Mind Matters psychotherapist Kyle MacDonald answers your mental health questions.
Q I’m really worried about climate change, and Cyclone Gabrielle has made it worse. I can’t stop being angry at a couple of members of my family who deny climate change has anything to do with it. How can some people be in such denial about what is right in front of them?
A Language matters. We used to refer to climate change as global warming, but whenever extreme cold weather events happened, naysayers would mock those concerned about the environment.
After the events of the last month, climate change now seems too mild a descriptor. It’s why the language had already largely shifted to climate crisis - because it is.
The same can be said about the psychological impact. Much has been written about climate anxiety and its impacts on the young, who have their whole life ahead of them and feel the weight of the deepening ecological crisis that hangs like a shadow over their imagined future.
But anxiety is just one reaction.
Anxiety is, by definition, fear of things that haven’t happened yet, it is future-oriented. Yet increasingly it is becoming clear that the climate crisis is not something we are going to battle in the future, it is happening, now.
Perhaps climate distress would be a more accurate description because with distress comes the myriad ways that we as a species combat emotional pain. Most of which come under the loose category of denial.
For example, when we say “the cyclone wasn’t caused by climate change” we engage in outright denial, by twisting the facts (it is debatable whether Cyclone Gabrielle was “caused” by climate change. It isn’t debatable that the severity of the cyclone was).
Or when we argue “the response and warnings were an overreaction… we just need to carry on and learn some resilience, so don’t cancel schools, carry on regardless” we deny the risk of danger and therefore try to feel strong and powerful in the face of danger.
Another definition of anxiety is fear in the absence of anything fearful. But when there is actually a risk, labelling the distress as anxiety, and then dismissing it by focusing on solving just the anxiety is fundamentally a denial.
Think back to the first School Climate Strikes here in New Zealand, and around the world.
One of the common reactions from those opposed to young people taking such action was that by supporting them in their protest adults were fanning the fear, causing the anxiety. In these objections, the anxiety was framed as the problem and young people needed protecting from that - not the actual climate crisis.
There are, of course, other ways to manage distress, and of the range of options, denial isn’t a great choice - as it might short term solve the problem of the feelings, longer term it places us at more risk by not attending to the real problems.
Generally speaking, taking action, in this instance preparing for the worst does help, because it helps us control what we can, in the face of the uncontrollable. It has the added bonus of helping in reality too, if bad things do happen, we’re better prepared. How we respond to the climate crisis is, of course, much more complicated.
But denial of the problem has never helped anyone solve a problem.
It is imperative we take action, and all do what we can. Individual actions may not feel like much in the face of a storm, in the same way, any actions New Zealand takes on the global stage may not feel like enough.
But every little bit matters because denial might mask anxiety, and maybe make us feel better in the short term, but it also kills hope.
Hope is the opposite of anxiety, when we act as if a better future is possible it makes the present better. And if enough of us engage in hope, reject denial and embrace the needed changes, hope also becomes reality. And right now, no one can deny we need more hope.