Climate anxiety takes many forms, as discovered in a stakeholder engagement workshop.
Prologue: Encountering climate anxiety
Our first direct encounter with the term ‘climate anxiety’ was during stakeholder engagement workshops that we undertook as part of our CREDS-funded System Shock, Response and Recovery Project (HCC_19).
On reflection, we came to realise that our work impacts not only on reshaping the energy system but also touches upon people’s real lives.
In our first workshop, held amid the energy price crisis, members of communities told of their plights and personal experiences with energy services; in subsequent workshops, participants articulated the difficulties of implementing energy transition strategies that they had encountered in their professional roles, and as experts pursuing policy and technological breakthroughs.
These lived experiences  offer insights into how individuals and organisations negotiate a complex web of information to achieve their climate objectives. Although anxiety was not on everyone’s lips, plenty of questions were raised in the discussions.
One of these questions was whether their organisational net-zero strategy would be achievable, and whether its implementation would help to deliver the net-zero target in time.
Some indicated a commitment to addressing climate change and to working to reduce carbon emissions. But participants also wondered whether improving energy efficiency and installing renewable generation such as solar panels at home would be enough.
Others aired their frustrations with energy price rises and doubted their ability to pay energy bills in the long run. It seems that individuals and groups were experiencing psychological and socio-economic impacts as high energy prices hit home.
This collection of questions reflects how different forms of anxiety manifest in different social contexts: for example, the fear of unaffordable energy bills is felt by communities while unreachable decarbonisation targets and the impacts of shocks on the energy system is of concern mainly to professionals and experts.
What we are witnessing could be subsumed under the rubric of climate anxiety, something that has been rumbling on in our collective subconscious for a long time. But it is now heightened by foreshortened timescales for decarbonisation and current energy and economic crises.
1 The aetiology of climate anxiety
The study of fear and anxietyOpens in a new tab is not new in psychology. We cannot live our lives without experiencing fear and anxiety at least some of the time. Fear is a natural defence mechanism. When threat and danger are detected, anxiety serves as a signal to trigger adaptive responses with appropriate actions to overcome them and to restore balance.
In the DSM-III (the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders III), the condition General Anxiety Disorder (GAD)Opens in a new tab is diagnosed when an individual often finds themselves in a state of generalised anxiety with uncontrollable and diffuse anxiety or worry, that is excessive or unrealistic in relation to objective life circumstances, and which persists for one month or longer.
In finding treatments for any health condition, an understanding of aetiology is paramount. Frank Furedi, a sociologist, suggests that we have been living in a more general culture of fearOpens in a new tab  for at least three decades: fear of crime, of a deteriorating urban environment, and of terrorist attacks. Public fears of environmental pollutants such as sulphur aerosols, chlorofluorocarbons and carbon dioxide were already common in the 90s. The question is whether these fears have been reconstructed and transformed into widespread climate anxiety? Did decades of fear lay the foundations for climate anxiety?
2 The power of narratives
Storytelling is commonly used in the media as a technique to promote public awareness across a wide range of social or health issues, and to accelerate policy actions. Narratologists suggest that fear can be elicited through a mixture of different stories. The source of fear can come from depicting the faulty operation of a nuclear power plant (for example, Chernobyl); the disintegration of human relationships or society (for example, child trafficking); panic resulting from terrorist attacks (for example 9/11); and government’s failures to respond adequately to emergencies, such as the pandemic and climate change.
Climate change narratives are complex and multifacetedOpens in a new tab. Most recently, the message that ‘without deep cuts in carbon emissions, human life on earth could come to an end’ has ushered in an era of climate anxiety that now suffuses westernOpens in a new tab societies . Messages warning of an impending Climate Catastrophe are propagated by people across many different levels of authority – from presidents and prime ministers, through to scientists from all disciplines . Catastrophe has even been made enjoyable and accessible to children through drama and theatreOpens in a new tab.
News organisations play a key role in disseminating and perpetuating these messages. For the sake of illustration, note the strapline given by Sky News to an interview with the late British scientist James LovelockOpens in a new tab in July 2019. It reads ‘The human race could be wiped out unless a way is found to fix climate change…’. But people who take the time to watch the video will find Lovelock’s message and tone are quite different from what is claimed.
In 2006 James Lovelock had indeed predicted that ‘billions would die because of warming before the end of the century, with much of the world left uninhabitable’. But by 2012, he had already admitted that this earlier statement was alarmistOpens in a new tab. Either Sky News had not kept up, or they deliberately set out, in 2019, to misrepresent Lovelock’s position.
