49 percent developed an anxiety or mood disorder. Suicide and mood disorders also rise with rising temperatures.

Ashlee Cunsolo and Neville R. Ellis, in their Nature article “Ecological Grief as a Mental Health Response to Climate Change–Related Loss,” document how “worry about actual or potential impacts of climate change can lead to stress that can build over time,” eventually leading to problems such as substance abuse, anxiety disorders, and depression.

And hating yourself or other humans for destroying the planet and being evil is an unsustainable way to address climate injustice; it undermines our capacity to build relationships and focus on stuff we love, like friends and family – the threats to which are, of course, the very source of grief.

If you want to effect change and protect that which you love, you must reject misanthropy and self-loathing, and get comfortable with all the “bad” feelings of grief and anxiety. They provide instructions for how to move forward.

Ensuring that we are emotionally and existentially resourced is not a navel-gazing privilege; on the contrary, the interior work required to heal from oppression, crisis, and trauma is exactly the kind of work that enables us to be social change agents. Anybody who wants to work on climate justice for the long haul will need these resilience-building skills in order to do the work of climate advocacy, adaptation, and resilience.

Cultivate climate wisdom

Climate wisdom is the understanding that our ability to respond to climate change and to work on climate issues is shaped more by our emotional selves than by our rational selves. The sooner we can make that connection, the more effective we will be.

Becoming intimately aware of one’s feelings is the first step to not letting them whip us about with every message we consume and every encounter we have. The point of emotional intelligence is to understand how our emotions operate in our lives to serve (or not) our well-being and interests. We also discover how to avoid being manipulated by the messages we receive from sources that would benefit from destabilizing our emotional grounding. Insecurity, fear, loneliness – when we feel these, we are susceptible to being controlled by others. Studies on emotional intelligence tell us that the ability to stand back and observe our emotions, identify core beliefs from which emotions emerge, and disrupt the limbic fight-or-flight response is the key to dealing with emotions. Paradoxically, closely observing our emotions actually makes us behave more rationally. And that’s what the planet needs from us.  Through emotional intelligence and self-observation – what some call mindfulness – we can see that the root of grief is fear of loss, or the terror of loneliness. But, as the Buddhists know, loss and loneliness are inevitable. Accepting what my mom says, that “all life is terminal,” paradoxically opens us up to appreciating the beauty of every precious moment we have on this planet. We can assuage those root feelings by tending relationships and savoring even the smallest of gifts. These are far more effective ways to address existential grief than extinguishing ourselves under the weight of it all. Accepting the negative aspects of climate change can open the door for positive feelings that will last longer than the sick hit we get from clicking “cry-face” on every picture of scorched koalas, caged children, or dead whales we see on our newsfeed.

Claim your calling and scale your action

As journalists Dahr Jamail and Barbara Cecil remind us, “Each one of us must choose the path that is ours. The sum total of this is legions of people taking action in their unique ways, and supporting one another.” Our realms of adaptation activism will vary widely depending on who we are. Social movement theory holds that change happens on myriad fronts, not just in individual, spectacular moments of triumph.

In the climate battle, the frontlines are everywhere, which magnifies our choices and gives us many directions to choose from, even if it makes our impacts less visible. Ask yourself what kind of work, personal and public, gives you pleasure. Once you start down your path, the positive feelings you need in order to carry on will come. The despair, grief, and anxiety may never go away, but they’ll have good company with hope, agency, and love. You don’t need to feel the good emotions first, and only then act. As Buddhists say, “right action leads to right thoughts,” not the other way around.

Two assumptions can thwart these goals. One is the belief that you must have a lot of power, in the sense of having elevated social, economic, or political status, in order to make a difference. We harbor the illusion that politicians, religious leaders, or celebrities are the only people whose efforts can make a difference. Watching the news, we are further duped into thinking that social change is driven by the people who speak the loudest, do the most grandstanding, and bully others into doing their bidding. But to be a change agent, you don’t need spectacular results.

