Climate emotions in a post-COP world: tips for overcoming the overwhelm

By Jessica Brown.
Trigger warning: contains doomism but also lots of hope!

Those climate feels are normal


Congratulations on making it to the end of 2021 in one piece - a real-life disaster movie box set of a year.

From a pandemic to a "code red for humanity", with our "last, best chance" at a brighter future being the UN COP26 Climate Change Conference. People marched, the fossil fuel lobbyists pandered, and our leaders dragged the chain. It all felt gravely unjust and grossly greenwashed, stirring up a spectrum of shadowy emotions. And I know I'm far from the only one feeling these feels.

Around one in three New Zealanders are worried about our changing climate. Amongst young people, that rate is closer to four out of five. A massive 56% feel that the future is doomed (and measures of climate anxiety don't always account for the billions of people with other priority worries - like surviving today). 
 
Catching the feels for the climate is now a new normal part of the human experience. 

A familiar post-COP comedown 


The climate hype people have been on form: scientists warned us of the need for urgent action, David Attenborough's rousing speech went viral, Prince William debuted a "snazzy new look", Obama did what he does best, and climate activists took over Emma Watson's Instagram
 
I was sold on COP26 being our transformative moment. I didn't pause to consider what would happen if we squandered it. I told myself that this year, a full 26 COP conferences after the first time world leaders met to address our changing climate, things we're going to be different. 
 
Now, with the sour aftertaste of empty promises, I'm feeling the COP comedown. The shininess of all that tokenism we liked and shared and tweeted has worn off. Our flagrant disregard for science has me feeling seedy. We've kicked the can down a road that sacrifices frontline communities, and it's nauseating. 
 
I should have known better. I've come down with post-COP disillusionment before in the aftermath of COP19 in Warsaw. The inaction burnt me out, costing me a job at a climate consultancy in Copenhagen. The bitterness took a summer under the New Zealand sun to thaw. I left the industry for seven years and, after decades of hot air, I still lack faith in world leaders to pull finger.
 

With some newfound hope


From the depths of my disenfranchisement, I founded Co-Benefits, this non-profit climate crowdfunding platform. Around it, we've built a community of passionate New Zealanders. Each is generously giving a little a week to fund impactful climate projects in communities where we can do the greatest good. 

Doing so gave me hope. Knowing there are people eager to take agency makes me feel less overwhelmed by the enormity of our changing planet and the inaction of our leaders. It turns out, it is also helping our growing community feel the same.

And we have good reason to feel optimistic. COP was a death rattle of the old oil guard. All the marches and the mainstream media coverage are proof of a growing groundswell of climate consciousness. We're living through a global climate awakening, and we're waking our leaders up to the future we want, slowly but surely.   
 

Tips for learning to live with those feelings 


For me, action has always been a convenient remedy, but it's not the only cure. Recent studies have shown that action aside, making the space to own up to those emotions and work through them makes it possible to harness their power for good. 
 
So, with another COP dredging up familiar feels, I've decided to lean into those heavy emotions and share other ways that have helped me live with them. Why? Take it from Rachel Carson, the foremother of the environmental movement, who said, "It is not half so important to know as to feel". It turns out that feeling the most can if we're careful, lead to doing the most good for the planet.

1. Know that the feels are healthy


For whoever needs to hear this: it's not bad to feel apathetic or weird to feel angst. There is nothing inherently wrong with the emotions uprooted by our changing planet. In fact, the climate feels are a rational response to realising that we are in the middle of an unfolding emergency. As the environmentalist, Bill McKibben writes, "climate anxiety makes good sense".
 
If anything, feeling the uncomfortable feels is a unique kind of morality. It's proof that we're attached to life on this planet we call home and that we want a fairer future. As Leslie Davenport puts it, "it means you care, and you should take comfort in that."
 

2. Cosy up to the discomfort


It's not easy to cosy up to our climate emotions and sit with the doomsday images that come to mind. But if you're feeling brave, studies show that learning to shift that energy towards action can be a positive motivator for change. Owning our climate emotions helps us build resilience, which researcher Susanne Moser calls the 'adaptive mind'.

In the coming years, there will be more bad climate news (along with the good). Building a tolerance for those emotions means learning to live with our different states of mind, rather than letting the darker ones consume us (and us consume a whole jar of Nutella (I like to eat my emotions)). 

3. (Inclusive) action is a cure


"Action is the antidote to despair", as the saying goes, and "all it takes is one little act". We know it's true; picking up a piece of rubbish on the beach feels good. 
 
