There are many stories like those of Philip, Alma, and Paula. What they have in common: They fear the consequences of climate change. This anxiety has become a social phenomenon which most affectes young people. But what is the best way to deal with it?
He doesn’t envisage himself in a garden or sitting peacefully on a veranda. He doesn’t see himself watching his grandchildren play or showing them the mountains he loves so much. When Philip Mauer* thinks of the future, he sees chaos. He sees an unbearable normality: holidays in the north, while the south is burning. Drinking water becoming a luxury. A future of hunger, war and deprivation: one in which everything that we now think of as normal is missing. He imagines reading new stories to his grandchildren – not about polar bears or the Amazon, but about a strange present, one of constant destruction. He says, “I’ve lost my ability to see the future positively.”
Philip Mauer, 32, is a project manager in a support agency. Father of a 3-year-old son, he has a short beard and wears blue jeans. He moved to Vienna to go to university. And he’s afraid of the climate crisis. Philip isn’t alone in this. According to an international study, 75 percent of people aged between 16 and 25 think that the future is frightening and 45 percent say that worrying about climate change negatively impacts their daily lives. For them, the climate crisis is not far away, not tomorrow. It’s now, and it stresses them every day. Such fears are often described as unnatural, but most experts agree that people’s fear of climate change must be taken seriously.
In Philip’s case it was a small news item that first triggered real fear in him. He can’t remember exactly what it was – but he can still recall how he felt. “I really lost my enjoyment of life,” says Philip. Everything seemed so pointless. His own life seemed so small, so meaningless, in view of the crisis. For a long time, he told himself that climate change is far away, that he can’t do anything. Since his son was born, that’s no longer an option for him. The fear returns more and more frequently. He says, “I’m scared of what the climate crisis will do to our society.”
By 2050, an additional 93 million people in the northern Mediterranean region will be affected. There may be up to 20,000 heat-related deaths per year.
He knows that Austria already experiences many more very hot days with temperatures over 30 degrees. Between 1961 and 1990 the ZAMG, Austria’s centre for meteorology and geodynamics, recorded between five and eleven very hot days per year in most of Austria’s state capitals. Between 1991 and 2020, this figure was 16 to 22. Prognoses by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) clearly show the severe consequences of heat. By 2050, an additional 93 million people in the northern Mediterranean region will be affected. There may be up to 20,000 heat-related deaths per year. Overall, climate change may lead to more hunger and wars, water shortages and – as a draft of the IPPC’s latest report suggests – may endanger our civilisation in the long term.
In other words, climate change is a threat. That’s why Johannes Klackl, a researcher in the psychology department at Salzburg University, says, “Fear of the climate crisis isn’t pathological; it’s justified”. Climate anxiety is a natural reaction to the findings of climate research. Unlike most other fears, it actually isn’t a sign of mental illness. For Klackl, it’s of primary importance to take these fears seriously.
But all too often, that doesn’t happen. Fear of climate change is presented as a personal problem, as German Psychologists for Future warn. Yet climate anxiety is a “global threat that can only be met by government policy and society as a whole”. In a statement, they oppose the attempt to describe the phenomenon as pathological. They find that people like Philip are not reacting irrationally, but sensibly.
Paula, 16, also has these feelings. She is an activist with Fridays for Future. She’s wearing an oversized T-shirt and has curly brown hair. She attends school in Mödling near Vienna and cycles on her old bike that she loves, even though most of the gears are broken.
Climate anxiety is a natural reaction to the findings of climate research. Unlike most other fears, it actually isn’t a sign of mental illness.
Years ago, Paula was playing Catan when she suddenly started crying. “All of a sudden I just thought about how the Amazon jungle is burning and the whole world is breaking and I can’t do anything,” she says, adjusting her silver-framed glasses. Paula looks down. “Feminist” is written on one of her white, sustainable trainers; the other one reads “It’s going to be great”. Back then, when she was suddenly struck by despair while playing a board game, her parents tried to comfort her and her younger sister was shocked. But it didn’t really help.
Yet not all population groups are affected by climate anxiety to the same extent. According to US surveys, it mostly affects white people, even though people of colour and indigenous people are disproportionally affected by the effects of climate change.
Noomi Anyanwu, speaker of the Black Voices petition, is not surprised. “The climate emergency is built on racism,” she says. In Austria, people of colour are underrepresented. According to Anyanwu, that’s why they’re less concerned about the topic. What’s more, “The effects of climate change are already affecting huge numbers of people; people of colour and their realities are being ignored yet again. It’s all about white people, a white future.”
Author Sarah Jaquette Ray warns that climate anxiety could lead to even more intensification of white privilege and social division. The narrative that climate change is a crisis of the future ignores the many people who are already suffering its impacts.
For Eder, a psychologist, what will happen to a society that knows so much about how it is endangering its own future is an open question. “This event is one of a kind,” says Klackl. “Never before has it been the case that we know that in a few decades, everything will probably get really terrible.” However, in Klackl’s eyes, the fears of people like Eder also have a positive side. “These fears can motivate people to do something,” says Klackl. There’s still time to change the prognoses.
That is exactly what helps Paula most: the feeling that she’s changing something. “The fear goes away when I go on demonstrations, or feel I’m being listened to; when I give an interview or write a speech,” she says. Since she became an activist, her anxiety is less strong. Even so: “I keep thinking: ‘what if that’s the last snow, the last normal winter’,” she says. “I’m afraid that everything’s going to be different.” She’s afraid of losing her normality.
