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Beyond the climate anxiety, there is sadness and hope

Narrow path through wooded area. Photo.
The new collaboration will strengthen the national climate and biodiversity research.

How do you feel when you spend a large proportion of your waking hours noting facts about a planet in crisis? What is it like when every day you take a long, hard look at issues concerning global warming and the loss of biodiversity?
Quite OK despite everything, is the answer when the question comes up during the ClimBEco graduate school’s winter meeting where climate psychologist Frida Hylander is the guest speaker. At doctoral student level, they seem to have got past the worst climate anxiety.

Some 20 doctoral students from the ClimBEco graduate school have gathered for a winter meeting. The theme is climate negotiations, both those going on in the outside world and, perhaps, within ourselves.

The day before, Ludwig Bengtsson Sonesson, Sweden’s youth representative at the COP25 meeting in Madrid, talked about his experiences from the negotiations. To sum up, the negotiations left a bitter aftertaste among those hoping for tangible results, even though research and science played a leading role.

Today, it is climate psychologist Frida Hylander’s turn. She wants to both capture the feelings that can arise among the doctoral students when they work on environmental and climate issues, and discuss the behaviour that is most important if you want to make a difference.

Four persons sitting around a table, negotiating. Photo: Stina Johannesson.
Ludwig Bengtsson Sonesson, Sweden's youth negotiator during the COP25 meeting in Madrid, (LFT), and doctoral students Mayra Rulli (LFT), Theodor Kindeberg (RT) and Louise Gren (RT) are negotiating during ClimBEco's winter meeting. Photo: Stina Johanneson.
Ludwig Bengtsson Sonesson, Sweden's youth representative at the COP25 meeting in Madrid, (LFT), and doctoral students Mayra Rulli (LFT), Theodor Kindeberg (RT) and Louise Gren (RT) are negotiating during ClimBEco's winter meeting. Photo: Stina Johanneson.

No downright climate anxiety was reported – and according to Frida it is a concept that is hard to define – but on the other hand words such as “frustration”, “sorrow” and “hope” cropped up. Sorrow over the considerable losses we have already sustained in terms of biodiversity; hope when you suddenly see how new guidelines can break the trend for a threatened species; frustration when people do not assimilate the facts and do not seem to care.

Do not choose to react

The last point is perhaps what most people keep coming back to. Why is it that so many people continue to deny climate change, or do not choose to react?

Frida Hylander, who is a qualified psychologist and human ecologist, has been asked many questions about climate, feelings and engagement in recent years. Higher education institutions, organisations and companies ask her to give talks on sustainable behavioural changes, for example. One of the most common questions she gets is “Why don’t more people do something when they know how bad things are?”. However, Frida Hylander considers that people do care and take action, but perhaps not the action that has the greatest effect.

“As people, we tend to overestimate the good that we do, and underestimate the negative things we do. The little that we do every day for the environment may lead us to believe that we do more than we actually do. Little things do not have the great importance that you believe”, she says.

Individual consumption choices

Her thesis is that individual consumption choices – how we travel, eat or sort waste – do not make a great difference and considers that we should spare ourselves as individuals from monitoring every step we take, for instance when we choose food for dinner. We are so much more than just consumers, she says. What she recommends instead is collectively organised engagement and action. She contends it is this that can lead to lasting system changes.

“Action is also linked to handling climate anxiety. By being active citizens and engaging in meaningful activities with others, we feel better”, she says.

This reasoning quickly sparks a discussion. Someone considers that protests don’t help, as they are ignored by those in power. Another person wonders if you can really disregard what an individual can accomplish and points to examples from history. And where is the limit for a researcher’s engagement before credibility is affected?

After a workshop, the session is over. The reactions are a little mixed when it is time for lunch.

“I honestly don’t feel climate anxiety or sorrow as people do outside academia. I have known about this for so long and have gone past it. It’s the others who are feeling it now”, states Erica Jaakkola.

Most frustrated about

What she and several of the other doctoral students are most frustrated and disappointed about is that so many people do not want to take in the facts.

Theodor Kindeberg has quite recently started his doctoral studies and appreciates the day’s opportunity for reflection about matters such as personal anxiety.

“I felt worst from this when I started my Bachelor’s programme in Environmental Science. Then it came as a shock. Over time that feeling has subsided somewhat. It is probably a little unspoken that we all carry this around, as we are involved in these issues”, he says.

He disagrees with the argument from the day’s seminar that private choices are not of great significance for achieving major societal changes and points out that the same argument could be used for not voting. He also wonders to what extent a researcher can be actively involved in different issues.

“I think a lot about this double role. You have your professional role and then you have your private role. It’s not always easy to separate them. What you learn in your programme strengthens your private opinions, but it must not be vice-versa.”

If this does happen, he considers that a researcher’s credibility may be undermined.

“Facts are facts. Then different people may see different solutions”, he says.

Anna Ekberg, coordinator of ClimBEco, emphasises the graduate school’s task of supporting doctoral students prior to their future professional roles. As researchers or decision-makers, some of them will probably contribute to increased sustainable development by driving their organisations forwards.

“Personally, I channel my climate anxiety by working long-term on issues within my own organisation, Lund University. Today’s workshop reminded me just how important it is,” she says.


The interdisciplinary ClimBEco graduate school is funded by the Faculty of Science and the strategic research areas BECC and MERGE. It is based at the Centre for Environmental and Climate Research (CEC) at Lund University. ClimBEco stands for “Climate, Biodiversity and Ecosystem services in a changing world”.

At present, 31 doctoral students from Lund University and the University of Gothenburg are affiliated with the graduate school. 

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