In September, researchers published an alarming survey of 10,000 folks in 10 countries, all age 16 to 25, about their views on climate change. Three-quarters said the future is frightening, over half reported feeling like humanity is doomed, and 39 percent said they were hesitant to have children. “There's this real pessimism about the future,” says psychologist Susan Clayton of Ohio's College of Wooster, coauthor of the new report as well as a previous extensive one on climate change and mental health. “It's not just scary, but it's also demotivating.”
These fears are grounded not only in alarming recent events but also in the knowledge that the future is likely to get worse. Climate change means that hurricanes bigger than Ida will pummel the US Gulf Coast and inundate its Northeast, while hotter heat waves and fiercer wildfires will make the American West ever more hellish. In August, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a brutal report warning that without drastic, immediate action to cut emissions, during the next decade we’ll shoot past the Paris Climate Agreement’s threshold of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees C (2.7 degrees F) above preindustrial levels. As more people are exposed to catastrophic natural disasters, it’s creating a sense of dread about the future, as well as ecological grief for what’s been lost or is disappearing.
Clayton studies how people make connections to the environment and how the human mind grapples with climate anxiety—concern about planetary catastrophe. WIRED spoke with her about the new survey, how the climate crisis is affecting mental health, and, perhaps most importantly, what we can do about it. The conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
WIRED: Climate change is no longer really this kind of nebulous idea that a lot of people didn't think affected their lives personally. As we’re seeing this extreme weather, in particular, it's very much here to impact a lot of lives.
Susan Clayton: There's very good evidence about impacts on mental health of extreme weather events—obviously big storms, wildfires, floods, that kind of thing. Then there are the effects that are more subtle, because they're more gradual. There's not a single causal mechanism that has been identified yet, but there's pretty good evidence from some pretty large data sets that suicide rates tend to go up during unusually hot periods. Psychiatric hospitalizations go up. And people are just more irritable, so there is more antisocial behavior.
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And then the thing that I think has really become an issue over the last few years, and a lot of attention [paid] to it this summer, is the idea of what's been called eco-anxiety or climate anxiety—these negative emotions and distress associated with just your awareness that climate change is happening. It can be affecting people who haven't necessarily experienced the direct impacts themselves, but they're aware that it's going on.
WIRED: An important aspect is the notion of uncertainty. With climate change, there is so much uncertainty necessarily built into the system, as climate scientists are still trying to model out how the climate will change, how natural disasters will change.
SC: I think the uncertainty is one of the biggest reasons for the anxiety. Because if you know for certain that a particular thing is going to happen, you might feel sad, you might feel afraid, but you're less likely to feel anxious. Anxiety has to do in part with this sort of [feeling like]: Well, something bad is coming, but I don't know exactly what, and I don't know exactly when. And absolutely, we don't like uncertainty. It's hard to know how to respond.
WIRED: Another complicating factor is the worsening of climate change. Looking forward, in both the near future and the far future, things are going to get worse before they get better.
SC: I think it's significant. We did this massive survey of young people around the world, so people 16 to 25. And I bring that up because they're the ones who are facing this future to a large extent. And they, to a surprising degree, reported a feeling that things are going to get worse—they will not have the opportunities their parents had, that things they value are threatened. They don't know if they should have children. And even a high percentage endorse the statement “Humanity is doomed.”
WIRED: Something that you and I have spoken about before is this notion of ecological grief about California’s devastating wildfires. What is that?
SC: It's really interesting to talk about grief because anxiety is sort of self-relevant: I'm worried about myself, I'm worried about what's going to happen to me. But grief is more other-directed—it's about losses. So you're showing this awareness of the value of something that either has already been lost or that you anticipate losing.
And for a lot of people that's places that were very important to them. It can be even the idea of a place. To think of California becoming a place that is kind of hostile to human inhabitation—that's probably too powerful, but you get what I'm saying. That's a loss of this idea of what it means to be California.
