The Existential Dread of Climate Change
How despair about our changing climate may get in the way of fixing it.
Posted Oct 13, 2017
This past spring, a few friends nudged me into listening to S-Town, a podcast created by the makers of Serial and This American Life. Expecting a true-crime drama in the vein of 2014’s first season of Serial, I dove in. After I “binge-listened” the first few episodes while on a train back to New York from Washington D.C., I walked out onto the platform at Penn Station feeling on edge, weighed down by despair and anxiety. Sure, the podcast focused on John B. McLemore, an outstandingly intelligent but deeply depressed and suicidal man, but as one might expect from someone whose job entails taking in difficult stories on daily basis, it was not the subject’s depression or his suicidality which disturbed me. Rather, it was his intense and unwavering obsession with climate change, and the podcast’s thorough attention to sharing his detailed insights on the matter, which touched on well-supported scientific data pointing to the rapid deterioration of our planet and its resources in a not-so-distant future.
It was upon examining my anxiety in response to this podcast that I began to realize just how deeply and utterly the reality of climate change and the consequences that it will have on our planet disturbs me to my core. I found that this topic brought up feelings that were unique in their ability to create a sense of intense, globalized anxiety on an existential, rather than personal level; while I may be a witness to the impact of climate change through the media, I have not in any significant way been directly impacted, as of yet, by the consequences of human-induced rapid environmental change. My interpretation of my discomfort with hearing someone read off sobering statistics about what could happen should mankind not start making drastic changes, as John B. McLemore does with indignation throughout the episodes—is that thinking and learning about the reality of climate change activates what existential psychology would call our “ultimate concerns” or “existential facts of life,” including finitude, responsibility, suffering, meaninglessness, and death.
These concerns are of course part of the human condition, and it is not entirely surprising that the prospect of the deterioration of our natural resources and rapid erosion of the conditions that make it possible for the earth to sustain human life would create a sense of despair about the meaning of, and ultimate end of human life. Surprising or not, my emotional response was deeply unsettling, marked by depressive-like symptoms, somewhat enduring over the course of a day. It would pop-up in predictable ways: while listening to Al Gore promote his sequel to An Inconvenient Truth on the radio, while watching weathermen describe the way in which global warming has contributed to the unrelenting and unparalleled hurricane season, while hearing from scientists urging the White House to remain in the Paris Climate Agreement with persuasive facts and figures, only to fall on deaf ears. I found myself curious about my reaction, and perhaps in an attempt to alleviate some of the anxiety associated with it, sought to discover whether the literature supported the relationship between being in touch with the realities of climate change and emotional responses of existential despair.
Much of the literature on the topic focuses on, importantly so, the mental health consequences of being directly impacted by the fruits of climate change, natural disasters such as hurricanes, tornadoes, typhoons, in the interest of understanding how to best provide not just medical and financial support but psychological care to communities in the aftermath of these extreme weather events. For example, communities affected by Hurricane Katrina showed high rates of depression and PTSD in the aftermath, as well as rates of suicide completion and attempts significantly higher than baseline for that region (Larrance, Anastario & Lawry, 2007). There is also an effort to document and understand somewhat more indirect social and economic issues that climate change has heightened, including reduced employment in “climate-sensitive industries” such as tourism and agriculture, reduced food security and overall depletion of resources such as food and water, and involuntary migration to potentially unwelcoming or hostile areas. The research supports both the reality of these patterns as well as the subsequent negative mental health outcomes, including depression, PTSD, social isolation, stress, and anxiety (Quiggin, 2010; Shields & Price, 2001).
There are, however, substantially fewer studies which pinpoint the specific type of mental health consequence to climate change that I had identified in myself, that mere awareness and contact with the seriousness of the issue can cause dissonance and anxiety. Which is not to say that this phenomenon has not been identified and referenced in the decades since climate change has become a more prominent issue. A 2008 article by Fritze et al noted that “at the deepest level, the debate about the consequences of climate change gives rise to profound questions about the long-term sustainability of human life and the Earth’s environment” (p. 9). Kidner (2007) remarks on a collective anxiety which stems from uncertainty or lack of security in the future of a natural world, and even suggests that increased rates of depression in industrialized nations may well be a factor of both the deterioration of our natural world and our heightened awareness of these realities (2007). Some have noted that the dearth of research on depression and the changing climate is a product of how industrialization creates an estrangement from our natural origins, such that the scientific community may minimize the societal mental health impact of a changing environment (Kellert, 2002).
