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How to save the planet: ‘Once we start thinking in terms of “What can I do?”, our opportunities are limitless’

The climate emergency is the biggest threat to our planet today yet so many of us stick our heads in the sand. But psychologists and activists insist we can make a difference – and boost our mental health by doing so

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Leaping into action – Flossie Donnelly at the Forty Foot in Sandycove, Co Dublin, during a charity clean-up. Picture by Justin Farrelly

Leaping into action – Flossie Donnelly at the Forty Foot in Sandycove, Co Dublin, during a charity clean-up. Picture by Justin Farrelly

Addressing climate chaos will benefit health, social equality and economic prosperity, Cara Augustenborg says

Addressing climate chaos will benefit health, social equality and economic prosperity, Cara Augustenborg says

As individuals we can nudge others and shift unhelpful systems, says psychologist Megan Kennedy-Woodard

As individuals we can nudge others and shift unhelpful systems, says psychologist Megan Kennedy-Woodard

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Leaping into action – Flossie Donnelly at the Forty Foot in Sandycove, Co Dublin, during a charity clean-up. Picture by Justin Farrelly

If your panic levels rocket when you hear of yet another freak weather event – flash flood, say, wildfire, or heatwave – or you see a map of the ever-shrinking Amazonian forest, or read the stats on our dwindling biodiversity, you are not alone. Your response is completely rational, given the existential threat that faces us.

In Ireland, that anxiety is feeding through to our children. Last month, a Climate and Nature Summit of more than 1,000 Irish school-age children revealed three-quarters worried about climate change.

That, in turn, builds on research by psychotherapist and climate-psychologist Caroline Hickman, who with colleagues recently surveyed 10,000 respondents aged between 16 and 25 on every continent, and found some very stark figures: nearly half reported feeling distressed or anxious about the climate in ways that affected daily life, including eating, sleeping, concentration, relationships, playing and having fun.

It’s an anxiety that 14-year-old activist Flossie Donnelly, a third-year student in Dublin, understands well. She first became really aware of climate change in 2018 when her mother showed her a video of one of Greta Thunberg’s speeches.

“That was when I realised how bad climate change was.”

Her first response was to worry. “I have had my days where I would get stressed and worried about it. I still do,” she says. But she was quick to discover that activity was the best antidote. “I worry less since I started taking action,” she adds.

This action has involved climate striking and beach cleaning, and Flossie is also a supporter of the Fifty Shades Greener schools programme.

“Once I was doing something, I felt more in control – you feel you’re helping and that gets rid of the stress. I know a lot of people feel like I do but they’re not taking action.”

It is, she says, “a blessing and a curse to be so aware. I have my days, still, but I know I’m doing something about it. We have to stay positive, because we won’t solve this if we all just get really upset.

“When I started climate striking, I began to meet like-minded people, and that helped. Standing there with a sign, people can’t not see you.”

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Did she get into trouble at school for missing days?

“Yes, but this is our future.”

 

Dr Patrick Kennedy-Williams, clinical psychologist, director of Climate Psychologists (climatepsychologists.com) and co-author of Turn the Tide on Climate Anxiety, clarifies that eco-anxiety, as we call it, isn’t a clinically diagnosable mental health disorder but it is very much manifest in our lives as “a feeling of dread, worry, anger, grief or despair about the future of an uninhabitable planet. It can feel all-consuming and result in anxiety, difficulty sleeping, and an inability to enjoy one’s life. For the public as a whole, it’s really something that has emerged in a significant way over the past five years or so.”

It’s a condition often accompanied by a sense of paralysis. “One reason is the high magnitude of the risk we face, coupled with a low sense of personal agency,” Megan Kennedy-Woodard, coaching psychologist and co-director of Climate Psychologists, says.

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As individuals we can nudge others and shift unhelpful systems, says psychologist Megan Kennedy-Woodard

As individuals we can nudge others and shift unhelpful systems, says psychologist Megan Kennedy-Woodard

As individuals we can nudge others and shift unhelpful systems, says psychologist Megan Kennedy-Woodard

“People can read terrifying news stories and not know how they can help, or feel they are too small to make a difference.

