Topic: ScienceClimate of Anxiety

‘Climate anxiety’ is often used to describe horror at the environmental catastrophe we are living through. But what does it really mean to live through a crisis of such head- spinning, far-reaching and all-consuming proportions? Clayton Page Aldern digs deeper into the neuroscience as he seeks to understand emotional and physical responses to the climate crisis.

Edited by Alice Skinner and Eleanor Leydon. Illustrated by Byun Younggeun. This article was commissioned and funded in collaboration with Wellcome Collection's Stories.

By Clayton Page Aldern

In a recent psychological study of British Columbians who lived through the June 2021 heat dome, Canadian researchers had the opportunity to test out a new survey instrument. The Climate Change Anxiety Scale (CCAS), designed by psychologists in Ohio as ‘a measure of climate change anxiety that would allow for consistency in measurement and understandings,’ acts as a mental thermometer for negative feelings associated with climate change. Most of the study’s participants in British Columbia ‘indicated that they were much (40.1%) or somewhat (18.4%) more worried about climate change due to the heat dome.’ On average, post-scorch, their CCAS scores jumped from 1.66 to 1.87: an increase worthy of publication in The Journal of Climate Change and Health; a discrete, if lukewarm, example of climate concern ticking up in the wake of extreme weather.

When the Ohio psychologists designed the CCAS, they’d sought a tool that would allow them to compare human reactions to climate change over time.1 They’d also wanted lexical clarification. ‘Most fundamentally,’ they wrote, ‘a valid measure also allows us to define what it is we are talking about when we talk about climate anxiety.’

Here is what the British Columbians may 10 have been talking about. During the heat-wave, the mercury in a town called Lytton had reached 49.6°C (121.3°F). Nowhere in Europe – or, for that matter, South America – have meteorologists ever recorded a temperature that high. A day after setting the record, Lytton burned to the ground. It flamed out. On the Pacific Northwest coast, clams baked in their shells and the beaches smelled like gut rot. When I visited one of these beaches a few days later, on the Kitsap Peninsula, I couldn’t count the dead. I would learn that a billion animals had died. All this, worth one-fifth of one point along the current gold standard for measuring our collective emotional response to a warming world. One wonders if it’s the scale or the observer that is miscalibrated.

A changing world is furrowing deeply into our experience – which is to say into our bodies and minds. Reams of evidence have illustrated how the violence of natural disasters, droughts, forced migration, and landscape loss can fuel clinical depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and self-harm. Heat waves and heat stress sap our cognitive resources; tip our behavior towards aggression; skew our collective decision-making. Without question, a changing climate is changing us.

Perhaps for these reasons, it is now in vogue to include climate anxiety and other neologisms (ecoanxiety, ecological grief) among the stains that climate change leaves on mental health. But climate change doesn’t cause climate anxiety. It’s not what happens when you live through a hurricane or wild-fire or record-breaking heatwave. It’s what happens when you think about living through those things or when you think about other people living through those things; when you watch a tragedy unfurl slowly, with little friction, before your eyes. It is ‘the negative emotional impacts of understanding and contemplating the climate crisis.’ It is about the known future meeting the uncertain present.

Illustration of fireflies and fires

In the face of this present, worry would seem to constitute the rational response. This is not to trivialise the public-health crisis that is endemic dread. Perhaps you’ve seen some climate projections. Perhaps you lived through a heat dome. It would be strange if you weren’t worried. If you’re not angry, etc., ‘Children worldwide worry about the future and feel let down by governments,’ charged Nature in its trumpeting coverage of a recent survey published in The Lancet. The mind boggles attempting to imagine children feeling any other way. And yet, psychologically, anxiety is often understood as a harbinger of irrational thoughts.

The apparent paradox here – climate anxiety as both rational and irrational – hints at the limits of an emotional understanding of the condition. A more meaningful investigation considers what these feelings drive our bodies (and others’) to do.

In the experience of near-death, our sense of time dilates. Survivors of car crashes, lightning strikes, the pummel of waterfalls: they almost uniformly report a sense of clarity and calm characterizing the would-be final moments. The neuroscientist David Eagleman has theorized that the brain records more sensory information in traumatic experiences; and that when we look back on those elaborately recorded moments, our biological clock appears to have slowed down. Peering over the brink, our eyes open wider.

What, then, in the experience of a protracted death? In the long pre-mortem of global warming, climate anxiety is something of the opposite of clarity. It is a swirling and a rugpull; a gnawing and a mourning; a quickening and aberration of time. It is an ‘elegy for a country’s seasons,’ as Zadie Smith wrote. It is a fear of death, or at least a recognition of it in the mirror. It is imprecise. It is pain.

Pain is interesting, neurologically, because it is true alchemy. Your peripheral and central nervous systems work in concert to convert a stimulus – say, a cut on your thumb – into a mental representation. These systems can dial back and forth the suffering you feel on a whim; perceptual grades of pain don’t necessarily follow degrees of injury. Sure, your brain converts photons bouncing off of a knife into a mental representation of that object. But it doesn’t invent the knife. The pain, it invents. It’s all sleight of hand.

And yet the point of pain – its neurological raison d’être – is that you can’t ignore it. Pain’s ‘very nature demands attention’, writes the anesthesiologist Abdul-Ghaaliq Lalkhen. It swivels the mind’s eye toward the body’s mistake, as perhaps climate worry swivels it toward humanity’s. Pain is interpretation. It takes ages, electrically speaking, to convert cellular damage to suffering. You process an injury and attach meaning and emotions to it; your brain drapes the sensation of pain over your perceptive window.

The fact that pain is characterized by sharing meaning implies that it has a social function. To quote Lalkhen again: ‘It is only when an individual processes the injury in terms of attaching meaning to it that the expressions of suffering and pain are exhibited. In this way, pain is a form of communication. It allows other people to see what the injury means to us as individuals, and it has survival value, in that our expression of pain will produce empathy and assistance.’

An injured climate demands attention. And at risk of slipping too far into metaphor: applied to the pain of climate anxiety, Lalkhen’s is an attractive proposal. The latent possibility of climate anxiety is that it lays the groundwork of meaning necessary for building climate action. Certainly, whether it will produce ‘empathy and assistance’ remains an open question. As my colleague Kate Yoder has written, in order to spur action, danger ‘needs to feel personal and directed at you, and solutions to the problem must feel concrete, doable, and meaningful in removing that threat.’

The psychologists behind the CCAS foretold as much. When testing the scale, they noted there was virtually no statistical relationship between climate anxiety and climate-positive behaviour. Today, climate anxiety remains a coin flip. On one side: just enough pain to beget a movement. On the other: the quicksand of dread, the deep winter of inaction.


Susan Clayton and Bryan T. Karazsia, Development and Validation of a Measure of Climate Change Anxiety, 2020.


Andreea Bratu et al., The 2021 Western North America Heat Dome Increased Climate Change Anxiety Among British Columbians: Results from A Natural Experiment, 2022.


Susan Clayton et al., Mental Health and Our Changing Climate: impacts, inequities, and responses, 2021.


Kate Yoder, The UN report is Scaring People. But What if Fear isn’t Enough?, 2021.

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