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3 August

Is climate anxiety ruining my friendships?

It is vital to speak up about climate change, but hard to know where to draw the line.

By Philippa Nuttall

“Climate Endgame: Exploring catastrophic climate change scenarios” is the cheery headline of the latest piece of climate research to hit my inbox. This scientific warning comes as the world battles heatwaves, drought, fire and floods. If we don’t all pull together we will commit “collective suicide”, says António Guterres, secretary-general of the United Nations.

Suggesting to friends during the summer holidays, however, that it would be a good idea to forget flying or curb their carnivorous cravings to save humanity is a lonely path.

The journalist and activist George Monbiot believes the media bears even more responsibility for the climate crisis than the fossil fuel industry. “The media grants a social licence to the fossil fuel industries to continue to operate,” he has argued. Some journalists, though, are trying to shed light on the science of climate change and the solutions to the warming world. But persuading people to read about climate change rather than celebrity shenanigans and sport is hard, especially in a world based on social media clicks. It is also hard to be the perennial party pooper.

The Jump, a UK grassroots movement, has come up with a plan based on scientific research that sets out six “shifts” each of us can take to help keep global warming below 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. These steps include keeping electronic products for at least seven years, taking short-haul flights only once in three years (no long-haul), eating a plant-based diet, buying no more than three new items of clothing a year and using a private car as little as possible.

While many of my friends espouse several of these ideas, they are more resistant to others. The flight thing, in particular, is a massive issue (I haven’t flown long-haul for about ten years and my last short-haul flight was from Oslo to Brussels four years ago). After Covid and, ironically for some, because of climate anxiety, many people feel the need to get away more than ever before. Other friends don’t have children, don’t eat meat, don’t drive and buy second-hand clothes. For them, flying is a guilty pleasure they feel, rightly or wrongly, that they deserve.

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Sometimes I smile and nod as they tell me about their exciting excursions, wishing I could relax and just jump on a plane without feeling like I was destroying my children’s future. “It sounds amazing,” I simper, while my brain runs its own internal monologue of “for God’s sake, you just don’t get it do you?”

This year, keeping schtum is particularly difficult. How can people say “have you seen the wildfires in France” and then pop on a plane to Paris or Perth? I try not to say anything, but it is becoming too hard. There is too much at stake not to ask “Why don’t you take the train?” or “You fly three times a month – really?”

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Yet while I gently (or not so gently) harangue my friends, I know the real issue is not their individual actions but the total lack of global leadership on climate action. Despite promises and treaties, emissions continue to rise and the impacts of a warming world get worse. As Caroline Hickman, a psychotherapist who works on climate change at the University of Bath, says, Guterres is the only leader “speaking with honesty about the seriousness” of the climate crisis.

Hickman attributes most climate anxiety not to the actual fact of a warming world, but to the lack of action from politicians to bring down emissions in line with science. It is this “juxtaposition” between events like the heatwaves and forest fires and the absence of leadership that makes people “feel insane”. Most people don’t need therapy to deal with eco-anxiety, they just need to see real steps being taken on climate change, she says. She compares the situation to the Covid crisis and the need for a “shared understanding of reality”. People may still feel “scared and upset, but at least something is being done”.

As for trying to nudge friends, colleagues or family into action, Hickman advises “small, consistent messages”. I’ll try to remember her advice next time I launch into a diatribe against frequent flyers and their massive carbon footprints.

[See also: Pascal Lamy interview: “We have to go way back to find a global picture as depressing as today”]

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