“Never before has it been the case that we know that in a few decades, everything will probably get really terrible.“
— Johannes Klackl, Division of Social Psychology, Paris Lodron University of Salzburg
But she knows that’s going to happen. The climate crisis is changing everything: currently, almost all governments are going to miss the 1.5 degree target set down in the Paris Agreement on climate change. Actually, every country in the world committed to limit global warming to a maximum of 1.5 degrees by 2100, compared to preindustrial levels, which is essential in order to guarantee that we can continue to live in a stable climate, the world as we know it. Yet in November 2021 the Climate Action Tracker stated that the nations’ targets will lead to global warming of about 2.7 degrees by 2100.
This puts us on a trajectory to what is called the “Hothouse Earth” scenario, in which even more drought, extreme heat, hunger and probably wars await us. If we don’t meet the Paris Agreement targets, we’re heading for several tipping points. In that case the effects of the climate crisis reinforce each other. Climate change would become irreversible.
Paula knows that. She feels better since she became active with Fridays for Future in autumn 2020. She feels understood, that people who share her opinions are listening. And she feels she is changing something. Yet she still asks herself whether it’s enough, whether it’s the right thing. Climate change is such a huge issue that even with everything she does, she still feels pretty small.
“Sometimes I still panic,” she says. Her activism, living with the awareness of the crisis, has become part of her identity. She used to want to have a farm one day and to live the simple life. Now she can’t imagine doing that. “I think I’ll always have the feeling that I want to do something for the world.”
But most people aren’t like Paula; they don’t become activists. That’s not necessarily because they don’t understand the crisis, or that they’re not afraid. Climate change makes 24-year-old Alma question what she wants to do with her life. “I’m a musician, and I love it,” she says, “but I ask myself whether it’s still justifiable.” For Alma, climate change is so fundamental that she thinks that it might be more important to produce food, to help.
„I’m a musician, and I love it. But I ask myself whether it’s still justifiable, whether art still has any meaning in view of climate change.”
— Alma, 24 years
Alma meditates; she says that she tries to focus on positives, to enjoy what she does. She grows vegetables on her balcony and tries to avoid eating meat. She dreams of environmental disasters. Yet fear of the future keeps coming back, sweeping Alma along like a wave. She feels hopeless and despairing. “I ask myself whether art still has any meaning in view of climate change,” she says. But despite this, she doesn’t go on demonstrations. “I have thought about doing that, but then I think that I don’t really know if it makes much sense.”
Philip doesn’t go on demonstrations regularly, either. But he has changed his lifestyle since he found out about the climate crisis. He shops more carefully and hardly ever eats meat. He says, “I no longer take 23 euro flights to Barcelona.” However, he doesn’t see himself as an activist. He can’t really say why. He is kind of afraid, he hasn’t really got time, he hasn’t found a group that’s right for him. He feels alone with the topic, sensing that society doesn’t bother about it. “It’s not just fear, it’s also the feeling that it’s too much,” he says. In Philip’s opinion the media, politicians and society are all failing.
Despite their great anxiety, neither Alma nor Philip take part in street protests – even though the evidence shows that climate activism can bring change. A study by Reinhard Steurer, a political scientist in Vienna, found a correlation between climate policy and climate activism: climate policy was better in countries where there were climate protests. And a 2018 study confirms that social norms change when 25 percent of a society actively campaign on a topic, for example climate change. So if a quarter of the population campaigns for climate protection, that can lead to better climate protection measures being implemented and the fears of Philip, Paula and Alma won’t come true.
But why don’t 25 percent get involved? Is it because as we know, fear can paralyse people? No, says Klackl, the psychologist. He determined in an experiment that fear and concern can result in people developing more environmentally friendly attitudes.
Part of the solution could also be precisely our culture that Alma questions so deeply, says Johannes Klackl – because the way we live helps us to deal with fear: “We cling to culture more and more closely precisely because of our fear,” he says. This culture or lifestyle is often damaging for the climate, however: we go for a drive in the car or treat ourselves to a steak. “Our culture must change,” Klackl says.
Philip no longer believes in the 1.5 degree target or in a good future in a world with a stable climate. “I’m prepared for the fact that we won’t live so well in future.” Philip is planning his life in permanent awareness of the crisis. He is thinking about where he could buy a flat where he and his family can also be safe in future. He won’t take his August holiday in Croatia anymore. He’s just waiting for the next forest fire.
Of course he also dreams of a pleasant, easy life in an ideal world. But Philip can’t just carry on, pretending nothing’s wrong. “I thought I can adjust to what’s coming,” he says, “but I’ve been overwhelmed by the developments.” This summer, there was a tornado in the Czech Republic, floods in Germany and Austria, wildfires around the Mediterranean: it was all just too much. “It’s just too awful,” says Philip. “I need to feel that more people care about it.”
Psychologist Johannes Klackl knows many stories like those of Philip, Alma and Paula. He considers that this fear, above all among young people, is a challenge for society. This anxiety also makes climate change into a problem in the here and now. Klackl says, “Our task is to change society in such a way that young people don’t have to live in fear.” He is sure that this can be done.
* Names have been changed
Original in German. First published in the #01/2022 issue of period. Translated into English by Bridget Schäfer.