Trying to understand the lack of research exploring existential anxiety or depression stemming from awareness of climate change got me thinking more about my own reaction. While the intense emotional reaction I feel following direct confrontation by facts about how the future will look if climate change continues to take its predicted course is profound and distressing, what happens to my distress when I turn off the podcast, or the radio, or the television? I had not donated any money to climate research. I hadn’t joined any organizations spreading awareness. I couldn’t even bring myself to listen to Al Gore plug his new movie, let alone go to see it. I was forced to ask myself; what was the result of my existential despair? Had it pushed me towards something useful, something productive? Unfortunately, as I reflected I realized that my horror at the state of things, rather than spur in myself action towards helping the cause, had bred minimal lifestyle changes that might not only contribute, even in the smallest way, to improving our planet’s chance at future survival, but that may also ease the cutting sense of helplessness and lack of control that attending to the climate change issue brought upon me. What could explain this dissonance?
The first thing that came to mind was good old-fashion coping mechanisms like denial and repression. Some of the most common, and most primitive defenses, both denial and repression are powerful tools for banishing from awareness or experience a reality that is too difficult to bear. Given the walloping of despair I felt after being confronted with just a glimpse of how our planet could fare in the coming decades, I can understand the motivation of my psyche- and others- to reject this reality, no matter how strong the science, rather than feel the weight of facing it. After all, climate change denial is not a foreign concept, but rather one that has gained enough ground that it has begun seeping into the highest reaches of our government. In 2016 the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication released statistics which indicate that a while 70 percent of Americans believe that climate change is happening, only 53 percent believe that it is caused by human activities, an admission which some might argue is necessary in order to facilitate behavioral change. Could the phenomenon of climate change denial be a factor of Freudian defense mechanisms at work? Ernest Becker’s famous 1973 book, The Denial of Death, spoke to the lengths we will go to escape the reality of our mortality, and perhaps that doing so is critical to our survival. Of course, in this instance, it appears that denial or repression of the reality of climate change, which could drive an unwillingness to make important changes that could slow global warming, is, in fact, maladaptive, leaving us blissfully ignorant but no closer to improving the odds of survival of our species.
Defense mechanisms such as denial and repression may not be enough to explain why humans don’t take the necessary action towards the fight against climate change. In fact, part of the issue may be that being wholly aware of the issue could have the opposite effect that one may expect. There is some research which suggests providing people with facts, figures, and images about the realities of climate change can numb them and immobilize them with feelings of hopelessness, rather than empower and encourage them towards action. Studies have demonstrated that there is a relationship between realizing the extent of climate change and feelings of numbness and apathy. The irony here is that not denying or repressing awareness of the threat may leave us feeling so overwhelmed by the scope of the problem that both thought and action which may be useful to improve the situation may be inhibited (Macy and Brown, 1998; Moser, 2007). When I allow myself to think about climate change and it’s glaring realities, the emotional reaction created makes me feel like crawling into bed and curling into a ball. This is hardly a solution to either my uncomfortable feeling state or the issue of our warming planet. While awareness may seem preferable to denial, the concern is that it produces a similar outcome of non-action.
There are undoubtedly a range of other reasons why humans don’t take necessary action towards the issue of climate change, including the perceived risk of making behavioral change, the belief that climate change is not caused by human behavior and therefore we can have no impact on it, the belief that the small changes they may make as an individual would not have a meaningful impact, perceiving the threat to be a future problem and therefore not experiencing the salience of the risk, and more (Swim et al, 2009)(Gifford, 2011). Mere consideration of the range of emotional and cognitive roadblocks to individuals making necessary behavioral change is overwhelming- I know my own personal story of stuckness, and at times I get freaked out thinking that if enough people struggle with it, we may be doomed. Forty-two percent of Americans think “humans could reduce global warming, but it’s unclear at this point whether we will do what is necessary.” Are we resigned to the reality of knowing what we could do to slow our demise, but being existentially incapable of making it happen?
