‘Weathering the storm’

‘Weathering the storm’

Sharad Kohli

How we can cope with and heal from climate anxiety

Climate anxiety is as pressing a matter as any so is it any wonder, then, that it can, literally, cloud our thinking and leave us dispirited and paralysed as we try to go about our daily lives? 

There is plenty in the world that leaves us fretting about the future, and the weather– never the most predictable of phenomena at the best of times – features predominantly in that conversation. Climate anxiety is as pressing a matter as any that occupies our waking hours while affecting our mental health, some more deeply than others. Is it any wonder, then, that it can, literally, cloud our thinking and leave us dispirited and paralysed as we try to go about our daily lives?

The Mind Diaries reached out to a cross-section of people to discover how climate anxiety manifests itself and understand how they can persist (and find silver linings) in a world whose ecological equilibrium has been disturbed perhaps irrevocably.

It’s tough to escape the heat, even outside the city. “This year, while organising day hikes around Mumbai, we didn’t have a winter season at all. At the place where I lead the hikes, which is some two hours’ drive from Mumbai, it was 35°C in January, which is unheard of – just two years back, it was 15°C,” says experiential educator Kunal Sanklecha.

Heatwaves that last longer and are more intense, rain whose frequency may be less but whose fury is unrestrained, and tropical storms whose build-up and destructive power has grown manifold. The thought of rain or hot weather overstaying their welcome, of a cyclone, hurricane or typhoon turning into a monster, is enough to make us fear for our and our loved ones’ prospects on an increasingly vulnerable Planet Earth.

As anxious are the parents who have brought children into a world of political demagoguery, financial turbulence and, above all, climate extremes. Then there are others, a growing number, who choose not to raise children, apprehensive as they are of exposing them to humanity at its worst, to a milieu in which greed and selfishness have engendered a degree of environmental devastation that might be impossible to reverse.

Natasha Saigal and her partner, mother and father to a 16-month-old boy, belong to the former category. “I think any parent you ask today – and I often end up having this discussion in all our parent groups – faces a lot of anxiety around the state of the world, and climate change is one big part of it,” she told us.

“I often wonder about the world that my son, Avi, will grow up in, the challenges he’s going to face, how habitable the planet is going to be,” reflects Natasha, who works in the development sector, and is a specialist in early childhood development.

“I know a lot of friends that have decided not to have children because they don’t want to bring a child into a world which is like this – because they won’t know the conditions 50 years down the line. And I very much respect them for taking that call. My husband and I took a different call but once you’ve taken that call, I think you do the best you can, and you hold people to account.”

Natasha acknowledges that circumstance of birth governs how far-sheltered anyone can expect to feel in the teeth of life-threatening weather events. “Of course, I would like for him to be safe but instead of being crippled by climate anxiety, I focus on how the upbringing we provide can influence his contribution to creating a better world. I am acutely aware that it is our privilege that allows me to be optimistic; I hope he uses this privilege to protect not only himself but also those around him who will face the brunt of the climate crisis sooner – and more severely – than he would.”

Indeed, it was a privilege that enabled the family to relocate to Bengaluru from smoggy Delhi. “That is what I mean by privilege – I have the privilege to say I don’t want to raise my child in pollution-ridden Delhi, but most people do not have that option.”

Emotion and equanimity 

For Dr Anubhooti Bhatnagar, climate change and the anxiety it can trigger, are topics that teachers at her NGO, NeoFusion Creative Foundation – with centres in Gurgaon, Jaipur and Bijnor – discuss frequently with their underprivileged students. “I don’t see it as an issue since these children are stronger than our children because of the different – and difficult – circumstances they invariably face in their lives, which makes them more susceptible to ailments like high fever,” shares Anubhooti. “If the fever is mild, it’s not going to come in the way of their day; only when it is serious do they end up getting affected mentally. Otherwise, they’re chilled out most of the time.”

The very nature of climate change was brought home on the day of NeoFusion’s annual event in October 2022, when so hard did it rain that the water reached up to their knees. “Climate anxiety is just one of the anxieties they feel, and it isn’t as acute as all those other anxieties, like the unsanitary living conditions they have to put up with, or, say, the alcoholism of their parents,” she adds pertinently.

“I feel they are happier than us. They smile despite all the challenges they face but we make the smallest problem into something insurmountable that clouds our minds.”

