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COP26: feeling hopeless about the climate crisis? Here’s how to deal with it

Tweeting about the end of the world may make you feel better in the short term, but engaging with ‘climate doom’ could be more damaging than you think. Here, four climate activists and experts explain how to combat feelings of hopelessness in the fight against climate change.

COP26 is finally here, and the climate crisis is once again making headlines. As the landmark Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report revealed earlier this year, the world is at a breaking point – and the conversations that are set to take place in Glasgow over the next month will decide which direction the planet will be heading in.

If you’re finding it all a lot to take in, you’re not alone. The reality of the climate crisis is, quite simply, terrifying – and with so much bad news making headlines every day, it can feel easier to disengage or give in to the all-encompassing sense of doom they provoke.  

But no matter how tempting it may be to curl up in a ball and tweet about the end of the world, the reality of the climate crisis isn’t going anywhere. And while using doom-centric language on social media may make you feel better in the short-term, it can actually be detrimental to the climate movement as a whole. Indeed, not only can it discourage others from engaging with the issue, but subscribing to the narrative that the planet is ‘doomed’ removes some of the pressure from the leaders and businesses who are causing the problem in the first place. 

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That’s not to say that deciding to engage with the climate crisis is easy – especially if you struggle with eco-anxiety. But there are ways to overcome climate doom and face the facts without feeling completely overwhelmed – and that’s where this article comes in.

Ahead of the influx of climate-related news we can expect to see over the next couple of weeks, Stylist spoke to a number of brilliant climate activists, scientists and professionals to find out more about the problem of ‘climate doom’, and how to overcome those feelings so you can engage in a healthy and productive way. Here’s what they had to say. 

Dominique Palmer, climate justice activist and host of Zurich UK’s recent Youth Against Carbon conference 

Dominique Palmer
Dominique Palmer.

“I understand why people feel a sense of climate doom and anxiety, especially young people, as it’s the world we’re going to be inheriting. I previously felt a lot of anxiety before I became a climate activist, and it’s pretty terrifying – I think if people didn’t feel anything in response to it, I think that wouldn’t be normal, rather than them being anxious.

“But I also think this doomism is hindering action. Doom pushes people into giving up and thinking there’s no hope or future, but we don’t get to give up right now – we’re at such a crucial point in history where we really need people to band together collectively. 

“One of the things I did when I had those feelings of climate anxiety was try and educate myself a bit more about it and the solutions – what people are already doing and what’s really happening. I think the educational side of it is really important because it gives you a better grasp of everything but you also get to see what needs to be done, and that turns your thinking more towards the future.

Taking action was probably the biggest thing that helped my eco-anxiety, because I was just surrounded by an incredible community that is fighting for the same things that I am. I think taking action is important because we do all need to take action, and if you’re doing something for the planet you’ll feel so much better already and you won’t feel like the weight of the world is on your shoulders.

“Finally, changing my relationship with the natural world has really helped. Connecting with nature and taking a step out of the hustle and bustle gets you out of your head and reminds you of the world we’re trying to protect as well.” 

Alice Bell, co-director of the climate change charity Possible and author of Our Biggest Experiment: A History Of The Climate Crisis 

Alice Bell
Alice Bell.

“Feeling scared, sad and angry about climate change is a totally reasonable response. And I think it’s important that we let those feelings out.

“In the late 2000s there was a lot of despondency about climate change, especially after the failure of the 2009 UN talks in Copenhagen. At the time, psychologists were keen to point out that pessimism wasn’t helpful. Shouting about doom and gloom can enrage a small base, but it puts most people off. Moreover, it brings everyone down so they feel they can’t do anything, and then we stay there, sitting depressed and not doing much. 

“So, the climate movement started beating a more optimistic drum, talking about all the good things that were happening – the massive shifts in solar and wind power, for example – and I think this really helped a lot of people roll up their sleeves and get on with a lot of vital work. It’s one of the reasons, for example, that we had such a positive outcome in the 2015 Paris talks, I think. 

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“But a positive spin can gloss over a lot of the feelings of pain and anguish many of us have around climate change. I think that was bubbling under the surface, and it’s maybe one of the reasons the XR protests sparked a few years ago. Some of us just needed to stand in the street and howl. I also worry that a lot of people saw the climate activists being positive and getting on with their work and thought, ‘Ah, it’s ok then,’ and it’s really not ok. 

