The existential threat posed by the climate crisis has ‘significantly’ raised levels of eco-anxiety – the chronic fear of environmental doom – particularly among young people, and is likely to be damaging to individuals and society, experts have warned.
Writing in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) in a special edition on the climate, health experts from Imperial College London say recognition of eco-anxiety and its psychological impacts is increasing, but leaders are still failing to address the worsening environment crisis.
Citing the IPCC’s latest report, described as “code red for humanity” by the UN, Professor Mala Rao, and Richard Powell, both experts on public health, said: “For the eco-anxious, more concerning than even this apocalyptic news is the extraordinary level of indifference and banality with which the climate crisis is treated by many others, including those in positions of influence.”
Eco-anxiety is disproportionately affecting children, young people and “the communities with the least resources to overcome the adverse consequences of the climate crisis”.
They warn that ignoring the rise of eco-anxiety “risks exacerbating health and social inequalities between those more or less vulnerable to these psychological impacts,” while the socioeconomic effects, which they say remain largely hidden and unquantified, “will add considerably to the national costs of addressing the climate crisis”.
Ahead of the Cop26 summit in Glasgow next month they are calling on leaders to “recognise the challenges ahead, the need to act now, and the commitment necessary to create a path to a happier and healthier future, leaving no one behind.”
The article points to a 2020 survey of child psychiatrists in England showing that more than half (57 per cent) are seeing children and young people distressed about the climate crisis and the state of the environment.
It also highlights a recent international survey of climate anxiety in young people aged 16 to 25 which revealed that the psychological (emotional, cognitive, social, and functional) burdens of the climate crisis are “profoundly affecting huge numbers of these young people around the world”.
The experts suggest these findings offer insights into how young people’s emotions are linked with their feelings of betrayal and abandonment by governments and adults.
They suggest governments are seen as failing to respond adequately, leaving young people with “no future” and “humanity doomed”.
In order to tackle and alleviate the rising levels of climate anxiety they suggest people of all ages should have dependable sources of information on the crisis and increased exposure to the natural world.
“The best chance of increasing optimism and hope in the eco-anxious young and old is to ensure they have access to the best and most reliable information on climate mitigation and adaptation,” they explain.
“Especially important is information on how they could connect more strongly with nature, contribute to greener choices at an individual level, and join forces with like-minded communities and groups.”
The authors concluded: “The climate crisis is an existential threat, and fearfulness about the future cannot be fully tackled until a common united global strategy is put in place to address the root cause, global warming, and to give everyone - especially the young and the most vulnerable communities - the hope of a better future.”
In an editorial to mark the journal’s special issue, the BMJ said time is running out prevent the damage done by humanity to our planet, and they call on health professionals to act now, both individually and by holding organisations and governments to account.
“The evidence is clear: setting targets is no longer enough,” they warn.
“We need to recognise and communicate the harms to health of the climate emergency, create guidance on how to adapt to the change that cannot be prevented, and prevent further damage through mitigation strategies and by motivating behaviour change.”
The editorial suggests that health professionals can take the lead on making services more sustainable through reducing overdiagnosis and overtreatment in healthcare, eliminating waste, streamlining services, and better managing suppliers and procurement.
The piece also says those working in the NHS and other organisations, such as medical royal colleges, the BMA, and local government, must take responsibility for reaching their environmental targets.