With smartphones having become an extension of their everyday existence, thanks to classes transitioning online during Covid, these children are now more aware of what climate anxiety is – through, for instance, watching reels. Alongside, they’re also learning science. So, oftentimes, it is they rather than their teachers who would broach the topic, following it up by asking why the climate is changing, their voices betraying concern. Says Anubhooti, “They would add, ‘Mama and Papa say that it never used to rain like it does now,’ or, ‘It never used to be so hot, and last year wasn’t anywhere near as hot as it is this year’.

“We have also done sessions on this topic, and because we are into theatre, we explore climate change by improvising on it, so that the children can get a better grasp of the subject, and are better able to understand what is happening.”

Still, the young are less prone to feeling overwhelmed by the magnitude of climate change. Tulika, 14, has observed that her climate anxiety surfaces only when there’s something particularly noticeable about the weather on any day. “Then, I do think about it, and I end up overthinking about it!” she confesses.

“When it enters my mind, and when I overthink, I then worry about what is going to happen in the future.” Yet, so ubiquitous is the weather, there’s no way of avoiding it. Adds Tulika, “We keep on having conversations on climate anxiety in school, especially during winter, that time of year when the pollution increases and becomes more intense, and when there is fog and smog.” Hazy, their thinking is not.

Past imperfect, future undefined

Not unrelated to climate anxiety is solastalgia, a word that describes the anguish one experiences seeing a part of nature they have known disappear due to a break in the natural order. Avantika (name changed), who is pursuing a PhD in climate change policy, is no stranger to solastalgia. A native of Uttarakhand, this 27-year-old is personally affected by climate change. “Now we can’t go to Mussoorie regularly because there is very little snowfall there,” she laments.

“Last year, I was in Tehri when the forest fires were raging. In Uttarakhand, the climate is changing drastically, with the monsoon arriving earlier than it once used to, and summers too, which are becoming hotter with each year.”

A stint at the Wildlife Institute of India alerted Avantika to the impact a warming planet is having on habitats and species. “The ice cover here is decreasing at an alarming rate,” she points out. “I was working on a project called Uttarakhand State Wildlife Population Estimation, and we saw that there was a pattern which revealed a decrease in the numbers of wildlife species in the Himalayas, like the snow leopard and the Tahr.”

Alas, the world is no longer what we once knew it to be. But that doesn’t mean we can’t empower ourselves, and others, to create a better version of it.

Kunal Sanklecha has been leading outdoor experiences independently since 2017, taking the young and the old hiking around Mumbai, and reconnecting them with nature while sharing his learnings on climate change and sustainability. “A lot of people feel they’re stuck, or in a way helpless,” believes Kunal. “They ask, ‘What do we do about the rising temperatures?’ And especially parents, who post-Covid have been asking what their children’s future is.”

Less activist than a changemaker, Kunal doesn’t want people to feel powerless in the face of climate change. He’d rather they challenge themselves: “What can I do about it? How can I be an example?” Much like he did in 2017, when he left his comfort zone to embark on an expedition to Antarctica, following which he did his basic and advanced mountaineering, and enrolled in a wilderness first-responder course.

His trysts with the South Pole and the mountains have allowed Kunal to learn more about climate anxiety – and about himself. “My outdoor experiences gave me a problem-solving mindset and helped prepare me for adversities like harsh weather and soaring temperatures, etc., which are going to come,” he maintains.

Kunal began noticing the spike in temperatures, and how summers were getting appreciably hotter when he began his chemical engineering course (which we would quit midway to intern and volunteer with startups and social enterprises). “I didn’t feel like spending summers in the city because it was getting too hot, especially once I started spending summers in the Himalayas. But then, you have to find solutions.”

So, last year, Kunal spent the entire summer in Mumbai and its nearby areas, to study, for example, how people around the villages where he took hiking groups, were searching for water. “Water is such a precious commodity in rural areas that people travel long, long distances just to fetch it, and they’re doing it barefoot and in extreme temperatures,” he describes. “So, I could see the changes, I could see how people are suffering but also figuring out how to adapt, because there is also a lot of urbanisation happening in rural places.”