“There’s also a huge role to play in terms of how climate change is portrayed at a wider level.

“Climate communication has been difficult in the past because we have often worked under the information deficit model – this means that information flows with the expectation that once communicated it will alter behaviour in a way that is advantageous. Basically, X (climate change in this case) is bad, we need to do Y and Z (curb emissions, reduce consumption etc). But human brains don’t always work that way. We have a host of psychological defence mechanisms that prevent the message landing.”

One mechanism is head-in-the-sand denial. Why do we still make choices that are short-sighted and contrary to the interests of the planet and ourselves – voting down cycle lanes for example?

“Denial can be a powerful thing,” Kennedy-Williams says. “We are very good at both knowing and not knowing at the same time. We see this with our health behaviours and the same can be said for our climate behaviours.

"Merely knowing the dangers, and the actions we can and should be taking, doesn’t always lead to lasting behaviour change – this is hard for humans. It’s easier to downplay our role in things than it is to make changes to our lives.”

Overcoming apathy

About three years ago, the focus shifted within climate activism in Ireland from the need for individual action to a broader view that ‘this isn’t an individual issue, it’s a corporate/ government issue. We can’t fix it, only they can…’ This is true, to a large extent, but we need to see our engagement with this differently.

“Individual action is never going to be enough,” agrees Dr Cara Augustenborg, environmental policy fellow at University College Dublin and presenter of the Down to Earth show on Newstalk. “Even if I make every change I possibly can as an individual, I am still not going to get my footprint down low enough to tackle climate change without system change.

“We need to ensure that our country’s power and transport systems are fossil fuel-free and that our food is produced more sustainably and our land is managed better to help sequester carbon. An individual simply can’t make those things happen on their own. So while we do all need to do our best to lower our individual impact on the planet, we also need to demand much bigger actions from governments and companies at the same time.

"As climate journalist Bill McKibben said, when it comes to climate action, ‘the best thing an individual can do is stop being an individual’.

“He also said we should ‘get behind where the energy already is’. If you’re not a member of an NGO that is fighting for climate action yet, you should be,” Augustenborg advises. “They do amazing work on a shoestring budget and they follow developments in climate policy closely so you don’t have to. There are many NGOs working on climate policy in Ireland, most of whom are part of the Stop Climate Chaos coalition to ensure they work together effectively. Get behind that energy and join at least one of those organisations where the individual voice can be amplified as part of a collective.”

“Don’t become a nation of giver-outers,” is the advice from Clare Watson, research support officer at University College Cork, and focused on community engagement on climate change and energy. “Everyone needs to take responsibility. I know that’s a tall order, especially if you don’t feel everyone else is following suit. But don’t get caught up in the ‘no one else is…’ We shouldn’t blame or judge people for not doing their bit at home, when the system isn’t changing fast enough. We need to listen, and have empathy. None of this is easy to do. We’re all going to have to shift in our lives.”

There is, she says, “a finite pool of worry, and if we are already worried about other aspects of our lives” – for example, our finances stretching to the end of the month – “there will be limited appetite for carbon taxes. In that case, people need to be helped and supported. They need help to make changes. For example, the 500,000 homes to be retro-fitted to an energy-rating of BER2 or above by 2030 – there has to be financial support for that.

“And an emphasis on the upskilling and retraining that will be required to carry it out – that’s a positive; local jobs will be created out of that. We need to make noise about the good things that will happen, not just the bad things.”

It is, she says (gently), “a cop-out to say, ‘what can I do as one person?’ As individuals, we all have a vested interest – as parents, grandparents, citizens – so don’t wait for someone else to act. Go to your neighbours, set up a little group, use your vote, lobby your political representatives.”

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Addressing climate chaos will benefit health, social equality and economic prosperity, Cara Augustenborg says

Addressing climate chaos will benefit health, social equality and economic prosperity, Cara Augustenborg says

Addressing climate chaos will benefit health, social equality and economic prosperity, Cara Augustenborg says

Sustainable living writer and speaker Elaine Butler of livinglightlyinireland.com agrees: “For some reason people vastly underestimate their ability to affect change. Maybe people use it as an excuse to do nothing, like some sort of warped addiction to their comfort zone.”

