Having been alerted to its existence by Douglas Dragonfly in this thread at Notalot, I forced myself to listen to a recent episode of the “Bristol 24/7 Behind the Headlines” podcast that discussed my least-favourite topic: climate anxiety. [Also on Spotify and perhaps elsewhere.]
The expert interviewee was Dan O’Hare from the University of Bristol, an educational psychologist who has recently written an article on some aspect of climate anxiety and young people (I don’t know exactly what, because I can’t find it). I did not bother to transcribe the interview, so my impressions of it that follow are necessarily broad-brush. I may have taken liberties with O’Hare’s exact words, but the gist is accurate, I think.
O’Hare begins with an anecdote about a schoolchild who, deep in the mire of climate anxiety, refused to get into his parents’ car so they could visit a grandparent. The car was part of the problem that the kid was anxious about; the kid was not talking nonsense, because his fears were justified. The school framed the issue as a problem with the child rather than concluding that the child’s actions were a rational reaction to a disturbing reality; O’Hare thinks they got it wrong.
Bearing in mind that the story was related to the psychologist by the school’s SENCO, we might – reading between the lines – guess that we are dealing with an autistic child, someone who has taken the reports of the “climate crisis” as literal fact, when even those of us who blather on all the time about the “climate crisis” as if we believe it implicitly recognise that the tales of imminent catastrophe are exaggerated.
An alternative hypothesis might be that the kid really did not want to get in the car [maybe for a long journey] and his rational mind provided him with a useful excuse. Either way, I don’t believe that legitimising his anxiety would have been the right way to respond to it. [Caveat: I have no expertise in psychology beyond what I call “Psychology 101,” which is a foundation course that every human has taken in observing the behaviour of others and the machinations of our own minds.]
According to O’Hare, young folks are raising our awareness of environmental issues, and our response is to “medicalise” them [my word] by labelling them with the condition “climate anxiety.” Instead, this should be considered to be a normal reaction to some “pretty scary stuff” [his phrase] that is likely to happen in the near future.
Thus it is that we reach the true dichotomy in this tale of climate anxiety: it’s either a rational response to doom impending as O’Hare thinks, or it’s an irrational response to untrue propaganda about a doom that is not at all impending as I think. Am I justified in describing climate anxiety as “irrational”? I think so, because anxiety generally is irrational. Try telling someone who is afraid of flying that the stats show that air travel is by far safer than going by car and see how far you get. Most of our anxieties do not have rational foundations. But even if we recognise that fact [again with the example of fear of flying] we cannot automagically dispel the underlying anxiety. My theory is that the best answer is to face the anxiety head on. But like most of us I prefer an avoidant approach, which deepens the anxiety even in the absence of new data.
O’Hare says that young people
suffering [not suffering; he dislikes attaching that verb] experiencing climate anxiety often know more about the “climate crisis” than the adults they interact with. So adults need to educate themselves on the topic at hand. That way, rather than be bewildered by the young person’s point of view, they can empathise with the climate anxiety experiencer and, yes, validate their fears. Better than addressing climate anxiety, according to O’Hare, would be to address the “climate crisis” by cutting carbon dioxide emissions etc. My rejoinder would be that fulfilling the wishes of the climate anxious would probably have civilisation-level effects, and not in a good way. The climate anxiety experiencer has become fixated on one answer to an enormously exaggerated problem – and it would be the wrong answer, even if the crisis was real.
But I do accept that it would be of no use to wheel out sceptics’ talking points – graphs of declining death rates or increasing literacy etc – for the same reason that the air travel safety statistics wouldn’t work. Simply saying “everything is going to be all right” won’t do either, even though everything is going to be all right.
Children, says O’Hare, find that they are not listened to by the powers that be. My answer is neither are adults. Populism is politicians doing what the people want, and I see precious little evidence of that happening. Anyway, the children’s message of existential doom absent radical change falls on deaf ears. To which we might reply that the politicians are trying not to destroy their countries while madly signalling to everyone who matters how much they care about the climate. At some stage, we sceptics think, if the politicians stray too far, they will instigate a populist uprising – something they fear far more than the “climate crisis.”