WIRED: I was hoping to talk about the role of post-traumatic stress disorder here, especially in natural disasters, and especially among children, who may not be equipped with the psychological tools to cope with these sorts of things.
SC: We're particularly worried about children, because there is evidence that they are more likely to develop post-traumatic stress. And I'm speculating here, because I'm not a specialist in children, but I suspect it's partly because security is so important for children. They have to learn what stays the same, what's stable about the world. And so we have this kind of very disruptive, disorienting experience that really interferes with that ability to form a good sense of security.
There's some evidence that children who experienced trauma when they're young, it might have basically a permanent impact on their ability to process strong emotions as they're older, as adults. So because children are developing in so many ways—psychologically, physiologically, neurologically—these early impacts can have significantly long-lasting effects.
WIRED: As with so many things about climate change, the less fortunate are going to suffer the most. The rich can manage—they can move to one of their other homes. The poor and people of color are going to struggle far more with climate change.
SC: I think that's exactly right. There's plenty of good evidence for that. And I think it's important to highlight it because sometimes people will act as if environmental issues are kind of elitist—that you have to be rich to be worried about environmental issues. But certainly, especially when it comes to climate change, it is a social justice issue. It's going to increase inequities, and poor people and poor nations are already being hit harder. And that will only get worse. And in fact, there's data that show that, at least within the US—I haven't seen any international data like this—but within the US people of color are more worried about climate change.
WIRED: It's important to point out specifically the heat island effect. So in cities, you get hotter temperatures and the heat dissipates less quickly overnight. This has been one of the very clear inequities pointed out by researchers, that neighborhoods that are poorer tend to get hotter than surrounding rural areas. As more people are moving to metropolises around the world, how might this extreme heat be particularly problematic?
SC: Poorer people are more powerfully affected by these environmental disasters in all kinds of ways: They live in more vulnerable areas; their infrastructure is usually less up to code; they can't move to their other house, but they might not even be able to afford air conditioning. And with regard to heat, poor neighborhoods are less likely to have trees in them. And that points to the fact that one of the ways in which we see environmental inequity is not just greater exposure to environmental harms, but less access to environmental goods, as it were.
I think one thing that brings up is that to cope with these issues, cities hopefully will have to engage in some redesign. And that redesign shouldn't just be about coping with flood water surges, but designing for more tree cover, so the poorer people can have places to escape the heat.
WIRED: If you add more trees, that will of course cool down the city and beautify the city, and green spaces are good for mental health. There are adaptation solutions that address, in this case, both physical health and mental health.
SC: Having cities that include more green space is a strategy for adjusting to climate change, but it also has these other benefits that might improve our way of life. If we can find ways to allow more people to use public transportation, or bicycle or walk rather than getting in their car, that will help address climate change, but it will also improve their quality of life. So that's the big picture. We have just a really powerful body of evidence about the importance of green spaces for promoting physical health, for promoting mental health, actually even for promoting positive social interactions.
WIRED: Access to mental health care is problematic here in the United States, and particularly out of reach for poorer citizens. How might we increase access to mental health care?
SC: Even setting climate change aside, mental health care access is inadequate. And this is true around the world, that mental health is just not taken seriously. Another thing that I hope will happen is what's been described as more of a public health approach to mental health. So just like physical health, you don't just only think about your health when you get sick and go to the doctor, but there's all kinds of wellness check-ins and programs to promote physical health. And I think we should see more of that with regard to mental health, as well. Those don't have to rely on mental health professionals, but can really be integrated into educational systems or physical healthcare systems or community support groups.
WIRED: How do you feel personally about the climate crisis and the impact on mental health?
SC: When I think about it, I feel sad and anxious, because I do think things are going to get worse. And I don't have a lot of confidence in society's ability to pivot quickly to address these issues. I think we will, eventually, but things will get worse than they should have or than they need to have. But I do also maintain that hope that some of the changes we'll make as a society will be changes that actually don't just deal with climate change, but actually make our lives better.