It would be funny to start a piece on climate anxiety with a joke about having a meltdown. It would be really funny. The problem is, I can’t even joke about it. Every summer, I get a case of climate anxiety that would make the most seasoned therapist cringe. My evening dog walk inevitably spirals into doomsday scenarios, panicking over rising temperatures, rising sea levels, and the rising urgency of our situation. Oh God, I think to myself, we’re done for.
Climate anxiety, at the most basic level, is the fear many of us feel regarding the looming problem of climate change. It’s more than simple concern, though—it’s a feeling of horror and apprehension as we attempt to grapple with an existential threat far larger than anything our minds are equipped to handle. Climate anxiety is a natural response to the helplessness that many people, especially our generation, feel as we watch our planet burn.
To a certain extent, climate anxiety is a rational response. We’re in a terrible situation that’s only getting worse. Earlier this month, the UN published a report warning that we are likely to overshoot the 1.5 degree Celsius tipping point that major climate initiatives like the Paris agreement hoped to prevent. We’re already seeing the effects: 9.8 million people were displaced because of climate change in the first half of 2020. And those are just the statistics. We don’t need numbers to know that the recent heatwave in the Pacific Northwest wasn’t normal. The deep freeze in Texas this year wasn’t normal. California’s 2020 wildfire season, the worst ever recorded, was not normal. The climate crisis isn’t coming—it’s already here.
But it’s important to find ways not to give into climate anxiety. Climate anxiety can have a serious impact on our mental health—we all have enough to worry about without a massive existential threat on the horizon, and the psychological impact of climate change is well-documented. Even worse, it can be an all-too-easy to slip from anxiety to despair. It’s tempting to say that it’s already too late. It’s easy to give up and let ourselves finally relax. But climate despair isn’t the answer. If we give up now, we give up any chance we do have at saving ourselves. Climate despair is the ultimate failure.
Just like with any type of fear, the solution to climate anxiety is to take action. We have to prove to ourselves that we’re not helpless. Luckily, we’re not alone. All over the U.S., people are coming together to stop climate change before it’s too late, and our generation is leading the way. This June, youth climate justice organization the Sunrise Movement marched 400 miles to first occupy Senator Ted Cruz’s lawn, and then protest outside the White House. Their demands? Immediate action from the Democratic Party, a meeting with President Biden, and full funding for the Civilian Climate Corps, a program that would employ over 1.5 million Americans in jobs fighting climate change. Youth climate justice group Zero Hour is currently working to educate communities across the country about the intersections of climate injustice with racism, sexism, capitalism, and colonialism in hopes of building support for the Green New Deal. The climate justice movement is young and rising. We know what it will take to solve the climate crisis.
And the best part? We’re winning. This January, climate activists convinced President Biden to revoke a key permit from the Keystone XL oil pipeline, halting construction and eventually leading to the project’s recent shutdown. This April, New York passed legislation setting a goal to conserve at least 30 percent of land in the state by 2030, helping to protect biodiversity. And in June, Oregon passed a bill to eliminate emissions from power suppliers by 2040. Young people are pressuring elected officials to make the right choices about our future, and it’s working.
It’s easy to feel discouraged when bad news keeps coming in. Most of the discussion around climate justice focuses on just how many ways climate change can kill us all. But we can’t give up now. There are people out there working every day to build a more sustainable future, and they need our help. It’s time to take our climate anxiety and channel that energy into something useful. It’s time to join our generation in the movement for climate justice.
Phoebe Suh is the Generation Progress Summer 2021 intern and a student at Harvard University.