As for what we can do, “If I was to summarise it all into one phrase,” she continues, “it would be this: ‘use less’ – less food, less clothing, less energy, less water. That might sound like some sort of penance. If it does, it’s only because you’ve been subjected to the dogma of excess from consumption-based companies for decades. When you do consume, do so consciously.

“One of the good things about living in a capitalist society is that we get to vote every time we spend a euro. So when you buy a trendy top from a fast fashion brand that cares little about environmental issues you’re saying ‘yes, please’ to having more of it.”

And raise your voice.

“People seem to have this idea that politicians pre-empt problems and lead the way.” The reality is, says Butler, that “politicians only ever enact policies that are palatable to the majority of the electorate, to do otherwise is political suicide. This means that an issue has to be already at the forefront of people’s minds before it gets converted into law, which means that politicians are actually at the end of an awfully long process.

“Environmentalism is a perfect example of this. For decades scientists and activists have been warning us about climate change, but successive governments did nothing, because the electorate really didn’t care. Now they do and are acting on it, we’re starting to see changes.”

 

In terms of our collective response, Megan Kennedy-Woodard says, “We always advocate for hope and optimism. We are not naïve or downplaying the severity of the climate crisis, but we understand that we need to engage everyone.

“Being more eco is actually quite easy. Once we start thinking in terms of ‘What can I do?’ our opportunities are limitless. Vote with your wallet, divest your assets, like savings and pensions, from banks supporting the fossil fuel industry, think about how you travel, be mindful of your consumption. There is so much we as individuals can do but also so much we can do to nudge others and shift unhelpful systems.”

For Elaine Butler, hope comes from the confirmation in the most recent UN IPCC report that “keeping climate change within reasonable limits is possible and that even if we reach a warming of 1.8°C, we can bring it back down to 1.5°C with the right mitigating actions. Hopefully [media coverage of that report] will translate into actions because that’s what we’re really missing. It’s a pity we have to shock people for it to happen, but it is what it is.”

Today, COP26, the UN climate conference billed as “the last chance to save the planet”, kicks off in Glasgow, and there is real hope that substantial progress may be made towards keeping temperatures at that crucial 1.5°C.

Still, there is a great deal to be done. As Dr Augustenborg says: “I know we are able to make the changes we need because all the technology already exists to do so and all the things we need to do to address climate chaos have lots of other benefits regarding our health, social equality and economic prosperity.

“I am less hopeful about our ability to change fast enough to address the worst impacts of climate change. We’re at a crucial tipping point in Ireland now due to the new climate legislation [Climate Action Bill] that was just passed, which should make it almost impossible for future governments to ignore the climate crisis.

“I really believe this legislation could finally bend the curve in reducing Ireland’s greenhouse gas emissions, but well-resourced groups who depend on being able to continue to emit such gases are planning to fight this change tooth-and-nail to protect their economic interests.

“I’m not yet sure which side will win, and such fighting only delays action further. However, even getting this new legislation enacted was a major victory.”

Health check: how you can manage eco anxiety

1. Notice how you are feeling, says Megan Kennedy-Woodard. Your negative emotions are a rational response to the biggest threat we have faced, and they might include grief, anger, fear, powerlessness.

These can make you feel quite paralysed. When you begin to take action, you assume some control and this can lead to feeling motivated, optimistic, connected and proud.

2. Talk to others about your feelings. Connecting with others is vital and provides not only support but it can generate group actions.

3. Practice self-care. Take social media breaks. Reconnect with nature and keep physical and emotional balance.

4. Think about where your strengths and values are. What do you care about and what are you good at?

5. Set short-term and long-term goals. Not, ‘I will save the planet next Tuesday’ but things like, ‘I will raise money for a tree planting programme by running in a 10km race that is happening next month.’ Tell people about the work you are doing and celebrate your success.


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