Fortunately, the literature bears some good news. While anxiety, despair, and numbness have been identified as common reactions to awareness, there are individuals who respond to the threat with activism, collective engagement, and a sense of empowerment and personal responsibility (Langford, 2002). While some may react to the anxiety with repression or denial of the reality, others may make small changes (using reusable bags at the grocery store, being more thoughtful about recycling), while some channel their heightened awareness into an intentional exploration of the research, increased sense of ownership for their individual environmental impact, and a desire to influence others to make similarly significant lifestyle changes (Maiteny, 2002). Why might some people feel like curling into a ball, and others are driven to sustainable action? It turns out that reactions to climate change are mediated by a range of individual factors, including locus of control, relative risk appraisal, attributions of responsibility, self-efficacy, stress management skills and coping appraisals, as well as cognitive models of self, the world, and the future (Swim et al, 2009; Moser, 2007; Fritz et al, 2008). Having insight into these factors certainly makes me reflect on what may be going on with myself that contributes to the kind of reaction I’ve been having, and in turn, gives me a chance to address these mental roadblocks and find a way to start making changes. The good news is that there is evidence to suggest that being an active participant in the fight against climate change increases a sense of self-efficacy, social competence, and creates a range of associated positive emotions (Langford, 2002; Maiteny, 2002).
It should be noted that the positive emotional benefits of behavioral change can occur even when the relative impact on the climate change threat is minimal (Swim et al, 2009). And the reality is that in order for us to have any chance at even starting to slow the dangerous changes, structural and societal-level changes will need to be made. But it is individuals who must develop and participate in these structural changes. And while the existential dread of the potential destruction of our planet and species may seem like a burden too great to bear, like any other anxiety, it is one best approached rather than avoided. The fate of the world may depend on it.
Fritze, J. G., Blashki, G. A., Burke, S., & Wiseman, J. (2008). Hope, despair and transformation: Climate change and the promotion of mental health and wellbeing. International journal of mental health systems, 2(1), 13.
Gifford, R. (2011). The dragons of inaction: Psychological barriers that limit climate change mitigation and adaptation. American Psychologist, 66(4), 290-302.
Kellert, S. R. (2002). Experiencing nature: Affective, cognitive, and evaluative development in children. Children and nature: Psychological, sociocultural, and evolutionary investigations, 117151.
Langford, I. H. (2002). An existential approach to risk perception. Risk Analysis, 22, 101-120.
Larrance, R., Anastario, M., & Lawry, L. (2007). Health status among internally displaced persons in Louisiana and Mississippi travel trailer parks. Annals of emergency medicine, 49(5), 590-601.
Macy, J., & Brown, M. Y. (1998). Coming back to life: Practices to reconnect our lives, our world. Gabriola Island, British Columbia: New Society Publishers.
Maiteny, P. T. (2002). Mind in the gap: Summary of research exploring “inner” influences on pro-sustainability learning and behavior. Environmental Education Research, 8, 299-306.
Moser, S. C. (2007). More bad news: The risk of neglecting emotional responses to climate change information. In S. C. Moser & L. Dilling (Eds.), Creating a climate for change. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Shields, M., & Price, S. (2001). Exploring the Economic and Social Determinants of Psychological and Psychosocial Health: Discussion Paper No. 396. Bonn: Institute for the Study of Labour.
Quiggin, J. (2010). Drought, climate change and food prices in Australia. Melbourne: Australian Conservation Foundation.
Swim, J., Clayton, S., Doherty, T., Gifford, R., Howard, G., Reser, J., Stern, P., & Weber, E. (2009). Psychology and global climate change: Addressing a multi-faceted phenomenon and set of challenges. A report by the American Psychological Association’s task force on the interface between psychology and global climate change. American Psychological Association, Washington.