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The Weight of Climate Change: Understanding Emotional Responses and Reasons for Hope

Recall back to your childhood. Imagine yourself running around during recess, revelling in the joy of play, when suddenly, a sneeze interrupts your fun. You shrug it off and continue with your games. But as the day progresses, the sneezes become more frequent. Arriving home, your guardian feels your forehead – you're running a fever. With a sense of concern, they guide you to bed, ensuring you have all the essentials to combat the illness. Water, cough syrup, tissues, and a dedicated period for rest. They recognized the signs and swiftly provided the support needed to overcome the ailment and prevent it from worsening.

Similarly, as a society, we shoulder the responsibility akin to that of the guardian, but for a different fever – the Earth's. Over time, our collective actions have contributed to her rising temperatures and climate change. Through greenhouse gas emissions, the burning of fossil fuels, unsustainable industrial processes, and deforestation, we have exacerbated and added to the symptoms without working to resolve them.

Individuals and communities, consequently, now face the profound repercussions of climate change. The toll of environmental degradation is immense, and as temperatures fluctuate, ecosystems falter, and natural disasters grow more frequent and severe, we must acknowledge and respond to the crisis at hand.

Much like the guardian caring for the child, we must reflect: How can we provide essential support to our planet, transitioning from climate anxiety to hope? This requires understanding and navigating the intricate landscape of climate-related emotions and discovering strategies to foster hope and unity, paving the path towards a sustainable future for generations to come.

Guy Bowden via Unsplash

Weathering the Emotional Storm

Over the past few years, we've witnessed a surge in anxiety disorders and depressive symptoms worldwide. Increased job insecurity and financial worries have taken a toll, making it challenging for many to prioritize mental well-being amid the struggle to survive.

In an era of instant access to news and information, people are more tuned in to global happenings than ever before. From devastating floods to raging wildfires and crippling droughts, the catastrophic effects of climate disasters are right in front of us. This heightened awareness has given rise to what's known as eco-anxiety and eco-guilt, which are contributing factors to the global mental health crisis.

Eco-anxiety stems from a deep emotional response to environmental uncertainties and their implications for the future. It often manifests as anger toward those who neglect environmental responsibility. Eco-guilt, on the other hand, arises from feelings of remorse or shame about one's own actions contributing to environmental harm, such as excessive consumption or reliance on fossil fuels.

Google searches related to eco-anxiety have skyrocketed by over 4500% between 2018 and 2023. This growing interest is particularly pronounced among young people. A study by The Lancet found that 59% of youth and young adults are deeply concerned about climate change, with 45% reporting negative impacts on their daily lives.

These concerns are far from baseless. In 2023 alone, natural disasters and extreme weather events wreaked havoc, claiming tens of thousands of lives and displacing countless others. From seismic tremors to devastating floods and landslides, the toll on human lives and infrastructure has been staggering. Take, for example, the catastrophic floods that hit Pakistan in 2022, submerging one-third of the country and affecting a staggering 33 million people, half of whom were children. The root cause of this torrential rainfall is contributed to melting glaciers. A study published in the scientific journal Nature Communications in February 2023 estimated that fifteen million people worldwide are at risk of glacial lake flooding.

Meanwhile, even in the depths of winter, over 100 wildfires continued to smolder on the other side of the planet. Beginning in the summer of 2023, British Columbia, Canada, endured a gruelling eight-month battle against relentless fires, with some persisting into 2024 as so-called "zombie fires." These fires, lurking beneath the surface during winter, are only detectable by small plumes of smoke billowing into the winter sky. That same summer, Quebec faced its own wildfire crisis, with them being reported to potentially disrupt the region's wildlife for years to come.

Experts warn that these extreme weather events will only become more frequent and severe as global temperatures continue to rise. The International Disaster Database EM-DAT recorded alarming increases in deaths from landslides, wildfires, and storms between 2022 and 2023, underscoring the urgent need for action.

Rooted in Grief

Eco-anxiety and guilt are just small parts of the intricate tapestry of emotions we collectively experience. Holding them together is something called eco-grief.

Also known as climate grief, eco-grief encapsulates the feeling of loss triggered by witnessing or experiencing environmental destruction. It can even manifest when we anticipate ecological decline. Recognizing this, we understand that anxiety and guilt are the symptoms of the broader grief we feel regarding climate change.

To navigate our anxieties and guilt surrounding the environment, we must delve deeper into understanding grief itself. While we often associate grief with the death of a loved one, we rarely connect it to moments of transition or change, such as weddings, promotions, or big moves. Yet, grief is an emotion experienced in various circumstances beyond death, adding to the difficulty for some people to articulate their feelings about environmental change.

Furthermore, climate grief is not evenly distributed across society; it disproportionately affects vulnerable populations. Indigenous communities, for instance, witness the devastation of their homelands due to wildfires and other climate-related disasters, while newcomer communities find themselves displaced and powerless in the face of ecological upheaval. This emotional toll exacerbates existing inequalities and injustices.

As ecological grief intensifies, so does its influence on our collective actions. Morgan Stanley's research revealed that climate fear outweighs any other contributing factor in regard to the decline in fertility rates. More people are opting out of parenthood due to concerns about the future impact of climate change on their children.

Blooming Through Grief

Despite the daunting realities of climate change, there is room for optimism. With any transition comes transformation, and grief is no exception. Understanding this form of grief is vital because it allows us to brainstorm potential solutions to environmental challenges. Scientific research also suggests that stabilizing the climate and mitigating the worst impacts of climate change are still feasible.

Organizations like 350, which focuses on grassroots organizing to end the use of fossil fuels, and The Nature Conservancy, dedicated to conserving land and water globally, are working tirelessly to address the climate crisis. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) supports the global response to climate change. Many other organizations are also striving to prevent further climate damage and mitigate its impacts.

By recognizing and acknowledging these emotions, individuals and communities can channel them as catalysts for positive change, similar to the aforementioned organizations. While the emotional toll of climate change is undeniable, so is our capacity for positive change and better policies. By advocating for better policies and changes, we can transition to renewable energy sources, implement sustainable practices, and create systemic change. Together, we can pave the way toward a more sustainable and compassionate future for all generations on Earth.

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