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The Daily Barometer

The Student News Site of Oregon State University

The Daily Barometer

The Student News Site of Oregon State University

The Daily Barometer

The Dam Dispatch: Understanding climate anxiety

Aisling Gazzo
Students walk by the Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences Administration building at Oregon State University on April 12.

Editor’s Note: This column does not represent the opinions of the Daily Barometer.

What do you get when you combine anxiety with climate change? The perfect storm.

Up until college, I had a basic understanding of climate change from news articles, a few chapters in high school textbooks and Netflix documentaries that make you want to turn the TV off and adopt a new vegan lifestyle.

In my first term at Oregon State University, I took a sustainability class called “Intro to Climate Change” to fulfill a baccalaureate core requirement. I learned more about climate change than ever before and I had never been more scared.

Once the class ended, I found myself avoiding all climate-related topics for weeks, feeling like I needed a vacation from scientific reality. The phrase “ignorance is bliss” came to mind then, though I knew neither were an option.

Today I would describe those feelings as something else: climate anxiety.

The American Psychological Association defines climate anxiety, also known as eco-anxiety, as “an overwhelming sense of fear, sadness and dread in the face of a warming planet.”

I found myself wondering how professionals in environmental science fields combat this dread every day. Most importantly, how are we meant to cope with these emotions in the midst of the climate crisis?

I spoke with David Wrathall, associate professor in the College of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences at OSU, about his mental health struggles as an expert in climate vulnerability.

Wrathall was a lead author on the sixth assessment report for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the United Nations body that assesses climate change science. He remembers feeling the full effects of climate anxiety when all the lead authors delivered their draft statements during the panel’s session in 2023.

“The sense of dread that I felt was the most you can feel dread. Just a real awakening to our circumstances,” Wrathall said. “That was profound and it stayed with me.”

Less than five years earlier, Wrathall spent his winter break “checked out” from his work, a rare period where he chose not to think about climate change. The night before going back to work, he had a panic attack.

Wrathall teaches a climate justice class and said he focuses on the “affective” problem of climate change or “the mental and emotional challenges that prevent us from thinking about or acting on climate change.”

During the first class each term, Wrathall introduces his students to the Mood Meter, a mindfulness practice developed by the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. He asks his students to categorize their current emotional state on the meter before and after he presents several basic facts about climate change.

Within minutes, the class’ overall emotions move to higher “energy” and lower “pleasantness.” This distinct shift is fascinating but I’m hardly surprised.

In the Mood Meter comparison, I saw a representation of my own instinctive reaction to climate change: fear, frustration, anxiety, panic.

I’m not a climate science student but I’ve always cared about the environment. If global warming has such a significant influence over my emotions, how are environmental science students affected?

Emma Harber, a third-year climate science student, said “I get really excited and really hopeful about the things that we can do to make an impact, but then on the other hand, I get really depressed about the state of the future.”

Knowledge can be both painful and empowering and this duality is unavoidable in climate studies. Harber said she was more hopeful about the environment before coming to college but she has recently found new sources of motivation after learning about fossil fuel alternatives in her renewable energy class.

“In the climate science world, if you’re not careful, you can get yourself detached and forget about the people who are involved in all of this,” Harber said. “People should be scared and should be worried but there are things that we can do about it.”

I grew up feeling perpetually frustrated by people who weren’t worried about climate change and didn’t care to take action. Besides political agendas and rampant misinformation, I’ve realized there are more complex mental barriers surrounding the climate crisis.

Unsurprisingly, climate anxiety is a topic of interest in the psychology field. Clementyne Layton, a fourth-year psychology student, chose to research how beliefs about climate change affect family planning in a psychology research methods class.

While her group’s research was not part of an official study, Layton noticed connections between younger generations’ climate anxiety and the decision to have children in the future.

“I personally find myself considering not having kids or having less kids because of climate change,” Layton said, “and also just feeling generally nihilistic when I think about the future.”

When I tell people I don’t want to have children, I often save myself from interrogation by asking one simple question: “What’s the worst thing you can do for the environment?”

After a dramatic pause, I respond, “Have kids.”

Among other reasons, I feel guilty introducing more people into a world crumbling under the weight of overpopulation and greenhouse gas emissions. I can try to protect the environment but I can’t protect a child from the climate crisis.

Coping with this climate anxiety can be complex and daunting but we can start by understanding our individual responses to climate change.

Sabine Huemer, assistant professor of practice in the OSU School of Psychological Science, is conducting research on climate anxiety to understand contributing factors and impact on OSU students. Additionally, Huemer is involved in community resources on campus, such as Dam Good Nature Break workshops through Counseling and Psychological Services.

“Nature connectedness and Nature Rx programs have shown to be effective for general stress management, also in the context of climate change,” Huemer said.

Every day, I feel an internal conflict between my passion for environmental protection and my avoidance of climate anxiety. Finding hope is an attractive concept but often feels impossible to maintain.

I’m far from conquering my own anxieties. However, I’m taking a “know thy enemy” approach by first trying to understand the interwoven complexities of mental health and climate change.

Wrathall recommends therapy, mindfulness and meditation as key coping mechanisms for climate anxiety. After his own mental health struggles in the climate science field, he considers climate anxiety to be a vehicle for collective healing.

“Here’s the basic secret: If you are scared or upset about climate change, it means you love the planet,” Wrathall said. “Let’s not avoid those feelings but work on transforming them into love and action.”



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