Next, according to O’Hare, climate anxiety is partly a reaction to inaction. I dispute this. It is a reaction to incessant propaganda, a victory of righteousness over objectivity, and political actions that try to display virtue while, as mentioned, not driving too close to the edge of the cliff of societal collapse. The response the climate anxious would like would see their lives take a distinct turn for the worse.
Do I have an answer? Not really. But as I put differently above, anxieties, like ghosts, thrive on rumour but die in the light. In other words, those of us who are sheltered from the climate are more likely to be anxious about it than those to whom it actually matters day to day. We are simultaneously sheltered from the climate, while constantly being bombarded by how dangerous it is becoming. This is not too dissimilar to our opinions about our immediate neighbourhoods – with parents shuttling their children from one safe haven to the next like a Chinook ferrying troops around hostile territory.
I suppose what I am saying is that schools need to get their students out into the world, preferably the natural world, so that they can discover not just how marvellous it is, but also how resilient it is. I would suggest getting them clearing scrub, making habitat piles and bonfires or digging ditches, collecting rubbish, that sort of thing – but I suspect that Health and Safety might say no.
See also a previous rant of mine on this topic, Advice for Climate Worriers.
PS. I’ve just heard on the radio that it’s anxiety week on R4’s PM show.
Tried to subscribe with two valid email addresses, got “Your subscription did not succeed, please try again with a valid email address” on both.
Can you advise?
I listened to a section of the PM programme yesterday evening, and it seemed from what was said by the two experts they had on, that climate change is one of the main drivers of anxiety among the youth. Neither interviewee, nor Ed Davis, said (so far as I can recollect) that such anxiety is irrational.
Meanwhile, from today’s Daily Sceptic:
“How Billionaires Fill the Media With Climate Fear and Panic”
By the way, does anyone know why Bristol seems to be taking over from Brighton as climate alarm central?
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catweazle, can confirm the same behaviour: I tried to subscribe on a new email address but got the same message as you. I then switched to Notalot and subscribed there with no problem at all. I will alert our webmaster and get back to you.
I will edit your message to hide your email. Commenter emails are visible to blog owners. [Update: I see you were using a different email, which is probably your dumping ground! Nevertheless, I have removed it in case it harvests spam for you.]
Mark, interesting that climate anxiety is in the forefront these days. Judith Curry is exactly right, in that the driver of such anxiety, while external, is not climate change but climate change alarm.
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Seems to be working now, I got a link to this thread.
Concerning anxiety, one day back towards the end of October 1962 we had lessons cancelled at school because as a result of the Cuban Missile Crisis standoff it was not clear whether there was any point.
So we sat and listened to the radio to see whether we were all going to suffer Mutually Assured Destruction.
Fortunately, with just 20 minutes to go, the Soviet ships carrying the missiles turned round and the strategic bombers of both the USA and USA stood down.
For many years, the (very loud) four minute nuclear attack warning siren on the local town hall was tested at 09:50 every Saturday morning, so we were continually aware of the distinct possibility of nuclear annihilation within ten minutes at the outside.
We lived with that existential threat right through much of the 1950s through to the 1970s and just shrugged and got on with our lives, so I don’t have a lot of sympathy with bedwetters getting their knickers in a twist about something that might happen some time within the next century or so.
Am I a bad person? /s
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Mark Hodgson, re your query as to Bristol, I am informed that is s big centre of trans-sexualism, so perhaps those of that persuasion are more sensitive than most to such propaganda!
Speaking from Bristol the rise in popularity of trans-sexualism is noticeable. People appear to get very offended very quickly lately.
Jit, thanks, that was an interesting read.
I really do hope that your advice is taken and that students get out and learn from experience the never ending wonders and lessons nature provides so unfailingly, day after day.