3 Evolution of climate catastrophe – the interplay between science and activism
Since 1962, when Rachel Carlson published her celebrated book Silent Spring, concerns over environmental degradation have accelerated and broadened to include multiple threats of environmental catastrophe. Since 1990, there has been a five-fold global expansion of funding for academic climate researchOpens in a new tab, and a parallel growth of the environmental movement represented by organisations such as Greenpeace, WWF, and Friends of the Earth.
The perception  of widespread agreement amongst climate scientists on the contribution of human activity to global warming has laid the foundation for current energy policies, governance and targets for action. Political activism has been led by celebrities and scientists, whose messages of doom have attracted widespread press coverage, warning of imminent planetary danger and disaster.
Famous scientists and activists such as James Hansen have issued alarming warnings about global temperatures and the potential for sea-level rise. Although the IPCC‘s Fifth and Sixth Assessment reports do not support claims of a high certainty of imminent strong anthropogenic global warming, Hansen’s messages have been instrumentalised and amplified by the media, and have even been used as the basis for constitutional lawsuits in the United States . In contrast, the work of sceptics such as Patrick Moore, William Happer, Richard Lindzen, Steve KooninOpens in a new tab , to name but a few, is little known by the public.
While climate scientists have the option of dealing with their disagreements through further scientific investigations, reflection, and publication, the public are often seen as passive recipients of scientific information mediated by the media, most of whose output is written by non-scientifically trained journalists. Few of these have the luxury or privilege to delve deeply into the undigested scientific literature or to assess its validity for themselves. The motivation to build a better world is deemed good enough.
The danger of media promotion of ‘science’ not only affects climate science. It can also be seen in the history of the COVID-19 pandemic over the last two and half years. It has come to light that instead of ‘following the science’, we have been blinded by quasi-science. For example, it turns out that uncritical reliance on epidemiological modellingOpens in a new tab to make decisions on lockdown policy has had detrimental effects on both incidence of COVID and the level of COVID-related mortality, not only in the UK, but worldwide.
4 Consequences of the fear narrative
Despite warnings from a UK parliamentary inquiry (pdf)Opens in a new tab of the possible negative effects of appeals to fear, messages of global warming and its imminent existential threat to humanity have continued. Why is this so? Perhaps, because of the pervasiveness of these messages, many of us have in fact come to trust the narrative that we are in existential danger and that without drastic cuts in carbon emissions, we may perish.
If we were indeed on the cusp of a climate catastrophe, a desire to do something about it would be entirely understandable. In 2006, a group of British academics made a concerted effort, through a seminar with public broadcasters and lobbyists, to raise public awareness of climate change through a reinterpretation of the BBC’s charter requirement for impartiality and balance of opinion on contentious issues (pdf)Opens in a new tab. No qualified climate scientists attended this seminar, and many of the messages presented simply repeated the familiar claims of environmentalist lobby groups.
The more subtle and nuanced debates that can be found in the climate science literature itself have gone unnoticed or been suppressed and those who challenge the consensus narrative are labelled as climate deniers. Subsequent sensationalised reporting in the media – for example, linking any extreme weather or weather-related events such as wild-fire, flash floods etc. with climate change – continues to this day.
In pursuit of public compliance, it is understandable that governments should find appeals to fear attractiveOpens in a new tab, for example, during an emergency such as a pandemic. However, when such appeals turn out to have been unfounded or counterproductive, the damage to public trust and political capital are incalculable.
So many deaths and so much damageOpens in a new tab have been done by poor policy responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. And the consequences of the COVID shock, which are still reverberating through our society, have now become entangled with the Energy Price Shock that followed. The dynamics of these shocks and the resulting long-term economic problems have inevitably percolated deeply into citizens’ consciousness.
5 Tackling climate anxiety
While Climate Anxiety is not classified as a mental illness, it is now reported to be common, affecting 56% of American adultsOpens in a new tab, and 84% of childrenOpens in a new tab. A whole industry of self-help books, networks and programmesOpens in a new tab has sprung up to normalise such anxiety. Many of these programmes advise sufferers to process their emotions and guilt. Some acknowledge that anxiety might well be the effect of the constant barrage of negative news and offer carbon literacy to resist ‘Climate Doomism’. However, none offers a media literacy programme to help people critically examine the scientific validity of these messages.
