From Sami Aaron, Founder of The Resilient Activist || Reprinted with permission from Ecopsychepedia
What’s a climate activist?
A climate activist is:
- Anyone working to mitigate any aspects of the climate crisis, or to educate others to do so.
- Anyone who is a dedicated volunteer who has experience, education, or certifications in climate activism, and considers their work to be climate activism.
People come to climate activism with varying degrees of experience and a wide range of commitment levels. Someone who just began volunteering two years ago may well experience different climate emotions, and to a different degree of intensity, than someone who has been active for twenty years or more.
Photo by liggraphy
Impacts to climate activist well-being
For many activists, choosing to dedicate their life to mitigating the impacts of global warming is a heavy burden to carry.
- Activists’ professional and personal lives are intertwined with the human-caused effects of the climate crisis. Their relationship to the climate crisis factors into the products they buy, the homes they choose, and the ways they desire to live. They may struggle to balance living in alignment with their environmental values while still being a part of today’s consumer-driven culture.
- Many climate activists experience the unhealthy aspects of occupational identity. Sometimes, being on a mission can be to the detriment of activists’ relationships with family and friendships, as well as to their physical and mental health.
- Projects and funding for climate causes are routinely eliminated, halting months, years, or even decades of intense effort. These setbacks are frustrating and often morally debilitating for activists who can feel hopelessness at the futility of their actions, leading many to burnout.
- Many climate activists live with pre-traumatic stress, having witnessed or studied the impact of severe weather events, droughts, and habitat destruction. Many are aware that these realities, at some point, will also affect them and everyone they love. Some are evaluating whether to bring children into an uncertain world.
Photos (left to right): Cottonbro Studio / Pexels | Giacomo d’Orlando / Climate Visuals | Edward Eyer / Pexels
The ways in which the climate crisis impacts activists’ emotional well-being may vary depending on their particular focus as an activist. When activists move through their everyday lives, they may notice, in each waking moment, the causes of climate change.
Nicole Holman / Climate Visuals
Unequal impacts on different activists
Those working to both protect the environment and work towards greater social equality and justice can feel overwhelmed by how much there is to be done. They may experience first-hand the devastating impact on vulnerable communities, or the suffering of wildlife, during severe weather events or wildfires. Many activists experience similar emotional trauma symptoms as other first-responders.
Those who work in land use and habitat restoration may experience irrevocable loss when they witness clear-cutting and environmental destruction around them by way of mowed lawns, invasive species, a dearth of pollinators in home gardens, heat-generating parking lots, the rooftops of big box stores, and clusters of manufacturing or housing developments. Adding this personal perspective only deepens their distress.
Those working to shift businesses and governments to sustainable processes can encounter naysayers who tell them that companies leading the sustainability frontier often end up losing. Often, projects are funded and defunded at the whim of whomever is in office or a position of responsibility. Many activists experience symptoms of deep grief in relation to these obstacles.
Some may carry a distinct burden as climate scientists. Many who have expended tremendous amounts of energy and effort to get climate science information to those who can make a difference carry the heavy burden that as of 2021, only sixty-four percent of people around the globe believe climate change is a global emergency. Those in power–more than 25% of our elected officials–are climate deniers.
- While some activists are lauded by the frontline communities they support, others work in threatening and fearful settings, making standing up for their rights to land and a healthy environment dangerous.
- For students and young people: While more and more universities are offering climate crisis/environmental studies courses, the world cannot rely on newly graduated generations for effective, long-range changes. Short-termism is a threat to success. Studying the how of the climate crisis requires deep study of all kinds of human systems–politics, business, culture, history, racism, agriculture, health care, etc. This knowledge takes years to develop, which may be overwhelming for student activists who want to make changes in the near term.
For these young people to be truly effective in the long term, and to continue to feel hopeful and enthusiastic in their work (especially considering that climate work is often thankless) they will need the steady guidance and teachings of older generations of activists.
Photo by Rebello Rubenstein on Pexels
Consequences if we don’t reduce carbon emissions drastically
The world needs inspired, visionary activists who have the resilience and emotional stamina to see humanity through these difficult times. We must provide specialized support for the activist community, in the same way that employers in other fields such as hospice and domestic violence professions offer to their staff and volunteers. Here are some examples of groups providing such support:
- The Resilient Activist leads programming for parks and recreation departments on how to bring deep nature connection to outdoor interpretation.
- The Sunrise Movement offers a guide for how to help youth climate activists. It’s imperative that communities help keep activists in the best of health–both physical and mental health–so that they may continue their vital work. (Sunrise Movement Photo on the right).