But climate action has an inclusivity image problem. Despite what your Instagram feed is selling you, there is no one right climate action for everybody. My climate actions will be different from yours, and yours will be different from Leonardo DiCaprios because we are all humans full of nuance living our nuanced lives. 
 
Maddie Gray writes so beautifully on this in this blog post. Takeaways: if you're not acting out of a place of joy and love, your actions are going to be unsustainable. The goal is progress, not perfection.

4. Give nature a hug


Getting amongst nature is a simple mindset shifter. It helps put our tiny human existence into perspective, lets us celebrate what we have (rather than what we're losing), and reminds us why we care so deeply.
 
A swim always does the trick for me, but it could be something as mundane as looking out the window. The Japanese practise forest bathing or shinrin-yoku. Pattie Gonia loves a hike.

5. Prioritise your wellbeing


Susanne Moser called it when she wrote that "burnt out people aren't equipped to serve a burning planet". I wholeheartedly agree: you can't care for the earth or others long term unless you also care for yourself. Whatever you do that helps you find that balance counts as climate action. Facemask for the future? Why not. 

For me, it's yoga; something research shows can help reduce stress, improve your mental and physical health. I use it as a pause to stop my mind from racing: it lets me lose sight of the future and focus on the present. It's something we indulged in together with The Space as part of the Auckland Climate Festival, but I know it's not for everyone. 

6. Talk about how you're feeling


"There's a strange silence around climate and environmental issues because people think it's depressing, or they don't know where to start", notes Dr Ayana Elizabeth Johnson. But there is no good reason for you to endure your eco-anxiety alone in your head.
 
Collectives, like Co-Benefits, exist to talk about and take action from those emotions. If you're not ready for a two-way conversation, resources like Call Your Mother let you vent. Research shows that sharing your thoughts and talking through your fears can help support climate-related mental wellness. Apparently, "in solidarity there's some solace".

7. Help others


It's easy to forget that the climate crisis isn't just about one person; it's about everyone. Distracted by shopping bags and showerheads, we can lose sight of the bigger picture. In reality, the climate crisis is already claiming homes, livelihoods and jobs, and no bamboo toothbrush we buy will change that. 

Meaningful change happens when we shift our focus towards the wider impact of our actions - both for the planet and our mindsets. Studies show that helping others is way more gratifying than fixating solely on ourselves and can improve mental health. People who are generous, compassionate and caring are generally happier than those that aren't.
 
It's what we're all about at Co-Benefits - making it easy for individuals to help communities at the very frontline of the climate crisis. We're helping people take feel-good climate action, frontline communities build resilience, and us all shape a more liveable future. Our members tell us they feel empowered, supported, less overwhelmed and more motivated by doing so. 

8. Get help yourself


If you need support, don't hesitate to ask for it.  The New Zealand Psychological Society has established a Climate Psychology Taskforce to make climate-aware therapy a priority. Here are some places to reach out to if you need to talk:

Lucid Psychotherapy in Christchurch specialises in 'eco-therapy.
Lifeline: 0800 543 354 or text HELP to 4357
Healthline: 0800 611 116
Depression Helpline: 0800 111 757 (24/7) or text 4202
Youthline: 0800 376 633 (24/7) or free text 234 (8am-12am), or email talk@youthline.co.nz
What's Up: online chat (3pm-10pm) or 0800 WHATSUP / 0800 9428 787 helpline (12pm-10pm weekdays, 3pm-11pm weekends)
Kidsline (ages 5-18): 0800 543 754 (24/7)
Rainbow Youth: (09) 376 4155

Feel better soon :)


I hope this has helped turn your anxieties into action for a better world for all of us. If you have any other tips or just want to chat, don't hesitate to reach out to me at jess@thecobenefits.org. I'd love to hear from you. 

 

About the author 


Written for Co-Benefits by Jessica Brown, founder of Co-Benefits in an eco-anxious flurry.


Climate emotion resources


Podcast: Facing It by Dr Jennifer Atkinson
Newsletter: Gen Dred by Britt Wray
Book: A Field Guide to Climate Anxiety by Sarah Jaquette Ray
Book: All The Feelings Under the Sun by Leslie Davenport
Book / Project: The All We Can Save Project by Dr Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and Dr Katherine Wilkinson
Organisation: Force of Nature (and all of Clover Hogan's talks on YouTube)

Join the collective

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