The music teacher was driving when she saw it, the pretty fountain in Quincy’s Merrymount Park, shrouded in an eerie haze from distant wildfires. The news had been full of climate disasters. Deadly floods in China and Germany. Heat so hot in Seattle that birds were jumping from their nests. And now, the smoke from distant wildfires had come to her world. Jacqueline Carvey drove on, her chest tight, the sky almost no color at all. “Breathe,” she told herself, fighting a dark thought: “No place feels truly safe anymore.”
In Dorchester, anxiety clenched Bethany Van Delft’s chest, too. She watched a video of a man in a flooded subway in China, holding his child up to the ceiling, desperate to reach the last pocket of air. She thought about the world she was turning over to her own children, a girl and a boy sleeping in their bedrooms. She took a Xanax. “Is this going to be their life?”
In a van heading toward Seattle, silence descended as the guide turned to the eight climbers and told them they would not climb Mount Rainier. The heat dome was sending rocks and ice tumbling, he said. When they reached the city, the group searched for food and lodging. Restaurants were closed because the kitchens were too hot, Maury Wood, a business development manager from Somerville, recalled. Hotels were full with locals seeking air conditioning. “It felt apocalyptic.”
In this, what was supposed to be our summer of post-pandemic joy, we are instead stalked by fear, of the virus, once again, and increasingly, of the world itself. Climate anxiety, long building, is everywhere — it’s coming through the air, through the water, our social media feeds.
“Feeling like a great day for some climate anxiety,” Nicole Bardasz of Cambridge tweeted recently, pretty much summing up the summer of 2021.
People who used to worry about climate change in a back-of-mind, someone-will-fix-it way now sound like people who were once considered climate fanatics.
“It doesn’t matter if I reuse a straw if [environmental] policies aren’t in place,” Carvey said. “Sometimes I lose sleep. My heart rate goes up.”
“When we went into lockdown I saw how much trash we make,” said Van Delft, a storyteller and comedian. She thought about the enormous garbage patch in the Pacific Ocean with horror, and with shame. “I’ve started washing plastic baggies.”
“I feel more and more guilt,” Wood said. “I used to think, with affluence you can avoid the impacts. You can escape. But everyone is vulnerable. That is the takeaway from Seattle.”
Studies on the psychological impact of the environmental disasters are confirming what people know. “Climate change is negatively affecting the mental health and emotional well-being of people around the world,” reads a report produced by the Imperial College London’s Grantham Institute — Climate Change and Environment.
“There is a clear relationship between increased temperatures and number of suicides,” the report said. “Climate change exacerbates mental distress, particularly among young people, even for individuals who are not directly affected.”
In Cambridge, Travis Flynn read a 2020 news story that resurfaced about the “Climate Clock” in New York City — and thought about his student debt from Northeastern University
“It said we’d be out of clean drinking water in seven years,” he said. “I’m on a 10-year plan to pay back my loans.” What’s the point, he wonders. “It feels like an individual has no agency.“
Climate anxiety existed way before the pandemic, but the helpless feelings triggered by COVID-19 have “psychologically primed” people to be especially panicky about the environment, said psychiatrist Lise Van Susteren, an expert in the — growing — field of “climate psychology.”
“It may well be that [the pandemic] has disposed us psychologically to realize we are exceedingly vulnerable to things we can’t control,” she said.
A few years ago, Van Susteren started getting so many calls from people looking for therapists who would not dismiss or pathologize their climate anxiety — and attribute it to something else, like childhood bullying or an alcoholic parent — that she started an online directory of “climate aware” therapists.
It’s a joint project between the Climate Psychology Alliance North America and the Climate Psychiatry Alliance. Therapists who want to be listed must attest to the following:
“A climate-aware therapist accepts that new forms of distress are arising as a result of global crisis . . .” it reads, “and believes that the professional training of the allied mental health therapy and counseling community can attend to this distress.”
But there may not be enough mental health professionals in the world to help us.
Things are so bad, we need new words to describe what we’re experiencing, including “solastalgia,” which refers to “the pain or distress caused by the loss of a comforting place,” according to the “Handbook of Climate Psychology.” It’s a reverse form of nostalgia — you’re home, but feel homesick anyway, for how your home used to be.
Those who care about the environment and are taking action — whether as small as reusing plastic baggies, or as large as pushing for new laws — often say they have conflicting feelings.
“There is cognitive dissonance,” said Bardasz, of Cambridge, who worked to reelect Senator Ed Markey, cosponsor of the Green New Deal in the Senate.
“I believe the planet is doomed,” she said, “but I need to choose to believe that is not true and it is possible for us to mobilize and stop this somehow.”