Eco-anxiety, and the privilege of potential climate threats

Eco-anxiety is a term that continues to crop up in climate discourse. It references fear about the potential impacts of the climate crisis. Within climate communications there are frequent discussions about how we communicate the potential threats of the climate and biodiversity crises, without inciting feelings of anxiety for environmentally conscious individuals. It is true that people can become stressed and overwhelmed with thoughts about how bad it might be if we don’t take action, and we shouldn’t undermine those feelings. At the same time: eco-anxiety is something that only people in countries that have not yet experienced devastating climate impacts can feel. In the western world climate change is framed as ‘this is how bad it could be’ or ‘we could lose this’, but we’re currently seeing the impacts of the climate crisis in real time in many countries across the global south. Prioritising anxiety about what may come above the experiences of individuals suffering from what has already come, is a privilege many in the global south do not have. 

This summer in England we saw record breaking temperatures, despite the substantial impact this is incomparable to the experiences of those across Africa and South Asia. Across Sylhet, in Bangladesh, Pakistan and most recently in Nigeria hundreds of thousands of people have lost their lives or become displaced due to floods. These examples highlight that in a global context, the climate crisis is already here. In western media there is an increasing amount of reporting regarding climate change and biodiversity loss, but much of this focuses on meeting goals by 2030, or even 2050. For example, Professor Joanna D. Haigh, the former co-director of the Institute of Climate Change at Imperial College London suggests that the average temperature in the UK could be as high as 45 degrees, which is something to cause concern but this concern should be focused on those suffering now rather than potentially in the future. The western centric focus on future temperature or flooding threats largely ignores those currently suffering. 

With COP27 coming to a close we must consider the outcomes, or lack thereof, of this “vital” conference. The primary goal of COP27 was to reaffirm the importance of the Paris agreement target of keeping global average temperature below a 1.5 degree increase compared to preindustrial times by halving carbon emissions by 2030; and to set out policy which will align with this goal. Unfortunately,  the previous 5 climate conferences have had little to show for in this regard.

Last year especially at COP26, in Glasgow, many regarded the conference as a failure due to the lack of commitment from governments towards policy implementation and dismissal of indigenous and local community concerns. This has led many to label COP conferences as greenwashing spectacles. In all honesty, between corporate sponsors such as Cola, and delegates flying in on private planes, I say these accusations are valid. COP conferences continue to fail. The previous years have seen a lack of commitment to the goals outlined in the Paris agreement of COP21. One pledge of a previous COP (COP15, in Copenhagen) was for “developed countries to commit to a collective goal of mobilising USD 100 billion per year by 2020 for climate action in developing countries”. This goal has not been achieved in any year since 2009. This highlights a key part of the problem. There is an awareness that some countries will suffer more than others, the global north’s actions suggest they do not care. There’s a disconnect between what we could do and what we are doing. 

The result of COP’s failings tends to be: swarms of activists expressing doubts we’ll reach our goals, an increase in anxiety about the impact of government inaction or simply apathy towards the issue. So many negatives have been reported following on from the most recent COP such as the overwhelming number of fossil fuel lobbyists (over 600) who attended the conference, but these reports shouldn’t lead us to be anxious and bury our heads in the sand. No, these reports should make us angry. We should be angry that more lobbyists attended COP than activists, angry that one of the largest plastic polluters was allowed to sponsor COP27 (Cola I’m looking at you) and angry that 125 billionaires are responsible for 3 million tonnes of CO2 per year. Anxiety is not what I feel at the end of COP. This isn’t to say that reports of the impending climate crisis, or government inaction, should not incite any anxiety, but rather at least in Western contexts anxiety about the future is a privilege. We should instead have anger towards those who continue to pollute our natural world, empathy for those already suffering, and compassion for nature. The emotions we feel should drive us forward to solutions to protect those vulnerable to climate impacts and our natural world. 

Article by Josephine Ewoma


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