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Friday, June 21, 2024

The Climate Anxiety Discussion Has a Whiteness Problem

Sarah Jaquette Ray has spent her career etching out an academic niche at the intersection of environmental issues and social justice. In the late 2010s, as concern around the climate crisis finally began to swell toward today’s crescendo, Ray, a professor of environmental studies at California State Polytechnic University, Humboldt, turned her focus toward a relatively new phenomenon that had entered the discourse: climate anxiety—the “chronic fear of environmental doom.” As Ray began to write and talk about climate anxiety, she very quickly noticed that the people interested in her work shifted. “What happened? It got a lot whiter,” she says.

A growing discomfort prompted her to pen an opinion piece for Scientific American in March 2021, in which she expressed concern about what she dubbed the “unbearable whiteness” of the climate anxiety conversation. In her words, she was “sounding the alarm” that if marginalized people continued to be left out of the discussion, climate anxiety could manifest as fear or anger against marginalized communities and society would forgo the intersectional approach needed to take action against the climate crisis.

She wanted to capture the ways in which “white emotions can take up all the oxygen in the room.” The term climate anxiety itself seemed to mean much more to the white and wealthy experiencing an existential threat for the very first time. Climate justice writer Mary Annaïse Heglar has dubbed this “existential exceptionalism”—when the privileged represent climate change as humanity’s first existential crisis, effectively scrubbing away centuries of oppression that very much targeted the existence of people of color and other marginalized populations.

Ray’s work has been “really important and provocative for getting the much-needed critical questions opened up about who is being emphasized in the conversation about climate anxiety,” says Britt Wray, a human and planetary health fellow at Stanford University and author of the new book Generation Dread: Finding Purpose in an Age of Climate Crisis. Wray’s own more recent research shows that while white people might make up the majority of voices in the conversation, climate anxiety is a phenomenon that does not discriminate by race, class, or geography.

In 2021, Wray and her colleagues published a study that surveyed 10,000 young people (between the ages of 16 and 25) in diverse settings around the world, from Nigeria to India, the United Kingdom, and Brazil. They found that more than 45 percent of the participants said their feelings about the climate crisis were negatively impacting their ability to function on a daily basis—eating, going to work, sleeping, studying. And when researchers looked at countries where climate disasters have already become more intense, such as Nigeria, the Philippines, and India, the proportion reporting distress was much higher—it hovered around 75 percent of the respondents in some of these places. “It really points out the inequities and injustices wrapped up in climate anxiety as we understand how it manifests in people’s lives,” says Wray.

Part of the reason certain groups have dominated the conversation could simply come down to language. The reality is that what the term “climate anxiety” means to a white middle-class European might differ completely from what it means to a poor farmer in Lagos. Why somebody might say that they’re experiencing anxiety is derived from a mishmash of preformed notions of what anxiety is, their background, and what words are available to them. “Climate anxiety, as a term, is very privileged,” says Ray. “Not to mention all the emotions that we don’t even have language for, right?”

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This chimes with the findings of Mitzi Jonelle Tan, a climate justice activist from Metro Manila in the Philippines. In November 2020, the Philippines was hit by two back-to-back typhoons, prompting Tan’s organization—Youth Advocates for Climate Action Philippines—to spring into action to feed the communities left hungry. They also then asked people how they felt after the event. “Not a lot of people actually talked about the anxiety and the trauma that they experienced,” Tan says. She thinks this can be attributed in part to the idea of Filipino resilience, which can be a positive thing, but also to the fact that mental health is not talked about a lot in the Philippines. “And so some people don’t even have the words for it because it’s not correlated in people’s minds.”

There are ways of getting around the linguistic narrowness and relativity of the terminology to get a better picture of the mental repercussions of the climate crisis. Amruta Nori-Sarma is an assistant professor in environmental health at Boston University who studies the relationship between climate change and mental health in vulnerable communities. When conducting research in India, her team relied on basic mental health questionnaires, rather than asking people outright whether they had experienced climate-related effects on their mental health.

What these communities face is not an amorphous threat to their children’s children; they are already battling extreme, record-breaking heat waves. Yet these people might not classify any negative response to such events as climate anxiety. “People don’t necessarily understand trauma, even if they’ve been through trauma—they may not have that same word for it,” she says.

And that’s why the way of tackling the mental fallout of the climate crisis is not going to be one-size-fits-all. “There’s not necessarily going to be a solution that works uniformly for everybody, including people living in the US and people living in India and people in the Philippines,” says Nori-Sarma.

But Wray and Ray reserve optimism that the conversation will continue to evolve—and that it will increasingly recognize and address its own privilege. “One of the things that can happen is we have a much more robust conversation about all of the emotions that people who are actually experiencing climate change are feeling,” says Ray. But at the same time, she believes we shouldn’t reject climate anxiety as an all-encompassing category for thinking about the mental health impacts of the climate crisis. As a tool for mobilizing people to respond to climate change, “it’s actually very effective,” she says.

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