Eco Anxiety: Climate Change Is One of the Top Health Risks in the 21st Century

by | Dec 19, 2023 | Climate change and sustainable development | 0 comments

Article by Niyah Cooper

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash


As stated by Robert J. Ursano, “Climate change is…one of the top threats to global health in the 21st century”[1]. Climate change is concerned with the large-scale, ‘long term shifts in the environment and patterns of weather’[2]. The world is continuously shifting, however, since the industrial revolution in the 1800s and thus rocketing carbon emissions, human interaction has been the main determinant of climate change. The climate crisis is anthropogenic (caused by humans): carbon dioxide from transport, burning of fossil fuels and deforestation releasing carbon dioxide. These emissions are known as greenhouse gases which trap heat in the Earth’s atmosphere leading to increased temperatures[3]. Furthermore, with the increased exploitation and consumerism of modern society, we are facing a climate emergency. This has detrimental effects on the environment and our health, both physically and mentally.


One example of rising temperatures in the environment is the melting of glaciers and sea ice. These glaciers are important in controlling the temperature on Earth; the white spots of ice are effective at reflecting heat back into space which keeps the planet cool[4]. However, with the increased temperature, these caps are melting rapidly. NOAA Arctic Report Card 2022 found that it has been the warmest seven years on record over the Arctic [5]. The melting of sea ice has negative effects: displacement and deaths of wildlife, increased sea levels leading to severe floods and fishing communities affected by the now-changing patterns of fish spawn[6]. This case portrays how human interaction negatively affects the environment; for both nature and humans.


Ulrich Beck argued that modern societies were in a new phase of development known as a ‘second modernity’ from the 1960s [7]. He believed these societies were ‘risk societies’ and were characterised by the constant presence of large risks (such as climate change) that led to society becoming more anxious. These risks are now so large they are unable to be controlled or regulated by institutions. However, it is for these large institutions and authorities to deal with their own unintended consequences and reform society; this is known as ‘reflective modernisation’ (Beck 1992)[8]. An aspect of Beck’s theory is the anxiety around these large risks; this is evident in today’s society, with the prevalence of ‘eco anxiety’. 


The effects of climate change can impact people and their health in a plethora of ways; weather-related disasters (hurricanes and forest fires) caused by climate change can impact people physically: killing and injuring those in its path. They can also jeopardise many livelihoods and impact people mentally: many adopt negative coping mechanisms and experience post-traumatic stress disorder. After a disaster, homes, businesses and infrastructure may be destroyed. This loss of infrastructure can create unemployment which may trigger money worries;  especially with poverty and lack of resistance as a driver for the severity and frequency of disasters. Therefore, there has been an increase in the literature looking at mental health disorders such as depression and suicidal thoughts in the wake of climate disasters: Kessler, R.C et al 2008 researched mental illness and suicidality after Hurricane Katrina (2005) which was one the deadliest hurricanes in US history. They found that “young people with low socio-economic status and geographically displaced people were at a high risk of anxiety disorders”[9]; with others reporting PTSD and suicidality.


In addition, climate change has also created “eco-anxiety”, a term coined by Glenn Albrecht[10]. This type of anxiety stems from the gradual shifts in climate change and the deterioration of our environment which can create a fear of the unknown for our future. There are variations in the way eco anxiety is defined but many academics refer to chronic feelings of doom and despair for their lives and the environment[11]. Eco anxiety can affect people’s tension in relationships, concentration and disturbances in sleep. Cunsolo and Ellis 2018 also explored the term “ecological grief”; this looked at intense feelings of loss over “valued species, ecosystems and landscapes”[12]. There are also feelings of helplessness associated with eco anxiety, with people believing that there is nothing they can do to reverse climate change. However, a mindset of irreversibility will only heighten these feelings. By participating in sustainable strategies, individuals can feel like they are fighting against the climate emergency. Strategies such as sustainable consumption, reducing plastic consumption[13], adopting a diet expelling meat and dairy and using public transport can all make a difference. It is also important to be educated on the ‘big players’ in the capitalist, exploitative and consumerist game which are having the biggest impact on the environment who benefit from producing these gigantic levels of carbon emissions.




















Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *