Holly-Anna Peterson, CCA member and mental health professional, writes about climate anxiety:
In the face of climate emergency, the question has been raised about how best to
communicate this threat to members of the public. Some voices have argued that to
“tell the truth”, as Extinction Rebellion urges, is too much for the public to emotionally
digest and that doing this risks causing people unnecessary distress. Due to this
perspective, many have taken to watering down the message – painting climate
change as a distant threat and offering the public half-baked, rose-tinted solutions.
But how effective is this softly-softly approach at relieving climate anxiety?
People become distressed when there is a disconnect between a perceived threat
and their ability to effectively deal with that threat. While down-playing the climate
emergency may be one way of reducing this disconnect, the problem is that you can
only keep people blissfully ignorant for so long. The scientific evidence of climate
breakdown is becoming ever clearer, as seen in the three reports from the
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change over the last 12 months. Its effects are
playing out in real time for all to see – even in the usually mild climate of the UK, last
year saw a scorching heatwave and 2019 is on course for being the hottest on
The cautious approach might be well-intended, however when people wake up to the
climate time-bomb at their bedside, equipped with only bite-sized solutions, this
results in feelings of distress or hopelessness. Working in the mental health sector, I
have witnessed this first-hand with patients, some of whom have described feelings
of desperation. People have spent years writing to their MPs, going on marches and
signing petitions and not getting the change needed. Urging them to do more of the
same is not only ineffective but, I would argue, unethical.
The important aspect of the Extinction Rebellion movement is that we are called not
only to tell the truth, but to act as though that truth is real. To relieve climate anxiety,
people need solutions which are proportionate to the problems they face. If we look
at the social justice movements of the last two centuries, change has happened
because a small percentage of the population (usually around 3-4%) have partaken
in non-violent direct action – a tactic specifically designed to make those in power to pay attention and implement the systemic changes we need. While some may
respond with shock at the Extinction Rebellion’s disruptive tactics, in the extreme
situation we face, they might be the key to bringing people a sense of control – and
with it hope.
Being on the ground at the Extinction Rebellion London protest, the sense of
purpose and optimism was clear. Gill Davis is a 71-year-old Grandmother of five
from Shropshire. “I have been so terrified thinking of the world that we are creating”,
she said “But being here with everyone today, I feel empowered, validated and
actually able to do something to protect the futures of my children and grandchildren.
This came like a beacon of hope after the years of writing letters, marching, petitions,
all to no avail”.
As the Extinction Rebellion makes headlines across the world, it appears that it
might not only be an effective way to communicate climate change, but the only
ethical way too.