Jennifer Uchendu first heard the term “climate anxiety” when she moved to London from Nigeria to get her master’s degree in development studies at the University of Sussex. This was 2019, and the term was generating enormous buzz in wealthier countries. Uchendu grabbed onto the term. Having a phrase to describe her feelings about the changing climate somehow made them real.
Still, it became clear to Uchendu that her experience of climate anxiety was different from that of other students in her cohort. The guilt she saw in their experience had no part in her sense of injustice.
For Uchendu, climate anxiety means anger. The founder of the climate advocacy organization SustyVibes is angry about the flooding and drought she’s seen in her home country. She’s angry about the pressure she and her fellow activists face to forge a path toward sustainable development, even though Nigeria has historically contributed only a fraction of a percent of global carbon emissions.
“Why do we have to be the ones vulnerable and so marginalized?” Uchendu says. “When you look at the history of climate change, you just get really angry, because there are layers of oppression, there’s racism.”
The term climate anxiety is odd in that way. The phrase exploded in Western media in 2019. At that point, there weren’t words in the English language readily available to describe the complex range of emotional responses to climate change, so people glommed onto it. Google searches of the term spiked. One HBO series centered an entire episode around the phenomenon. Grist called it the biggest pop-culture trend of 2019.
But a word that means everything from anger to guilt also means nothing.
“It’s actually not giving us any precise information about what is going wrong with respect to our emotional states and the physical state of the world,” says Glenn Albrecht, a philosopher at the University of Sydney in New South Wales, Australia, who studies language and climate change.
Experts in a variety of fields, from science communication to the health effects of climate change, argue that this buzzword misses the complexity of the phenomenon. By painting the psychological experience of climate change in such broad strokes, it inevitably excludes marginalized voices. Instead, they’re calling for a more nuanced discussion of climate change and mental health—one that decenters the experiences of White, wealthy communities.
Where the Term Falls Short
Clinical psychologist Garret Barnwell saw the inadequacy of the phrase climate anxiety firsthand in 2019, while doing research in Rustenberg, South Africa, a region where more than 70% of the world’s platinum is produced. A research associate at the University of Johannesburg at the time, Barnwell was interested in how environmental degradation was affecting mental health in a community where mines cast a long shadow of violence, including the infamous 2012 Marikana massacre, in which police officers killed 34 striking mine workers.
What Barnwell found in Rustenberg was complicated. Certainly, interviewees were concerned about the ecological crisis—they spoke of biodiversity loss, the destruction of the landscape caused by mining, the persistent drought. But the focus of the conversations wasn’t their worry for the future of the climate. It was the ever-present power imbalance. Interviewees spoke about how their community stood in competition with the mines for increasingly scarce water supplies, and how those who ran the mines consistently failed to comply with regulations on water use.
At first, Barnwell was tempted to label their distress “climate anxiety.” But the phrase didn’t encapsulate the larger context. For Barnwell’s participants, climate change was just one part of a larger landscape of exploitation, in which they didn’t have a sense of control and weren’t included in decision-making. It was layered upon, and inextricable from, past experiences of oppression.
“It’s actually just a perpetuation of colonialism,” Barnwell says. “By individualizing distress, we miss what is politically happening around the world to various communities.”
Barnwell’s findings about the systemic nature of climate distress sync with past research on attitudes towards the environment within marginalized communities. Latinx and Black communities are more concerned about the environment than White people, according to the results of countless studies, including a 2020 study published in Environmental Psychology. But they also had a different definition of what constitutes the “environment.” All racial and ethnic groups included traditional conservation issues, such as invasive species and habitat loss, in their definition. But Black and Latinx communities were more likely to include a much broader range of issues, such as diabetes, unequal access to education, and drug abuse.
“The fact is that we are not talking about the same environment,” says Hwanseok Song, the lead author of the study and a communications professor studying science and environmental attitudes at Purdue University.
The Start of a Bigger Conversation
The term climate anxiety has enabled an important conversation about the effects of the environment on mental health. In that way, it has served its purpose. But as the climate crisis has escalated, Albrecht says the term is no longer useful. While it may be an apt descriptor for a generalized concern about a potential threat, it doesn’t get at the immediacy and specificity of the threats people are actually facing today or the vast discrepancy between lived experiences. The compound threats of colonialism and resource scarcity, the grief over having to rebuild a home lost to megafire, guilt over flying or eating meat—the term climate anxiety lumps these experiences together, when they are obviously not equivalent, Albrecht says.
Barnwell says the language itself limits the way we look at the world. “It’s almost like the term climate anxiety exists, and we’re looking for examples of it around the world,” Barnwell says. Instead, he thinks a more inclusive conversation around climate change and mental health involves being curious about context. For Barnwell, it’s about listening to communities without preconceived notions of what it means to experience climate change.
Albrecht says the words that have been used thus far to describe climate change not only fail to capture the nuance of emotional responses to the crisis, they also inhibit action. Old language preserves old ways of knowing, and the language we use was developed at a time, and in a part of the world, where climate change was an abstract, future threat—before it became as immediate and existential as it is today.
For Albrecht, hope lies in new language. In his 2019 book, Earth Emotions: New Words for a New World, Albrecht proposes a glossary of novel terms to describe the experience of climate change. They include words like “tierrafurie,” the extreme anger one feels at the destruction wrought by an industrial-technological society, and “solastalgia,” the feeling of homesickness one feels even while at home because of its transformation.
Of course, English isn’t the only language adapting to describe the crisis. The North Baffin Inuktitut people adapted the word Uggianaqtuq, which once referred to a friend behaving in an unfamiliar or strange way, to describe their changing environment. By broadening the discussion and developing more nuanced language, we can all think more creatively about the climate crisis—and consider a broader range of experiences in doing so, Albrecht says. That could bring us one step closer to a healthier, regenerative relationship with the planet.
“We can be imprisoned by language, and it keeps us in a cell of our own making,” Albrecht says, “unless we begin to see the power of language to take us out of that imprisonment and point us in a new direction.”
CORRECTION: This article was updated at 12:26p.m. on September 1, 2021 to reflect that Glenn Albrecht is now a philosopher at the University of Sydney in New South Wales, Australia, after retiring from Murdoch University in Perth, Australia in 2014. Read our corrections policy here.
Isobel Whitcomb is a journalist based in Portland, Oregon. Her work covering health and the environment has appeared in The New York Times, Slate and Bay Nature Magazine. Find more of her work at: IsobelWhitcomb.com