When you’re feeling demoralized, remind yourself of activist and author adrienne maree brown’s tenet of emergent strategy (from her book by the same name): “Small is good, small is all.” We may feel individually too small, but as brown goes on to say, “Small actions and connections create complex systems.” And gather inspiration from the famous statement attributed to anthropologist Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only that thing ever has.” Greta Thunberg is a case in point, but so is each and every one of the 1.4 million people – almost all youth – who struck for the climate last March. Telling yourself that your efforts don’t matter completely misses the point. The groundswell is made of many drops of water. Don’t swallow the myth that the efforts of any individual are too small.

The second assumption that stumps our effectiveness is that our actions need to be measurably impactful and yield immediate results – an expectation that can make you unhappy with your efforts if you don’t see change happening. Social movement leaders from Gandhi to Thich Nhat Hanh to Rebecca Solnit know that this kind of “instrumentalism” is a red herring. Social change is hard to measure. Triumphant moments are the result of the invisible work of scores of unnamed idealists and of forces impossible to track. This is grounds for hope, not despair. The work, not utopia, is the endgame.

If what counts as action for climate justice for you is changing a law or dismantling capitalism, then you may never feel adequate, unless you can break these goals down into next steps that are much smaller and will require exactly the opposite of urgency – patience.

The problem is not that we have no power. Rather, the problem is that we don’t use or see the power we do have, not just as individuals, but as a collective.

Hack the story

Don’t forfeit your agency by consuming and creating stories about the fate of the world that make you feel powerless. They are no more “true” than stories that show the triumph of collective action and grassroots organizing. Which story will you live in?

“More Americans can imagine the ‘end of the world,’” says sociologist Kari Norgaard, “than can envision a switch from using fossil fuels or an economic order other than capitalism.” If it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to visualize the transformation of existing economic, cultural, and political structures to combat climate change, then doomsday may become a self-fulfilling prophecy. We need to develop habits of attention that serve us better, learn healthy ways to privilege facts over feelings, and create our own stories to guide and sustain ourselves. The same cues that prompt us to be loyal consumers of media – alarm and fear – make us surrender our imaginations in favor of filling our days reacting to every stimulus, or worse, numbing ourselves with quick comforts like swiping, clicking, and buying stuff.

Bad things can happen quickly, but good things take a long time to build, so they don’t fit news cycles. Because so much of what we read and hear is toxic, we need to develop a better filter for the stories we digest – to go on what some call a “media diet.” Consume stories that keep you focused on the big issues – the fate of our democracy, voter suppression, tribalism, authoritarianism, education policy, and censorship, all of which profoundly impact whether and how we can address climate change and environmental injustice. Deliberate on and analyze the news you ingest before deciding on your next steps. Scrutinize the messages you receive and spread.

Mindfulness gives us space to pause between consuming a warning and reacting to it. It also can lead us to pause before consuming messages in the first place, recognizing that they work on our imaginations in potentially destructive ways. Those narratives are not just ambient noise in the background of our psyches and lives. They create the affective ecosystem of our daily thoughts and actions. They tell us whether we should be afraid of something, or whether we are okay.

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Be less right and more in relation

When we wonder why climate deniers refuse to believe the scientific consensus, or ask with disgust, “What is wrong with these people?,” we are forgetting that most of our beliefs have nothing to do with science and everything to do with emotions. And we are shutting down constructive dialogue before it has even begun. How can we build bridges between deeply entrenched identity categories such as liberals and conservatives, blue- and white-collar workers, coastal dwellers and heartland denizens, urban and rural Americans? Or, instead of seeing climate change as a battle between two sides, perhaps we should be asking what opportunities for alliances and healing engagement with climate change might initiate.

We must shift the goal of “winning” our arguments to the far better goal of building shared interests with people whose positions may be different from ours. Climate scientist, evangelical Christian, and communication expert Katharine Hayhoe explains how this works: “Getting more people on board will not just be about them getting ‘enlightened’ to our way of thinking; it will involve them determining how the problems are framed and approached in the first place. It must be reciprocal if it’s going to be lasting. If you don’t know what the values are that someone has, have a conversation, get to know them, figure out what makes them tick. And then once we have, all we have to do is connect the dots between the values they already have and why they would care about a changing climate.”

