Feeling Climate Dread? You’re Not Alone

In September, researchers published an alarming survey of 10,000 folks in 10 countries, all age 16 to 25, about their views on climate change. Three-quarters said the future is frightening, over half reported feeling like humanity is doomed, and 39 percent said they were hesitant to have children. “There's this real pessimism about the future,” says psychologist Susan Clayton of Ohio's College of Wooster, coauthor of the new report as well as a previous extensive one on climate change and mental health. “It's not just scary, but it's also demotivating.” These fears are grounded not only in alarming recent events but also in the knowledge that the future is likely to get worse. Climate change means that hurricanes bigger than Ida will pummel the US Gulf Coast and inundate its Northeast , while hotter heat waves and fiercer wildfires will make the American West ever more hellish . In August, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a brutal report warning that without drastic, immediate action to cut emissions, during the next decade we’ll shoot past the Paris Climate Agreement’s threshold of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees C (2.7 degrees F) above preindustrial levels. As more people are exposed to catastrophic natural disasters, it’s creating a sense of dread about the future, as well as ecological grief for what’s been lost or is disappearing.Clayton studies how people make connections to the environment and how the human mind grapples with climate anxiety—concern about planetary catastrophe. WIRED spoke with her about the new survey, how the climate crisis is affecting mental health, and, perhaps most importantly, what we can do about it. The conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity. WIRED: Climate change is no longer really this kind of nebulous idea that a lot of people didn't think affected their lives personally. As we’re seeing this extreme weather, in particular, it's very much here to impact a lot of lives.Susan Clayton: There's very good evidence about impacts on mental health of extreme weather events—obviously big storms, wildfires, floods, that kind of thing. Then there are the effects that are more subtle, because they're more gradual. There's not a single causal mechanism that has been identified yet, but there's pretty good evidence from some pretty large data sets that suicide rates tend to go up during unusually hot periods. Psychiatric hospitalizations go up. And people are just more irritable, so there is more antisocial behavior.Image may contain: Universe, Space, Astronomy, Outer Space, Planet, Night, Outdoors, Moon, and Nature

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And then the thing that I think has really become an issue over the last few years, and a lot of attention [paid] to it this summer, is the idea of what's been called eco-anxiety or climate anxiety—these negative emotions and distress associated with just your awareness that climate change is happening. It can be affecting people who haven't necessarily experienced the direct impacts themselves, but they're aware that it's going on.

WIRED: An important aspect is the notion of uncertainty. With climate change, there is so much uncertainty necessarily built into the system, as climate scientists are still trying to model out how the climate will change, how natural disasters will change.

SC: I think the uncertainty is one of the biggest reasons for the anxiety. Because if you know for certain that a particular thing is going to happen, you might feel sad, you might feel afraid, but you're less likely to feel anxious. Anxiety has to do in part with this sort of [feeling like]: Well, something bad is coming, but I don't know exactly what, and I don't know exactly when. And absolutely, we don't like uncertainty. It's hard to know how to respond.