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Climate psychology: What is climate change doing to our minds?



IIf you were tuned in to climate news during June this year, you probably saw pictures or heard about the apocalyptic skyline that reigned over New York for some days. The yellowish sky, which looked it could've been the setting of a sci-fi movie set in Mars, was one of the most visually striking pieces of evidence of how climate change has ramped up this year; in this case, the hued atmosphere and poor air quality were product of the wildfires in Canada and the strong winds that spread its particles all over the North of America.


As with every other comparable climate phenomenon, the polluted skies of New York had an immediate effect on the collective psyche of its inhabitants. If it looks like the end of the world, then it might be reasonable to be scared about the world ending. Even though this was a minor demonstration in comparison to what we have seen with floods, fires, and the melting of polar ice caps, it was a showing of how climate change can affect the way our minds process the environment on a daily basis and what this does to us: should we be anxious, afraid, or overtly negative? Can we be confident, optimistic, or relaxed?


Psychology clinics in Manhattan revealed to The Guardian how every patient that month mentioned this apocalyptic fear being laid upon them, which translated into having trouble completing simple tasks or focusing on work due to what experts call “Eco-anxiety.”


Researchers Charlie Kurth and Panu Pikala define this climate anxiety as a series of different anxious responses to climate change that can be categorized into three types: an anxiety-like response marked by feelings of nervousness and fear which can leading to defensive actions like risk assessment; a self-reflection that involves emotions such as shame and guilt, driven by the awareness of causing harm to the environment, and a grief-oriented response centered on being upset and distressed over the perceived loss of ecologically important aspects, often resulting in social withdrawal and mourning as a form of coping.


These symptoms spread way beyond New York, and they are becoming increasingly present in our daily life as people start to accept this might be the new normal. A report by the American Psychological Association has revealed how environmental events linked to climate change – including weather disasters, extreme heat, and poor air quality – can trigger or exacerbate mental health issues, especially for kids and teens. The report emphasizes that adolescents and young adults are notably anxious about climate change, expressing more alarm and concern compared to their older counterparts.


They are particularly worried about what they perceive as a failure of governments and authority figures to take sufficient action. This is rooted in the understanding that climate change will impact their future, and therefore, the report also looks at how climate change can impact their decision making when planning their lives: what career will they study, how will they spend their money, will they want to have children in such a world?


Psychology then becomes a key tool to navigate the complex responses we have to climate change. Although the situation seems more pressing than ever, it should not come as a surprise than the degree of affectation we have for climate change varies from one person to the other, depending on their social environment, productive activity, degree of exposure or available information. In one of the most obvious of cases, you have those who still deny it.


Psychology professor Jeremy Shapiro illustrates how climate deniers have developed a collective psyche based on an invalid binary: Either the climate is changing, or it is not, and since it has always been changing, there is nothing new here and no cause for concern. People who operate in this logic develop a hardened mindset that makes them very prone to question and invalid people who are more psychologically vulnerable regarding climate. These people are usually skeptical that there is going to be an event that is going to catalyze their environment more than any of the things that have already happened, therefore, they are unlikely to modify their behavior or positively influence others as they are certain that things cannot get significantly worse for them, in a sort of climate egoism.


Climate psychology then covers a wide range of human dispositions towards environmental change, from those most endangered, to those uncertain, to those indifferent. Whatever the mindset we adopt, it is inevitable to conclude one thing: we are all affected by the consequences of climate change, and as this phenomenon develops, these consequences might have a deep impact in the way we organize our lives. It might be then important to start thinking about how much of our feelings will we transmit to our next generations: should we educate them in positiveness, in fear, or in a balance between both?

 

SOURCES

Why aren’t we more scared of the climate crisis? It’s complicated. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2023/jul/22/climate-crisis-fear-psychology

Climate change can have ‘lifelong impacts’ on young people’s mental health, report says. https://edition.cnn.com/2023/10/11/health/climate-change-youth-mental-health/index.html

The thinking error that makes people susceptible to climate change denial. https://theconversation.com/the-thinking-error-that-makes-people-susceptible-to-climate-change-denial-204607 New York therapists see surge in eco-anxiety as smoke fills skies: ‘Every client addresses it’. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2023/jun/09/climate-crisis-psychology-new-york-smoke


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