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Washington State University

Climate Anxiety in Environmental Science Students (and what to do about it)

Posted by rdsayler | November 22, 2022

Special Report on Science Education:

Student climate protest

[Anya Dillard and other students in a school walkout to support the 2019 Global Climate Strike. Source: Wikipedia. License: CC BY-SA 4.0]


The life-altering isolation and deaths resulting from the Covid-19 global pandemic combined with economic disruptions, social unrest, bitter and divisive politics, war, and the ever-increasing effects of climate change (i.e., heat, fire, storms, floods, drought, water shortages, famine and starvation) are breaching tipping points in human emotions. It seems like everyone is angry, skeptical, or frustrated about something. Moreover as the human population grows to 8+ billion and global development continues unabated, the threat of extinction looms over the untold millions of species on Earth, many of which are hanging on by a thread.

This summer, a summer of record high temperatures throughout the United States and elsewhere in the world, may be one of the coolest summers you’ll experience for the rest of your life. Climate scientists tell us that the future will necessarily be worse than what we have now due to the unimaginable amount of CO2, methane, and other climate-changing gases we’ve already vented into the atmosphere and absorbed in our oceans. It’s difficult to stop a runaway climate train the size of the entire Earth. Life can never be quite the same again no matter what we do.

It’s no wonder that people around the world are struggling, both individually and as a fractious global society, with what we should all do next. Many are just trying to hang on and survive. The Great Resignation, quiet quitting, Black Lives Matter, immigration protests, racism, the Extinction Rebellion, gun violence, rage, hate crimes, misinformation, social media and conspiracy theories run amuck, disputed elections, democracy in decline, authoritarianism, rising fascism, and massive inequalities in health, wealth, and environmental justice all reflect the increasingly intense and life-threatening forces confronting humanity. 

No wonder some people question the value of education. But I beg to differ.

I’ve had the great privilege of teaching students, mostly seniors and graduate students, at Washington State University for 30+ years. I’ve been charged with teaching graduate, senior-level, and capstone science classes that are to be the culminating educational experience for people about to graduate from WSU. And it’s a responsibility that I take seriously.

I know that I’ve been successful at teaching because my classes have depressed a great many students.

No, not because of the quality of my teaching, but because of the serious nature of the topics we cover and the deeply troubling ethical and moral questions we consider about our future. 

The Facts of Life 

You see, I teach students the real facts of life. The kinds of things few parents may know about and teach their children, at least in any great detail. Everyone going on 18 to 90+ should know the real facts of life, even if they’re often deeply depressing and unsettling. 

By now, unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last 75 years (and apparently some people have been doing just that), you’ve heard about climate change and the feelings many people have about our future world that are called climate anxiety or eco-anxiety. 

Feelings of anxiety, depression, hopelessness, anger, fear, despair, and frustration about our climate and environmental future are extremely strong and at times overwhelming for some people. Indeed, many people. And that certainly may include students in our own School of the Environment, who among the different academic majors available at WSU, are uniquely exposed to the many difficult environmental issues confronting the world.

I couldn’t help but chuckle when at the end of one semester a young woman was telling me about some of the major things she felt she’d learned in my class. She confessed that she’d been warned about my classes by other students who told her that it would be depressing to learn about the numerous threats to all of the species living on the planet. It was and is. However, in case you’re curious, she ended up enjoying and being inspired and motivated by my class despite all of the depressing news and insights she’d gained.

What’s my secret? Maybe some day I’ll tell you a little bit about my teaching methods, but not today. Today I want to discuss just one specific aspect about teaching environmental science and begin what will hopefully be a series of special reports about science education in the WSU School of the Environment and higher education in general.

Students pay a lot of good, hard-earned money for a college or university education. It’s part of my job, and that of all of our faculty and staff, to make sure that you get your money’s worth out of it. It wouldn’t be particularly fair or nice of us to just educate you about the sheer magnitude of the environmental threats confronting life on Earth and then graduate you, give you a diploma, shake your hand, and dump you out onto the sidewalk all by yourself. Write when you get work!

