Climate anxiety at Cop: ‘Being here makes me more worried’
Barack Obama may have struck a gloomy tone, but that sense is amplified for those in imminent peril
After an exhausting two weeks of speeches, protests, meetings and increasingly tortuous negotiations at the Glasgow climate summit, a sense of simmering frustration and anxiety has gripped many of the 25,000 attenders.
Even former world leaders are not immune. “There are times where the future seems somewhat bleak,” said Barack Obama on Monday. “There are times where I am doubtful that humanity can get its act together before it’s too late, and images of dystopia start creeping into my dreams.”
The initial text of the climate agreement to be thrashed out by negotiators has done little to ease the anxieties of activists and delegates who wanted to see a major breakthrough to contain disastrous global heating. “Things are still missing from that text and the clock is ticking, it has added to the fear and anger,” said Alexis Pascaris, an environmental policy researcher and activist from Michigan, who added that the climate crisis had, as with many other young people around the world, made her question whether she should have children.
“To procreate seems hypocritical,” she said. “If I am bringing up another mouth to feed, that will involve more trees being chopped down and more gasoline being pumped. I tend to think: ‘Am I allowed to add to this mess?’
“I feel dismal and sometimes disempowered. I got into this thinking I’m going to save the world and now I would say maybe I’d inspire one or two human beings because I don’t think large-scale change is feasible. There is this underlying anger, but we have to turn that into action.”
For many of the delegates, the looming threat of climate catastrophe is rooted in tangible danger rather than more abstract fears. Maina Talia, a delegate from Tuvalu who took a week to travel from the small Pacific island nation to Glasgow, said his feeling of anxiety “is more than what Obama is talking about”.
“It’s part of us now, it’s in us,” he said. “It’s an everyday reality for us, the fear for what the future will look like for us, our kids. There is anxiety and fear, particularly when there are high tides. The water is rising, the waves are crashing against our doors.”
The nightmare scenario for Tuvalu and other vulnerable countries is that sea level rise wipes them almost completely off the map. The future viability of certain countries is to some degree being decided in front of anguished representatives in a cavernous convention centre perched on the banks of the River Clyde.
“It seems if no action is taken by the international community, we will have to move,” said Talia. “We want to stay on our island, practice our culture. Some of the people are listening to our plea for survival but this is like a game to the oil-producing nations. What can we do?”
Anxiety over the climate crisis appears to be growing, especially among younger people, but differs between countries, experts say. Dr Lisa Page, a climate specialist at the Royal College of Psychiatrists – who prefers the term “eco distress” as anxiety is a more clinical term – said young people in the UK often feel fearful over their future and guilty over their role, while their counterparts in Africa are more likely to feel angry and a sense of injustice.
“You hear from younger people that they are really worried about this, it causes them at times to feel quite hopeless, depressed and fearful,” Page said. People exposed to climate-driven disasters such as floods and hurricanes could have lingering mental health effects even several years after they happened, she added, with escalating conflict, food insecurity and forced migration set to cause further distress as the world continues to heat up.
For those not in immediate life-altering danger, Page said it was important not to view worries about the climate as pathological and to understand such concerns are rational responses to bad news.
“It’s not possible to say to young people ‘it’s not going to be that bad’ because the science is saying the opposite – it may even be worse,” she said. “The first thing is to acknowledge that these are overwhelming problems and your ability to counteract them is limited. There is hope, though, so maybe link with other people talking about this, join movements that advocate for higher change. Knowing it’s valid to feel this way is helpful.”
For those within the realm of Cop26, however, the experience of being alongside thousands of others worried about the climate crisis has not been entirely restorative. “Being here makes me more worried because this Cop isn’t very inclusive, those on the frontlines of climate change aren’t here to tell their stories,” said Makoma Lekalakala, a delegate from South Africa.
“There is a lot of trauma, people who don’t have access to water, people affected by natural disasters, and we cannot bear it any more. We wonder if anyone is listening at all.”