- Sustaining the Conservationist, 2013, by John Fraser et al. This paper reports on two studies of the emotional experience of environmentalists, conservationists, and environmental educators who are working with a profound awareness of how current human behavior is degrading the environment. It explores whether these workers may suffer from acute stress disorder. The study concludes that mental health professionals are urgently needed to help those who are at risk of becoming debilitated by their knowledge of the consequences of humanity’s impact on the planet.
- Climate Change Anxiety Focus Groups, 2020, Trevor Lies, Glenn Adams, Sami Aaron, et al. This study was conducted with environmentally engaged participants to understand their experience of climate change anxiety and the emotions they experience when they contemplate climate change and environmental degradation. Despite our explicit focus on climate change anxiety, participants most commonly mentioned sadness and anger/frustration.
- Climate of Community, 2021, Trevor Lies, Glenn Adams, Sami Aaron, et al. The goal of this study was to explore whether participation in climate-related community events offered by The Resilient Activist was associated with improved emotions and perceptions of collective efficacy concerning the climate crisis.
- The Resilient Activist Mindfulness and Resilience Training, 2022, Tyler D. Staples. This study examined data from a pilot novel 9-week trauma, resilience, and mindfulness curriculum to see if it would lead to improvements in resilience and coping flexibility in climate activists.
Challenges to continued activism
- Many activists are subjected to bullying and ridicule over simple acts such as refusing plastic straws. This bullying is even more devastating globally and takes an emotional toll on activists.
- In 2020 alone, 227 activists around the globe were killed for trying to save the planet. In 2021, this number exceeded 350. The deep-seated fear activists may have for their personal safety is a realistic fear.
- Climate scientists are routinely harassed and sued, and often self-censor reporting their scientific findings, due to researcher harassment.
- Scientists may lose their employment or be relegated to non-climate-related employment if they resist censorship of their research results.
- Losing battles can be devastating. When members of the US House of Representatives introduced the proposed bill H.R.861 – To terminate the Environmental Protection Agency in February 2017, it was a gut-wrenching, unthinkable blow to those whose careers are dependent on having the clout of the U.S. government to enforce clean air and clean water requirements.
- Financial instability is a reality for many nonprofits, so many activists choose not to pursue this avenue to environmental action. Because environmental nonprofits receive just 2% of charitable dollars, the amount of time and effort expended on securing funding drastically reduces the amount of time and effort that could be spent on achieving their mission.
How can climate activists support their personal well-being?
- Connect with a climate-aware community whose members share your same values. Being in a community of like-minded activists is a predictor for enhanced emotional well-being.
- Limit your time spent doom-scrolling, and read more positive news, such as this and this.
- Spend time in nature in areas that include habitat for wildlife and pollinators. Sites that are free from invasive species and plastics. Places to sit and connect or relax, to camp or ponder, to step away from the negativity. Turn off your digital devices and open all your senses to reap the benefits. Try forest therapy!
- Work through the four steps to a resilient life offered by The Resilient Activist, an exercise designed to help you intentionally evaluate what is yours to do in a way that feels joyful, supportive, and uplifting.
- If you ever feel that not enough people are working on the issues you hold most dear, do an internet search, and see just how many hits you get. For example, “How many organizations are working on clean water globally?” brings up 388,000,000 results. It can be a great morale booster.
- If the emotional burden feels heavier than you can handle on your own, or you know someone who is struggling, reach out for support from a mental health professional such as a Climate-Aware Therapist.
If you or someone you know in the United States is in crisis or is having thoughts of suicide call or text 988 or chat988lifeline.org and speak with a certified listener. The 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline replaced the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 (TALK) but can still be used in the US. The website SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources offers many additional resources. Go here for hotlines outside the United States.
The Overstory by Richard Powers, published in 2018 by Norton & Company.
A Field Guide to Climate Anxiety: How to Keep Your Cool on a Warming Planet by Sarah Jaquette Ray, published in 2020, University of California Press.
Warmth: Coming of Age at the End of Our World by Daniel Sherrell, published in 2021 by Penguin Random House.
Emotional Inflammation: Discover Your Triggers and Reclaim Your Equilibrium During Anxious Times by Lise Van Susteren, MD, and Stacey Colino, published in 2020 by Sounds True.
Trauma Stewardship: An Everyday Guide to Caring for Self While Caring for Others by Laura van Dernoot Lipsky with Connie Burk, published in 2009 by Berrett-Koehler Publishers.
Articles and Online Sources
As climate worsens, environmentalists also grapple with the mental toll of activism by Alex Smith, November 13, 2021, NPR.
Flooded, A Climate Psychology Alliance of North America Podcast. Episode One, Action Produces Hope, with Daniel Sherrell and Sami Aaron. Interviewed by Merritt Juliano, JD LCSW, December 1, 2021, Climate Psychology Alliance of North America.