And that’s why he seeks to share his experiences, to give people the chance to find the emotional balance missing in their lives. “Nature brings joy and peace, and also a sense of community, which is lacking in people living in urban environments, and which is one of the root causes of climate anxiety,” stresses Kunal.

“Most people living sustainable lives feel they’re the only ones doing it in the family or office or in their circle. But when like-minded people come together on a hike or in a community meet-up, or when they start seeing that there are more people like them, then climate anxiety reduces. And it starts with taking care of your own health, connecting with nature, then seeing how you can be an example in making a difference.”

Two Indias, poles apart

“We don’t go all out during the months when the pollution is at its worst; we keep it very easy so that the heart rate is within that control level which we call our ‘sweet spot,’” says marathoner Maneck Khanna. Anxiety around the weather, he reminds, applies as much to conditions that are man-made as to the natural climate. Pollution falls in the former, all too prevalent and inescapable in Delhi-NCR during winters. “And those are the months where most of the training and races peak – because those are the best months to train and race,” he reckons.

“Initially, pollution would last around 2-3 weeks, around Diwali, but last winter it just went on for 2-3 months. In fact, till the end of January, the AQI was still high. So, we have no choice but to train outside,” Maneck explains.
“If you’re doing endurance training, and you’re running and cycling for 3-4 hours – which means you’re running 20km-30km, or cycling 80km-90km – it is impossible to do it indoors because you don’t get to experience how the outdoors will work on your body.

“So, we choose to train more now, because we believe that a sedentary lifestyle will do us more harm, mentally and physically, than training outdoors, despite the pollution (and heat).”

Maneck and his fellow marathoners train during the hours when the AQI is at its lowest, just when the sun is rising, and when there is less traffic. “But also, as triathletes and ironmen, we train when the heat is at its peak – in other words when the sun is at its highest point – so that the body gets used to running in the sun. Because we run the marathon/half-marathon part of the event during this time of the day.”

However, another long-distance runner noticed that climate anxiety has upset her daily training routine. “Summers are becoming too hot while winters are full of pollution – especially in India – and the rainy season is always unpredictable. So, we get a very small window for training outdoors,” rues Manisha Srivastava, who has twice taken part in the iconic Boston Marathon. “For the last 6-7 months, I have been training completely indoors but am missing the good weather and the sunlight.”

And a lack of sunshine, as she rightly highlights, has an undesirable knock-on effect on mental well-being. “So, yes, climate anxiety has affected what I should be doing (keeping me indoors for training), and what I should not be doing (heading to the mountains for my running).”

The sporty and the active like Maneck and Manisha, both Gurgaon residents, will find a way, but away from India’s cities, on her farms, along her coasts and in her forests, climate anxiety is barely understood. The tiller of land stares at harvest failure if there’s too much or too little rain – or, worse, none at all. “If you ask the common farmer, those who have been farming over a long period, they don’t understand climate anxiety. I don’t think they even know the term,” offers Anish Nath, who co-founded The Good Harvest School, an agriculture-based primary school for girls in Unnao, UP.

“They don’t understand why the climate is changing and what they can do to react. For example, farmers burn the crop but they don’t understand how it affects the environment.”

And because these small landholders plant only one crop (wheat), the vagaries of the climate are all the same to them. A cloudburst is as damaging as a drought, just as it was for their forebears. This holds true for agriculturists in Unnao and across India. Adds Anish, “For farmers, rain is rain. They won’t understand why there’s a shift in the weather, or why the monsoon is getting delayed, and they don’t understand how all this affects the crop – they just see it as rain which led to their crops getting destroyed.”

Up in Kashmir, the climate has a deep impact on the moods and the lives of the people, says Afeefa Farooq Fazli, a psychologist at Dolphin International School, Pulwama. Come winter, a lethargy takes hold of the Kashmiris. “As soon as it starts to get a bit cold, people take out their Pherans, a local attire, and they try to limit themselves to the home as much as possible,” she told The Mind Diaries.

More worryingly, Afeefa adds, the children show low energy levels throughout the day and pay very little attention in the classroom. While the changing climate hasn’t spared India’s northernmost state, it’s not really disquiet but listlessness that afflicts the young and old of Kashmir. “It is always external forces, like teachers in a school, that can nudge the students to study more. As for people in general, I feel that at the end of the day, they know they have to work to sustain their livelihood, which forces them to fight this anxiety.”

