It's OK to have climate anxiety

Today’s original art for The Phoenix is by Laila Arêde.

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Today is a big day for me. For the very first time in my life, I set up an appointment with my doctor to start on anti-anxiety medication.

This step comes four years after I first started seeing a therapist for climate-related anxiety. Since then, I’ve written about my journey a lot, but never thought it would get to this point. After years of trying to manage on my own, I realized during the pandemic that I need more help.

I’m currently towards the end of my fourth anxiety episode of the past 12 months. Each of them have lasted for weeks, where I’ve been unable to write, unable to interact with friends, unable to function normally. For the past two months, I’ve only opened emails that looked urgent, I didn’t have the energy to read anything that felt like it was going to increase the chaos in my head, either good or bad. (If you haven’t heard from me and needed to, I apologize so much).

I get that there’s a pandemic going on, that it’s normal to feel anxiety, but this has been Too Much.

I also know it’s a privilege to be where I am right now. I can afford health insurance. I have access to a good therapist. I have a doctor I trust. I have a supportive partner. I have friends who will give me the benefit of the doubt after being out of contact for a year. I know that not everyone can say the same. And I know that a lot of this privilege is because of when and where I was born. And that’s not fair.

Recently, Sarah Jaquette Ray wrote an essay in Scientific American that asked why climate anxiety is a mostly-white phenomenon. It’s an absolute must-read.

Here’s the most important part for me:

The white response to climate change is literally suffocating to people of color. Climate anxiety can operate like white fragility, sucking up all the oxygen in the room and devoting resources toward appeasing the dominant group. As climate refugees are framed as a climate security threat, will the climate-anxious recognize their role in displacing people from around the globe? Will they be able to see their own fates tied to the fates of the dispossessed? Or will they hoard resources, limit the rights of the most affected and seek to save only their own, deluded that this xenophobic strategy will save them? How can we make sure that climate anxiety is harnessed for climate justice?

Climate anxiety without climate justice is a gateway to ecofascism. If you’re a white person who is scared about climate change – which is a completely normal thing given how much our leaders have failed us – just imagine how scared you’d be if people wanted you dead because of your skin color.

My fear is that what’s happening right now in India – a vaccine apartheid with horrific consequences – is a grim preview of what might happen in a world where rich countries band together to insulate themselves from climate change but don’t share resources with the rest of the world. And that is a world I’ll give every day of the rest of my life to prevent from coming to pass.

Here’s the bottom line: It’s OK to have climate anxiety. The real question is, what will do you do about it?

One of my favorite climate writers (and fellow Substacker) Britt Wray talked with Sarah about her essay, and their conversation is fantastic, too. (Britt’s Substack, Gen Dread, has also been an enormously important resource for me, personally.)

Here’s Sarah’s key response to Britt:

Although I believe anybody can have climate anxiety, the term itself seems more applicable to folks who haven’t experienced existential threats before. Communities that have experienced existential threats — colonialism, slavery, genocide, dispossession, medical injustice, food insecurity, pollution, exile — tend to view climate change as just another layer of threat, compounding these other long-standing forms of oppression, cultural death, and environmental trauma.

While its definitely true that climate change will affect every single one of us, it will affect us all differently. Those who have already been marginalized by centuries of oppression will be hurt the worst.

Our job, as the climate anxious, is to repair that oppression, repair that marginalization, to make sure you’re not offloading your anxiety onto someone else in ways that are causing more harm.

Doing all that well is hard. Really, really hard. But it doesn’t mean it’s not our job to try.