Climate anxiety is more common than you think. These CU Boulder students want to help
You might have felt the symptoms before: A pit in your stomach, panic, existential dread, hopelessness, disenfranchisement, frustration and even anger.
Greenhouse gases are seeping into the atmosphere, warming the planet. Polar ice caps are melting, rising sea levels and altering the chemistry of the planet’s oceans. Wildfires spark more frequently, burn hotter, spread faster and wider. Waterways like the Colorado River are dwindling. Deforestation threatens even the planet’s most wild forests and jungles. Mining operations scar and poison beautiful, even sacred landscapes, endangering the way of life for those living in the area.
For some – especially young people facing decades of uncertainty – it’s too much.
And so the paralyzing fear sets in, the anxiety and depression. These problems are indeed existential threats, scientists repeatedly confirm, but what can any one person do to stop them?
“Anxiety stems from not being able to control or do anything,” Lizzie Weinreb, a student at the University of Colorado Boulder, said. “And, for the most part, we can’t do anything.”
A majority of Americans suffer from some form of climate anxiety, according to a 2020 survey by the American Psychological Association. The anxiety is particularly pronounced in younger generations and can lead to a greater risk of developing depression, other forms of anxiety and substance abuse.
Weinreb, a senior and environmental studies major, and four other students – Andre Delay, Ella White, Emma Morris and Miles Sinderman – wanted to learn more about climate anxiety, how it’s affecting others at CU Boulder and to see whether they could offer any help. Their project started as an assignment in Lee Frankel-Goldwater’s Environment, Media, and Society class and ended up as a website and Instagram account to share their findings.
Frankel-Goldwater, an assistant teaching professor at the university, said the guidelines for the assignment were intentionally vague and he was pleased to see the group settle on the topic.
Sinderman said he pitched climate anxiety to the group to seize on an opportunity to delve deeper into a feeling that has plagued him since a trip to Costa Rica while he was in the eighth grade. While in Central America he looked around and realized that none of what he was seeing would be the same within a decade.
“It feels like everything’s slipping,” Sinderman, a junior and environmental studies major, said.
First, the group wrote a nine-question survey and interviewed students to learn more about climate anxiety and how their peers are feeling. They said Delay edited clips of in-person interviews into a short video and the survey results began to filter in.
In short, they learned that they’re not alone. Not by a long shot.
Nearly half the respondents said they were either concerned (30.4%) or alarmed (18.8%) about climate change, survey results show. Another 20.3% said they feel at least cautious.
Nearly 70% said they were either somewhat (26.1%), moderately (27.5%) or very (15.9%) anxious about the future of the planet. More than half said they think or worry about climate change either occasionally (46.4%) or very frequently (10.1%).
Although the sample size for the survey is relatively small – about 70 students – White said, the senior and psychology major noted that similar, large-scale surveys back up their findings. The American Psychological Association’s survey indicated that more than two-thirds of Americans suffer from some form of climate anxiety.
Another study published in the medical journal The Lancet surveyed 10,000 people between the ages of 16 and 25 in 10 countries and found that 84% of them are at least moderately worried about climate change. Fifty-nine percent were “very or extremely worried,” the survey said.
“We have a generation of 20-year-olds who, their whole life, have been told that we’re 20, 30, 40 years away from global ecological collapse,” Frankel-Goldwater said.
“How does one college student deal with the billions of tons of CO2 being dumped into the atmosphere?” he added. “It’s so distant, it’s so big.”
The group’s survey also showed that while climate anxiety is common among respondents, few say it hurts their daily life. Just over 40% said it doesn’t affect their daily life at all and 43.5% said it affects them “very little.”
That finding also makes sense, Frankel-Goldwater said.
“People are overwhelmed and they shut down, they ignore it,” he said. “Too much from the firehose and the nervous system shuts down.”
That sentiment can be exacerbated, White said, when elders tell younger generations they’re the ones who have to solve these problems. Sinderman agreed, saying he’s sick of hearing the same, half-sarcastic comment from people when they hear his major.
“They say ‘Oh, you’re gonna save the world, huh?’” Sinderman said. “Yeah, because you sure as s— ain’t gonna do it.”
Sinderman animated a short video, available on the group’s website, explaining climate anxiety and the group compiled a list of resources for those looking to manage their feelings, ways to cope and resources for those who need or want professional help.
There’s comfort in knowing you’re not alone and talking to each other, Weinreb said.
Part of the group’s project is to foster those sorts of conversations, White said, and to create a sense of community.
But raising awareness is only part of the process, Morris, a sophomore and psychology major, said. Another part is helping people take action, offering them a sense of agency.
So the group also gathered a list of resources to help people take action. They include ways to find environmentally friendly clothes, information on how to properly recycle and compost, details on sustainable food sources and ideas on how to conserve water.
“Finding something tangible to do really helps,” Morris said.
Another way to combat climate change, the effects of anxiety and to recapture a feeling of being able to help is to engage in government, Weinreb said. Call or write to legislators, the governor, and make sure to vote.
“That’s really, truly, the only way we’re going to see change,” Weinreb said.
Another important factor is for people to find ways to responsibly consume media, particularly social media, White said. Identifying reliable sources of information and understanding how different algorithms serve up social media posts can help mitigate a negative feedback loop that can worsen climate anxiety.
The project – and others like it from his students – takes a solutions-oriented approach, which is a more effective way to tackle challenges than merely identifying a problem and exploring the science behind it, Frankel-Goldwater said. If people aren’t offered potential solutions they can easily disengage.
The biggest cure for climate anxiety, Frankel-Goldwater explains, is hope, the notion that their actions – combined with those around them – can make a difference. This student group accomplished quite a bit with a project that took just a few weeks, he said. Just imagine what they could do with more time, people and funding.
Sitting around a circular cafe table at the university’s Sustainability, Energy and Environment Community Building, the students said their project didn’t cure their climate anxiety. But it did help them realize that there are others who feel the same way as them and that there are things a single person can do to help themselves and their environment.
Find their website and resources online at connectthruclimate.org or on Instagram @connectthruclimate where their profile picture includes four simple words:
“You are not alone!”
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