There’s ample research showing that the vast majority of Americans do not harbor the extreme opinions that are represented in the media. The notion of the left versus the right is misleading, and we would be better served realizing that there is a great swath of Americans who are not polarized and who are interested in having robust conversations about controversial topics. In the United States, only 10 percent of Americans adamantly do not believe in climate change, which means there is a huge coalition of the concerned. One of the most effective measures we can take to promote collaboration across party and demographic lines is to reformulate climate change as a unifying issue or as part of a background story that resonates with the daily experiences of people’s lives.

Also, we need community and democracy to deal with the climate crisis. Being more right than the other side might work for one election cycle, but the planet needs longer than that to heal. Our outrage is legitimate in that it comes from a real place of fear and grief, but acting on outrage will not get us the results we desire. It may be slower, and it may not scratch that urgency itch, but building trust and relationships will serve the planet better.

Ditch Guilt and Have More Pleasure

The carrot of desire works better than the sticks of guilt or fear. Psychological studies show that “reframing climate science in terms of the benefits of making change – as opposed to the dangers of continuing with the status quo” is one method of shifting polarization around climate action. We have to stop demonizing pleasure and ennobling misery.

“Green guilt” plagues many of us. When people realize how social injustice spirals from environmental problems, and the extent to which they, by virtue of being in the Global North, are complicit in causing suffering, they can experience eco-guilt: guilt about how our consumer habits are destroying the planet, guilt about how race, class, gender, ability, or zip code can compound suffering, guilt about not doing enough, guilt about prioritizing more immediate tasks, guilt about not showing up to that or the other protest or meeting, guilt about . . . The list goes on.

When we get stuck in guilt, we paradoxically can feel excused from the work of justice. The desire to not feel guilt is often greater than the desire to right whatever wrong is making us feel guilty, such as how we’ve failed the planet. Guilt is self-interested; alleviating the unpleasant feeling of guilt can become more important to us than alleviating the suffering of others.

Our intention is our compass; it sets our course. What do we gain from the work we do? If the answer is “alleviation of guilt,” we are not likely to return for more. Guilt as a motivator minimizes our potential to achieve the things we are capable of. Because we keep trying to measure the magnitude of our impact and gauge whether our debts of guilt are paid, we always fall short. It becomes an excuse to stop trying. Instead of guilt, shame, or fear, how can we make love, pleasure, and desire draw us and others to the work of climate justice?

“Make justice and liberation feel good,” insists adrienne maree brown. Humans will come back over and over again to feel the pleasure of efficacy and purpose. Make a daily practice of the joys that make life worth living. Do not defer this to when the revolution is over and we have ostensibly “won.” This may never happen, and as all social movements know, the capacity for love and joy is the ultimate form of resistance.

Feed What You Want to Grow

Our imagination is a resource we should fiercely protect. Our attention, too, is precious. We frivolously give it away and let others take it at a great cost to ourselves, those around us, and the Earth. Our attention is fertilizer, sunlight, and water, encouraging whatever it focuses on to thrive. Train your thoughts and actions to be like sunlight and rain. Nurture the qualities, understandings, and attitudes that build resistance to climate change.

This is what people mean when they say “Be the change you want to see in the world.” It’s not about creating your little bubble of bliss; it’s about tending to the reasons you love life so you are all the more invested in the effort to protect them. This orientation to love will stave off apathy, comfortable denial, and nihilism, even if it doesn’t get rid of despair and grief.

Beware the seduction of performing seriousness, limitations, sacrifice, misery, and austerity. Climate justice will take slow, unglamorous work by lots of seemingly small or isolated individuals. Only joy, pleasure, humor, and fierce protection of our attention and time will sustain that work. We must all discipline our minds to cultivate the world we desire.

Sarah Jaquette Ray

Sarah Jaquette Ray teaches environmental studies at Humboldt State University in Arcata, California. She is author of A Field Guide to Climate Anxiety: How to Keep Your Cool on a Warming Planet, coming out on Earth Day with University of California Press.

Tags: building personal resilience, eco-grief