“One of the slippery things about the climate crisis is it’s not a simple pass or fail issue; we are monumentally screwed but also there is still loads we can do to. Although I totally understand why people feel despair right now – I do too, often – we’re still a long way from game over. I also think it’s worth remembering that not everyone has the luxury of despair – giving up on climate action is a death sentence for some people – people who live in parts of the world more vulnerable to climate impacts, younger people who are more likely to live further into a hotter future. It’s vital we see every opportunity for action and seize it.

“The antidote to despair is always action. It’s a cliche, but it’s also true – ‘Be the change you want to see in the world’. If we’re going to get out of this mess, we need to do something about it, so let’s get on with it. Not only will you be making a positive step to changing things, but you’ll find it lifts your spirits too. It’s amazing how true that is.

“The other thing to remember is that the climate crisis is a terribly serious business, but taking action on it doesn’t have to be. You can have an absolute ball taking action on climate change, whether that’s cooking up a plant-based feast for your mates to encourage them to cut back on meat, planning your next holiday by train, working out the best way to charm your local council into providing better cycling infrastructure or setting up a local clothes swap.” 

Kehkashan Basu, founder and president of the Green Hope Foundation and youth climate and human rights activist 

Kehkashan Basu.
Kehkashan Basu.

“It saddens me to see that people interpreted the IPCC report with doom-centric language, rather than seeing it for the wakeup call that it actually is. While it is important for people to be aware of the horrific impacts of climate change across the world, especially in the Global South, it is also crucial that this serves as a call to action that empowers people to take action to mitigate climate change.

“The report should not be used for its shock value – rather, it should form the basis of meaningful actions. As someone who has been working on mitigating climate change impacts at a grassroots level for more than a decade, I find it quite odd that we should even need an IPCC report to goad us into action. Possibly, out here in the Western world, we still see climate change as a distant threat. But to the people in the islands of Kiribati or the coastal communities in Bangladesh, every day takes them closer to their doom. Therefore, we need concrete actions instead of just words. 

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“I think that it is important to remember that every drop makes an ocean and that addressing a complex problem like climate change is not going to yield results right away. Once we realise that, it will be much easier to address and implement adaptation mechanisms. 

“Moreover, a climate activist is not just someone who strikes and shouts slogans – that is a very rigid, Western way of looking at activism. Instead, working within one’s communities, educating others, planting and reforestation and taking simple, everyday actions are what makes a climate activist and these small measured steps are needed to build a larger collective that helps mitigate climate change.” 

Scarlett Westbrook, climate justice activist and writer 

Scarlett Westbrook
Scarlett Westbrook.

“I understand where people are coming from with the doom-centric language because obviously it’s really scary – but I do think it’s slightly detrimental because when we put that stuff online it’s not politicians who are going to see it, it’s ordinary people.

“We’ve all absorbed climate guilt throughout our whole lives – when we first learn about the climate crisis, we usually do so through the idea of our ‘carbon footprint’, which is actually a concept propped up by fossil fuel corporations. So, I think we need to question that, and acknowledge that it’s not our fault – 100 companies are responsible for 71% of emissions, 15% of the UK’s flyers take 70% of flights, etc. This isn’t a problem that we’ve created, and by taking on climate guilt, we’re buying into an idea that is almost undermining how much resistance we can put up to it if we’re not understanding what the root cause is. 

“Because of this it’s really easy to buy into climate doomism, but the best thing to do is take action. That doesn’t necessarily have to be by going to a protest. Even if we do have complete climate collapse society isn’t going to disappear, we’re still going to be around, so we need to take care of our community, too; taking action isn’t just going to protests or writing to your MP, it’s also donating to a food bank or helping out people in your local community – there are just so many things that we can do and they don’t need to be within the general scope of what we see climate action as.

“I think lots of people feel scared about the climate because they feel powerless, and the best way to combat powerlessness is by doing something.”

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Images: Zurich UK & David Cotter/Alice Bell/Green Hope Foundation/Scarlett Westbrook & Krista Starling