Climate anxiety: from feeling powerless to taking action

Climate anxiety: from feeling powerless to taking action

I suffered from climate anxiety long before I had a name for it. I cannot remember a time I didn’t love the environment, and especially animals.

I was only eight when I learned about extinction and climate change and became highly alarmed. For a long time, I felt largely powerless and torn about the best way to address these issues. Then I discovered ecotheology and made it my mission to encourage the church to better live out their call to care for God’s beloved creation, including taking action on climate change. Founding the Five Leaf Eco-Awards and seeing the amazing things some churches were doing and taking action really helped me to manage my climate anxiety – but it never goes away.

Eventually I started hearing about others suffering from similar anxiety, grief, existential dread and more due to climate change. When people who care about the environment gather, this is often a grim conversation, or a dark elephant in the room. These feelings have only become worse over the last decade. The building frustration, anger and desperation (for ourselves, our children, our families) often drives us to tears as well as further action.

Becoming friends with Dr. Byron Smith, whose PhD focused on emotional responses to climate change, was eye opening. Chatting, we realised that climate anxiety and mental health were rapidly growing issues, including in our church communities. We reflected that many of those providing pastoral care in our churches – ministers, chaplains, pastoral care practitioners and pastoral care leaders – were likely unequipped for helping people deal with these needs. We wondered about giving them the opportunity to hear from psychologists and experts in the field, to help them address and prepare for this. The 2019 Climate Pastoral Care Training Day was born.

In preparation for the training, I started asking church friends to write anonymous case studies about the climate anxiety they had encountered in their friends or work. There were lots of stories, and they are still coming in – from the minister with a young couple in his congregation who just had a baby and are now panicking about what kind of future their child will have; from the parent who had to spend the whole school holidays helping her child process the reality and implications of climate change after learning about it at school, or from the Uniting Church high school students who told me they don’t know if they will be able to go to university or pursue the careers that they want, because the threat of climate change and its impacts seem so immanent.

Then the bushfires changed everything. For last year’s event, I had to make the case that this was an issue the church needs to address. For this year’s Climate Pastoral Care Conference 2020, no one has needed convincing. We have all seen the devastating impacts of bushfires made worse by climate change. Hundreds died (mostly from the smoke), thousands were evacuated, and millions watched and were affected. Some of these affects were physical, but many others were psychological and impacted on people’s mental health. Anecdotally, climate anxiety spiked to new heights early this year, and my psychologist and counsellor friends working in climate mental health started getting a flood of requests for talks and appointments.

This year, I’m hoping we will also have a flood of people at our conference, particularly ministry agents and leaders from across the church. 

We will have Dr. Rebecca Huntly, one of Australia’s most experienced social researchers talking about how best to communicate on climate.

These are the three focus areas of our conference: climate anxiety and pastoral care, climate communication and church climate action.  

The Climate Pastoral Care Conference runs from 30 July to 1 August. For more information, and to register, visit the official website here.

Jessica Morthorpe is a Uniting Earth Advocate


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