In late 2019 and early 2020, climate change was arguably one of the most discussed topics in Australia due to the devastating bushfire crisis the country was living through. Fast forward a few months and climate change is no longer on our agenda and understandably so.
Since then, a global pandemic has swept the globe and our focus has changed. While we’re still feeling the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic greatly, life has been beginning to return to some normality. And we need to resume these climate-related conversations once more.
The heaviness of recent events has undoubtedly caused a lot of stress and anxiety, which can affect our ability to stay engaged with a topic like climate change.
“Hearing or reading about the climate crisis can be very emotionally distressing, and at times even traumatising, as it confronts us with the knowledge of global and systemic disruptions which can affect all aspects of our lives,” climate psychology researcher and author of the book, Climate Crisis and Consciousness: Re-imagining Our World and Ourselves, Dr Sally Gillespie told TheLatch—.
“It also makes us more aware of our vulnerabilities and mortality, as climate crisis threatens the livelihood and safety of so many people and the ecosystems they live within.
“All of this, along with a generalised fear of change and loss, understandably stir up feelings of fear, sadness and grief.”
If you’ve never dug deep into why climate change is a hard topic for you, it could be because it raises these feelings of grief, powerlessness and hopelessness. It can also feel like an insurmountable issue that you don’t have much control over.
“This is accentuated when people see or hear reports of climate disasters and problems without any suggestions of pathways to action or solutions, or acknowledgment of the emotional distress that the reports can stir,” says Dr Gillespie.
“It is also common for people to feel confused by climate issues because of ongoing political debates and misinformation spread by fossil fuel funded think tanks and media.”
While sitting in these feelings of discomfort isn’t ideal, if 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that we need to experience this uncomfortableness until it finally spurs us to take action. Ignoring the issue and burying it can no longer be an option.
Much like the conversations and self-education that needs to take place to become an effective anti-racist ally for BIPOC, you can’t let the fear of failure or getting things wrong when it comes to climate change stop you from getting involved.
This is where it helps to share information with those around you. Simply telling others how you feel can reduce the feelings of hopelessness and make it more manageable. If you continue to ignore the issue, the hidden despair can keep you stuck in a vicious cycle.
“My own and others’ research shows that ongoing climate engagement within supportive community and groups develops emotional resilience and wellbeing,” she says. “People often fear that engaging will make them feel worse, when in fact the reverse is true.”
For some people, their political views and social networks can stop them from engaging with the climate crisis because it might be considered a threat to their beliefs and values. For others, these overwhelming feelings can cause them to completely dismiss, diminish or even deny the crisis. For others,
“These psychological defences provide rationales for not engaging, which of course place us more at risk,” says Dr Gillespie. “Often what appears to be cynicism or apathy on the surface of people’s disengagement, can, in fact, be underlying frozen feelings of distress especially grief or despair.”
According to Dr Gillespie, a lack of social support coupled with a failure of federal action on climate change is largely to blame on why many aren’t engaging with the current situation in our country.
“Lack of information about the seriousness of the crisis and what needs to be done at a collective level along with lack of leadership are major contributors to a lack of engagement in Australia,” she says.
“The tendency of neo-liberal governments to ‘privatise’ climate action, for example, to make it all about individual actions, rather than promote and support collective transformation (e.g. renewable energy, affordable energy-efficient public transport) leads to people feeling both more overwhelmed and guilt and less hopeful as individual action is clearly not sufficient.”
While the climate crisis ultimately needs a top-down approach to create some serious change, we can discount our own actions in the process. To be engaged in the issue, your engagement “needs to involve social, caring and fun times as well as the campaigns and transformational work,” says Dr. Gillespie.
To do this, try choosing a form of engagement that both interests and motivates you. This way you’re more likely to stick with it and feel fulfilled by it.
“This means using your existing talents, skills and passions to guide your involvement, for example, campaigning for sustainable fashion, fundraising for girls’ education in developing countries (which results in lower birth rates and increased skills in sustainable living) or doing neighbourhood verge gardening or tree planting.”
To prevent fatigue, it can also be helpful to monitor the amount of media exposure you have to reports about climate change. It’s impossible to consume everything related to the climate and if you did, it would be at the detriment of your own mental health.
“While it’s important to know the severity of the problems and the nature of them, to stay functional it is best to be more focused on the solutions and actions you and others are taking rather than just looking at what’s wrong,” says Dr Gillespie.
To engage with the issue long term, you also have to commit to taking care of your own wellbeing, which includes time out, exercise, quality sleep and nutrition as well as social activities and time spent in nature. While things need to change right now, this movement is very much a marathon and not a sprint.
“Climate issues are lifelong, we need to pace ourselves to stay engaged over the long distance. It is common for people to get initially highly immersed in climate issues and then burn out,” says Dr Gillespie.
“Research shows that seasoned climate activists learn how to monitor their engagement, build good social networks of support and find enjoyment in what they do so that they become more resilient people generally.”
If your feelings about climate change are manifesting as anger, rather than fear or fatigue, you can also use this to fuel your commitment to the crisis. But, be careful you’re not directing this anger in the wrong place, which can alienate people.
When it comes to discussing this with your friends and family, you must approach it carefully as it is an emotional issue for many. Instead of coming in all guns blazing, take a more understanding approach and ask them how they feel about climate change and what they know about it.
“Making anger a motivator for climate action can be productive, whether it be joining protests, Extinction Rebellion or writing letters to MPs and making submissions on legislation which affects the climate crisis,” Dr Gillespie says.
“Listen well, with empathy, seeking common ground between you whether through shared emotions or concerns.
“Lecturing people or throwing lots of science at them never works, it only increases defensiveness in the listener. Check out how receptive people are, for example, ‘I would like to show you something I have seen that affected me deeply. Would you be interested and is this a good time?'”
Start to have smaller conversations here and there with your people, rather than one big, intense one that could be overwhelming. Generally speaking, it is easier to educate people and make them feel engaged in this manner. The power of modelling positive behaviours can’t be understated either, says Dr Gillespie.
“Role modelling through behaviour is the most influential driver of change of all, i.e. leaving your car at home, eating vegan a few times a week.
“Making invitations appealing is also good! For example, try saying ‘I am going to a meeting tonight, would you like to come along? We could check out the new Thai restaurant first.’ We all need rewards and sweeteners at times!”
Dr Sally Gillespie facilitates workshops on climate psychology and ecopsychology and is the author of Climate Crisis and Consciousness: Re-imagining Our World and Ourselves, available online and in all good bookstores.