By Jessie Wiles
What leads some people to give up and accept the state of the world, while others take action?
For many of us, learning the impacts and existential threat of climate change has led to increased feelings of grief, sadness, anxiety, and fear for the future, often branded informally as “climate anxiety.” Climate anxiety, though a shared intergenerational experience, may be felt even more deeply by the younger generation and those in marginalized communities, who often feel the weighty burden of fixing our current climate crisis.
As the study of the link between climate and mental health continues to expand, we are learning more about the nuances of climate-related emotions, which include not only climate anxiety, but also climate worry, ecological grief, and solastalgia (a term used to describe pain and distress experienced by those witnessing their home environments destroyed or changed in unwelcome ways). In short, our feelings around the climate crisis can be complex and nuanced. And, importantly, these intense feelings are a healthy response to the state of our world.
All too often, these overwhelming feelings can lead us to give up hope and feel there is nothing that we can do to make a difference, because our planet is already too far gone, the obstacles are too big, and our voice is too small. Yet, these feelings can sometimes bring on a deep sense of urgency to take actions to address climate change.
Which brings me to my original question: why do some people take action to address our climate crisis, while other people don’t act, even when feeling the same levels of climate distress?
Climate emotions research indicates that people are more likely to act when they feel they have a sense of agency. Agency is feeling like we can make an actual difference in addressing climate change in some capacity.
I offer this simple message to those fellow humans out there with feelings of climate worry and climate anxiety: MEIC can be your vehicle for agency in the climate crisis. Not everyone has the time or the means to be climate activists or take individual climate-related actions. But by simply being a supporter of MEIC, YOU are taking action; YOU have an outsized impact on how Montana addresses climate change; YOU have influence in court battles seeking to uphold our constitutional right to a clean and healthy environment; and YOU have a voice in the Legislature to affect state policy. That’s agency. And that’s how our collective action becomes YOUR action.
So, I say this: Spread the word. Lend a listening ear to friends and family struggling with complex climate emotions. Share yours. Acknowledge the importance of these emotions. And, with compassion, offer your people the gift of “agency” when it comes to addressing climate change — they can, in fact, make a difference. Let them know that MEIC’s staff shows up, with urgency, every day, to carry our voices out into the world on so many stages. By supporting MEIC with a membership, or by learning about MEIC’s work and sharing with your friends, or by taking an action from an email, YOU are making the choice to have an enormous impact in addressing the climate crisis. You have agency!
Of course, feeling agency won’t cure our climate anxiety. But, a sense of agency can mean the difference between giving up hope and living meaningfully in the face of climate change. Let us each choose meaning and, importantly, share this gift with others.
For the last 10 years, Jessie Wiles has been working in areas of public land law and Indian law for the DOI Solicitor’s Office, for Montana DNRC, and now in private practice. As a mom, Jessie is passionate about giving our kids the chance to thrive in a clean and healthful environment and supporting Montana families as we address the challenges and inequities brought on by climate change.
This article was published in the December 2023 issue of Down To Earth.