The capacity of science to explain the climate crisis, of technology to manage the fallout, and of world leaders to take action are urgent topics as global temperatures continue to rise.
For those paying attention, like postgraduate Jasmine Rhodes, it’s all beginning to take its toll.
Rhodes, who is pursuing a master of environment degree at the University of Melbourne, says she is seeing more and more of her fellow students struggling to come to terms with the urgency of the climate crisis.
“It’s the foundation of what everybody in the Master of Environment is thinking about. It’s everything. The main goal is stopping climate change.”
Environment issues have long preoccupied Rhodes, who studied urban horticulture and environment as an undergraduate and volunteers as an education officer for the University of Melbourne’s Postgraduate Environmental Network.
She says she has always had to be mindful of her own mental health when studying the existential threats raised by climate change, and is now witnessing others facing similar challenges.
“I’ve already gone through the process of going to these classes and learning all of these statistics and projections and being overwhelmed,” she says.
“You’re just swimming in this pool of grief.”
Dealing with climate change needs to involve more than just scientific and technological responses, she says. “There is this kind of technological fix idea – if we just make green buildings, it’ll be fixed – which is wrong.”
It’s important to acknowledge the links between anxiety and climate change, says Dr Annabelle Workman, a specialist in health and climate change. “What I think has fallen to the wayside is the mental health impact of climate change.”
After working for several years with the National Health and Medical Research Council, Workman completed a PhD on the health benefits resulting from the implementation of mitigation policies. “I’d tell people that I was working on a climate change and health PhD and a lot of people would stop and say, ‘Well, what does health have to do with climate change?’”
She expects that mental health issues associated with climate stress will only escalate, echoing concerns about “eco-anxiety” being raised by health experts around the world.
“We’re going to have increasing severity and frequency of extreme weather events. I think we’re going to continue to see an increase in anxiety and mental health impact as a result of that.”
Professor Robyn Eckersley, a climate policy expert in the school of Social and Political Sciences at Melbourne University, says the next generation will bear the brunt of climate change.
“This is the generation that’s going to live with the consequences. I’m seeing the beginning of them, but I won’t see the really bad end.”
The most productive way to deal with climate change was to motivate people to mobilise and take action. “I don’t want to beat people up with fear and anxiety to the point where they’re catatonic. That’s deeply unproductive.”
It’s crucial, she argues, to comprehend what causes fear of climate change. “We need to understand those sources of anxiety, because that’s what’s blocking us.”
Drawing on an international relations concept called “ontological insecurity”, she explains that climate anxiety is based on an existential threat which causes uneasiness. To alleviate that anxiety, it is vital to make sure climate change is addressed by conservative as well as liberal politicians.
“We’re finding this increasing polarisation, and when you have folk with identities that cut across that, there’s an incredible tempering effect.”
Action is the key, she says. “If you’re upset and angry, you get together with others and you work to try and address the problem – and that’s empowering.”
Extinction Rebellion volunteer and radio show host Tony Gleeson argues that there can be little surprise that the climate crisis is damaging people’s mental health. “No matter how you want to measure success today, we’re failing miserably.”
Gleeson recalls visiting the Students’ Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh (SECMOL) in northern India in the early 2000s, and witnessed young activists working to preserve their environment.
“As a person coming from the country with the greatest per capita rate of emissions, I said, why do you guys bother?” he recalled. “They pointed to a glacier and they said, ‘when that goes, we go.’”
After returning to Australia and learning more about climate change, he began to suffer severe depression and was institutionalised for several months. Making the decision to do more to help mitigate climate change helped him deal with mental illness.
“You’ve got two choices: one is to go insane, and the other is to get active,” he says. “I made the decision that I had personal power.”
Now Gleeson works as an educator in the Melbourne branch of activist group Extinction Rebellion, and co-hosts a radio show called The Sustainable Hour. Being proactive was crucial to his continuing wellbeing. “We’re really good at putting the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff, rather than building a fence at the top of the cliff.”
Scientist Workman says the political narrative around climate change needs to be made more positive.
“If you look at what it has been historically for policymakers, it’s very much one about burden. We have the technical capacity, we have the economic motivation, but the one thing that seemed to be missing for me was political will.”
Eckersley argues climate anxiety can be productive if it inspires political action. “When it is a collectively shared anxiety, it can be empowering when people start to talk about how to collectively address this.
“If you’re going to sketch a problem to any audience, you need to sketch it in a way that calibrates with the solution you’re going to offer.”
On an individual level, student Rhodes says staying positive and concentrating on working towards solutions was important.
“If I’m wallowing in grief and misery, I can’t concentrate on things that I feel like I need to be doing.”
Balancing mental health with her studies on climate change is difficult, she says, but maintaining an emotional connection to the issue is critical.
“Caring is important, emotion is important … It has to mean something to people.”
This story is part of the University of Melbourne Centre for Advancing Journalism’s contribution, via The Junction, to the Covering Climate Now initiative, a global collaboration of more than 220 news organisations worldwide.