Thus, for all that livelihoods here are at the mercy of what happens in the troposphere, climate anxiety is less easily recognised outside India’s towns and cities. On the flip side, it may just be more widespread.

Amid despair, hope

For the many who have dedicated their lives to dodging the curveballs thrown by climate change, every day must feel like an uphill struggle. As it often does for Neha Nagpal, who, completed her Masters in Science and Sustainability from the University of Sydney in December 2021.

“It was during my Masters, when learning more about climate science – learning a lot more through scientific research papers and journals, and getting to hear from academics and scientists and researchers in the field – that I started to think about climate anxiety, from the view that not enough is being done and time is passing, and either things had to change rapidly or the impacts will be a little too severe for us to mitigate or address,” the Sydney-based sustainability practitioner told us.

“As my Masters progressed, and once you go deeper into the subject, you start to read about tipping points, and then you realise that, ‘Okay, if a certain number of tipping points are crossed, there really is no turning back’. Too much damage has been done and the consequences will continue for a number of years or decades even, before things start to stabilise again.”

Like many working in the sustainability space, the sense of responsibility weighs heavily on Neha’s mind. “I don’t see changes happening at the speed they need to happen. I sometimes don’t even see the kind of buy-in, investment and progress I would like to see,” she deplores. And when governments and industry bodies fail to meet their commitments, it’s left to civil society and ordinary folks to take up the gauntlet.

It’s an everyday endeavour, squeezing hope out of what seems a hopeless situation when seemingly every news cycle brings meltdown updates of a new ‘hottest day’ record breached. “I try to keep myself hopeful because I know I’m contributing. I think that’s what keeps me going,” she admits.

“Because I know I am trying to make a difference day in, day out – that’s my purpose and my life. I’m trying to change minds and I’m trying to shift money – like, actual funds moving into investing in better practices and better methodologies, and thinking about operating a business more sustainably, more ethically and more responsibly.

“I feel that had I not been contributing; I would have felt a little more helpless. But the fact that I am applying myself and my knowledge, thinking and skills to make a change, that makes me feel good and that makes me feel hopeful that we can still turn things around.”

A similar perseverance distinguishes Vijay Sehrawat, the brains behind the youth-led Climate Justice Library, which aims to make climate literature and literacy accessible to young people and the general public in Delhi. Vijay, a community organiser and documentary filmmaker, came up with the initiative after his struggles to access climate writing that was both relevant as well as up-to-date.

“This made Vijay realise the negligence with which climate education is treated,” says Deepti Agarwal, co-ordinator at the Climate Justice Library. Here, conversations around the climate are backed up by actions. “We often end up talking about how climate change adversely impacts human health and how little is done to fight the crisis. Our community members admit experiencing a lot of stress and anxiety about climate change,” mentions Deepti.

“This motivated us to launch a campaign last year, #ClimateAnxietyIsNormal, that aims to amplify the stories, struggles and lived experiences of young people to destigmatise discussion around mental health and build greater resilience in the movement.

“We often hold sharing circles on climate anxiety for people who feel distressed about climate change, with an intent to create a safe and non-judgmental space to share thoughts and feelings within a small circle of compassionate listeners.”

That’s pretty much all the climate-anxious can do, to attempt to see the glass half-full. “As a parent, you can’t help but worry, but also for your own sanity, you can’t help but be positive,” reasons Natasha. “You have chosen to bring this child into the world and ultimately you would hope that you can create an environment to protect that child as far as possible, and to instill in the child a basic appreciation for nature, and a knowledge of how they can contribute to making the world better.”

Meanwhile, Kunal found his sweet spot by combining his love for adventure – and desire to test his endurance and spirit – with a passion to spark change. Still, any effort, he insists, even one as daunting as rebuilding our broken world, must take into account personal welfare. “It starts with individual self-care and then transfers to the community – if you don’t take care of yourself, you will burn out.”

And it pays to remember: The darker the clouds, the brighter the rainbow.

The Climate Justice Library has 1,800-plus books and publications on urban sustainability, transportation and mobility, food security, natural resource management, climate disaster, governance and policy, law and legislation, urban waste management, environmental movements, etc. It also plays host to reading sessions, sharing circles, experimental trips and movie screenings, among other events, for its members, and is looking to engage with schoolchildren.