Fear itself is a destructive forceOpens in a new tab in society. It polarises groups and destroys families and communities. As President Roosevelt said, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself”. Perhaps it is not climate change we should fear, but the fear of fear of climate change. One of the most effective ways to tackle fears that manifest in everyday life is by confronting them.
On two separate occasions between 2019Opens in a new tab and 2021Opens in a new tab a seasoned climate scientist, Prof Judith Curry, received emails from young people who appeared to be scared out of their wits about the impacts of climate change, and who sought advice on how to alleviate their anxiety. Her response was that they should safeguard their mental health by:
- resisting the hype transmitted by climate activist organisations;
- taking time to study the science of climate change, starting with the IPCC assessment reports and by reading comments of other climate scientists from a critical perspective;
- understanding the possible effects of media messages that catastrophise climate changeOpens in a new tab on our emotions, subconscious, and identity, and on the wider culture.
Perhaps we should all do the same.
Epilogue: Going fast or going slow?
Shocks to our health, energy and economic systems have reverberated throughout 2023: low productivity in the NHSOpens in a new tab, continued high energy pricesOpens in a new tab, and the almost unprecedented challenges facing the Bank of EnglandOpens in a new tab . Environmental pressure groups and political opponents are pressing for a faster transitionOpens in a new tab with apparently little understanding of the infrastructural challenges or of the economic predicament that the country is in. With 80% of the UK energy market dominated by oil and gas, a faster substitution of fossil by renewables could undermine energy security.
This blog is written to warn of the dangers of panic and to plead for a more rational approach to our predicament.
In an interview with Der Spiegel in July of this year, the new IPCC Chair, Professor Jim SkeaOpens in a new tab said, “If you constantly communicate the message that we are all doomed to extinction, then that paralyses people and prevents them from taking the necessary steps to get a grip… The world won’t end if it warms by more than 1.5 degrees, it will, however, be a more dangerous world.”
We agreeOpens in a new tab, but note that risks attend any strategy for dealing with the future. Wisdom lies in facing these risks and considering the inevitable trade-offs rationally and openly.
The writing of this blog was funded by the Engineering and Physical Science Research Council through the Centre for Research in Energy Demand Solutions (CREDS), grant No. EP/R035288/1. Our work was enriched by contributions of participants in two workshops.
 Lived experience is direct, personal experience of a particular issue or service. In the case of this blog, relevant experiences include personal loss caused by Covid-19, consequences of energy prices rise leading to anxiety about energy accessibility and affordability, and food price inflation.
 “The promotion of fear and the propagandist manipulation of information is often justified on the grounds that it is a small price to pay to get a good message across to the public” Furedi, F., p.25. This succinctly sums up how anxiety can be manufactured.
 Apocalyptic messages of climate change are formed and mediated by both language and the medium in the communication process.
 Such authority figures include: Al Gore, Vice President of the United States, maker of the 2006 documentary ‘An Inconvenient Truth’; President Obama, through his 2015 Action Plan to address threat of Climate Change; and Tony Blair, British Prime Minister, who warned in 2006 that the world could reach “catastrophic tipping points”.
 Describing today’s common conception that there is a scientific consensus is merely a perception. For the truth is that the science of climate change is by and large unsettled. Jeroen Van der Sluijs argues that the IPCC has adopted a ‘speaking consensus to power’ approach that sees uncertainty and dissent as problematic, and attempts to mediate these into a consensus. For details see Judith Curry’s Blog Climate change no consensus on consensusOpens in a new tab posted on 28 Oct 2012.
 In 2015, twenty-one young Americans filed a constitutional climate lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon, against the U.S. government. The case was heard, denied, and appealed multiple times. In 2019 the plaintiffs filed a motion for a preliminary injunction to prevent the Federal Government from issuing leases and mining permits for extracting coal on federal public lands, leases for offshore oil and gas exploration and extraction activities, and federal approvals for new fossil fuel infrastructure pending final adjudication of the Government’s latest appeal.
 Professor Steven E. Koonin was the former Undersecretary for Science, U.S. Department of Energy, under the Obama Administration. His book, ‘Unsettled: What climate science tells us, what it doesn’t and why it matters’ is very accessible for lay people. It was listed on the Wall Street Journal Bestseller List in 2021.
 But not completely unprecedented. One thinks back to the 1920s, and to even earlier crises.
Banner photo credit: Ihor Malytskyi on Unsplash