Climate Concerned: Is it eco-anxiety or climate trauma?
Around mid-September, several media outlets noticed a recent study on young people’s views on climate change. Headlines ranged from “Climate Change: Young People Very Worried – Survey” (BBC News) to “Eco anxiety: fear of environmental doom weighs on young people” (The Guardian).
This survey of 10,000 16–25-year-olds, from ten countries, was led by Bath University (with 5 others collaborating) and saw that 59% of young people felt ‘very’ or ‘extremely’ worried about climate change, and 45% said these feelings affected their daily lives. A staggering 56% felt humanity was doomed.
The rise of these fears have been labelled as ‘eco-anxiety’. In a time where we’re more connected than ever, it isn’t difficult to find first-hand accounts of those living with climate change now, as well as glean the information on what will happen in the near and mid future. Nor is it difficult to find headlines and outrage about governments and big businesses fuelling – rather than tackling – climate change. In the survey, feelings of betrayal and of dismissed concerns were strong (58% and 60% respectively).
We at CCC are familiar with the term – as a not-for-profit that works with carbon and climate change, we’re always very aware of the messages we put out. We want to be positive when we speak to people, because we believe that to be anything else is to turn people away from the movement and behavioural change. But we’re also very aware that this can be discordant at times, and that within our own team we are often navigating eco-anxiety.
Recently, there has been some arguments for a shift away from the term of ‘eco-anxiety’ which makes clinical what is a very rational fear. Instead, Zhiwa Woodbury (2019) put forward the term ‘climate trauma’. How do the different terms change the light in which we view these survey results – and our own views on the climate crisis?
What’s the difference?
Eco-anxiety is defined by the American Psychological Association as “a chronic fear of environmental doom.” That does accurate for what many of us feel. However, Bednarek (2019) argues that it does pathologize (to represent something as a disease) and perhaps attempt to medicate a rational fear. But it also can present as many anxieties do: with panic attacks, insomnia, feelings of grief, and depression. It has its base in a healthy emotion (fear) which has its evolutionary purpose but has now become problematic and has implications for our quality of life.
On the other hand, the term also separates us from the natural world and implies that climate change is impacting us – not that we are impacting it.
Climate Trauma instead rephrases these fears. We are not separate from the Earth, its ecosystems, and its climate – and we are both the traumatised and the traumatisers. What affects the planet affects us.
Importantly, Woodbury argues, we can be both the problem and the solution. This very much falls in line with what CCC believes.
Climate Trauma is proposed to also replace ‘climate change’ so we can reframe our anxieties as intrinsically linked to the impact on the planet and, furthermore, see the consequences of such impacts as symptoms of the trauma – like the flash floods and pandemics.
This phrase is also represented as a new form of trauma, and one that supersedes, and intersects, with all other traumas. This definition allows us to see how there is another layer of disadvantage for the communities that will be facing the worst of climate change (and have done the least to cause it): these communities already deal with high levels of (non-climate) trauma.
With this survey in mind, does labelling the respondents with ‘eco-anxiety’ or ‘climate trauma’ change how we view the results? Does it change how we will respond to the results? When you think of your own experiences, is it eco-anxiety or climate trauma that you feel?
Personally, I’m leaning towards climate trauma as it encompasses more nuance than eco-anxiety, and moves away from irrationalising these concerns. But whatever you want to call it, we are facing swaths of people that feel the same way. That, perhaps, is the most important message – so whether you want to call it eco-anxiety or climate trauma, let’s use it to drive positive change.
Bednarek, S. (2019). THIS IS AN EMERGENCY - PROPOSALS FOR A COLLECTIVE RESPONSE TO THE CLIMATE CRISIS. British Gestalt Journal. 28 (2). Available at: https://www.climatepsychologyalliance.org/explorations/papers/448-by-steffi-bednarek
Marks, E., Hickman, C., Pihkala, P., et al. (2021). Young People's Voices on Climate Anxiety, Government Betrayal and Moral Injury: A Global Phenomenon. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3918955 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3918955
Woodbury, Z. (2019). Climate Trauma: Toward a New Taxonomy of Trauma. Ecopsychology. 11 (1). Available at: https://www.academia.edu/38305979/CLIMATE_TRAUMA_Towards_a_New_Taxonomy_of_Traumatology?pop_sutd=true