Mexico Named Deadliest Country for Environmental Activists, by Oscar Lopez, September 29, 2022, The New York Times.
Perpetual Martyr Syndrome: Symptoms, Causes, Cures by Ryan Stover, February 4, 2020, Uncomplication.
What Is a Martyr Complex? by Dan Brennan, MD, October 25, 2021, WebMD.
Suicides indicate wave of ‘doomerism’ over escalating climate crisis by Oliver Milman, May 19, 2022, The Guardian.
We Need to Talk About Climate Change and Suicide by Eleanor Cummins, December 28, 2021, Apocalypse Soon.
The Resilient Activist: Climate & Mental Health Research Studies links to numerous important studies in the areas of climate and mental health, climate activists, and youth.
The Environmental Movement Faces Burnout. This Woman Wants to Repair That. by Yessenia Funes, August 17, 2022, Atmos.
Psychologists from 40 countries pledged to use their jobs to address climate change, updated July 22, 2022, Zoë Schlanger, Quartz.
The full-length feature film Don’t Look Up! is a satirical, apocalyptic, American black comedy film that uses a rapidly approaching comet as a metaphor for the climate crisis.
In Avatar, an ex-Marine is in a desperate fight for his own survival, as well as that of the indigenous people of an alien planet.
The Resilient Activist provides community, mindfulness, and nature-connected programming that supports emotional well-being and vital ecological change.
Climate Critical Earth is building a Black, feminist, multi-generational, restorative, multi-disciplinary climate movement which seeks to build power for leaders, particularly from communities and cultures traditionally marginalized and excluded from progressive climate organizations.
Climate Emergence UK provides emotional and ecological well-being strategies through blog posts and online programming.
Radical Support Collective offers women-led climate leadership, based in individual and group coaching.
Good Grief Network facilitates a 10-step program to personal resilience & empowerment in a chaotic climate.
Climate Mental Health Network is a collaborative network that addresses the mental health consequences of climate change through education and community engagement, as well as by harnessing the power of media and technology.
Climate Wisdom Lab / Emergent Resilience empowers individuals, organizations, and communities to build resilience so they can thrive in a climate-changing world.
Selected Research/Scientific Papers
American Psychological Association, Climate for Health, ecoAmerica. (2021, November 3). Mental health and our changing climate: Impacts, inequities, and responses. Mental health and our changing climate. https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/mental-health-climate-change.pdf
Belova, A., Gould, C. A., Munson, K., Howell, M., Trevisan, C., Obradovich, N., & Martinich, J. (2022). Projecting the suicide burden of climate change in the United States. GeoHealth. https://doi.org/10.1029/2021GH000580
Dumont, C., Haase, E., Dolber, T., Lewis, J., Coverdale, J. (2020). Climate change and risk of completed suicide. The Journal of nervous and mental disease, 208(7). https://doi.org/10.1097/NMD.0000000000001162
Fraser, J., & Pantesco, V. (2013). Sustaining the Conservationist. Ecopsychology. https://doi.org/10.1089/eco.2012.0076
Head, L., & Harada, T. (2017). Keeping the heart a long way from the brain: The emotional labour of climate scientists. Emotion, Space and Society, 24, 34-41. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.emospa.2017.07.005
Lawrance, E., Thompson, R., Fontana, G., & Jennings, N. (2021). The impact of climate change on mental health and emotional wellbeing: current evidence and implications for policy and practice. Briefing Paper No 36, Grantham Institute, Imperial College London. https://spiral.imperial.ac.uk/bitstream/10044/1/88568/9/3343%20Climate%20change%20and%20mental%20health%20BP36_v6.pdf
Lies, T. S., Adams, G., & Aaron, S. (2022, January 11). Climate Change Anxiety Focus Groups: Executive Summary. PsyArXiv Preprints. https://doi.org/10.31234/osf.io/fjv37
Staples, T. D. (2022, July 31). Mindfulness and resilience training: pilot data from a novel 9-week curriculum. The Resilient Activist. https://www.theresilientactivist.org/mindfulness-and-resilience-training-pilot-data-from-a-novel-9-week-curriculum
Thompson, T. (2021, September 22). Young People’s Climate Anxiety revealed in landmark survey. Nature News. https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-021-02582-8
World Health Organization. (2022, June 3). Mental health and climate change: Policy brief. https://www.who.int/publications/i/item/9789240045125
World Health Organization. (2022, June 17). Mental health: Strengthening our response. https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/mental-health-strengthening-our-response
Author and version info
September 22, 2022
Author: Sami Aaron, Founder, The Resilient Activist
Editor: Rei Takver