Nobody can guarantee that you’ll always get the specific job or career that you might want. Life is full of unexpected twists and turns and challenges. While preparing you for a career is part of what we try to accomplish, it’s not the ultimate goal of higher education, which is to give people expanded knowledge, practice in thinking and reasoning skills, and broad perspectives to take with them after graduation and continuously build upon for the rest of their lives. In our minds, once a student, always a student. How do we try to prepare you for the future?

In today’s targeted report, let’s take a quick look at the linkages between environmental education and climate and eco-anxiety and what you might do about it. And we’ll describe what we do to help you cope with those feelings. But first, let’s do a little housekeeping.

Student Climate Anxiety

What I’m about to report to you is not the result of a formal study, but rather simply my informal interpretation of student comments made directly to me during just one of a great many class discussion sessions. Because this is certainly not a formal study, I’ll keep the specific details extremely vague so that no specific year, semester, class, or any individual can be identified. Consequently, if you want to put these highly generic and purposely vague observations into the category of “a little birdie told me…” you are more than welcome to do so.

All I’ll say is that my insights into some of the feelings and concerns expressed to me by students come from relatively recent classes in the WSU School of the Environment where I’ve been teaching senior-level courses in subjects such as conservation biology, restoration ecology, wildlife ecology, wetland ecology, and occasional special graduate seminars.

So when I talk about “environmental science” I’m broadly interpreting and using the term as an umbrella for a variety of senior-level ecological science courses. The gender composition is often almost exactly 50/50. The majority of students (>90%) typically are academic majors from the School of the Environment including wildlife ecology and conservation science, environmental and ecosystem science, forest ecology and management, and earth science and geology. Other students are generally non-majors from other science disciplines taught outside of the School. Most of the students (>60%) are seniors while the remainder are juniors.

Expressing Climate Anxiety

In my various courses I often have discussions with students how they feel about climate change and specific environmental issues to generate engagement and enhance our studies about the technical materials we cover. In just one such representative class discussion, I asked a moderately large group of students (>75)  “…do you ever have any feelings or thoughts that might be called climate grief, climate anxiety, or environmental or eco-anger, fear, or depression?” A full 90% of students answered, yes (Fig. 1). 

Pie chart of student climate anxiety

Even those who answered, no, often indicated that they were aware of these feelings, but chose to ignore them because they felt there was nothing they could do about big environmental issues anyway. And again, if you’re curious, 4% of the students somehow managed to talk around the issues without clearly indicating to me whether or not they felt any climate anxiety.

This simple observation that a great many of our students express anxiety about our future world shouldn’t be surprising. After all, climate and eco-anxiety are increasing throughout the world.

For example, a major 2021 survey of 10,000 young people (16 – 25 years old) in ten countries including the U.S. and the U.K. found that 59% were very or extremely worried about climate change and over 45% of respondents said that these feelings affected their daily life.  A 2019 study in the U.S. also revealed that almost half (47%) of 18-34 year olds indicated that stress about climate change affected their daily lives. 

A 2020 study reported in Climatic Change reported that nearly 60% of a sample of people aged 27-45 in the U.S. were “very” or “extremely concerned” about the carbon footprint of having children. Nearly 97% expressed worry and concern about prospects for children under a future of climate change. Additional studies continue to confirm these types of results (e.g., Front Psychol.; Child Adolesc Ment Health.).

Blah, Blah, Blah

Many of these expressed emotions come from frustration and anger (see: Greta Thunberg) over the limited responses and inability of governments to address climate change quickly enough to avert future climate disasters and a rapidly worsening global climate. Just as was discovered in these formal studies, some students in my classes have also confessed to me that they wonder if they even should have children given what the world might look like just a few decades down the road.

It should be a major cause for concern among everyone when our youth loses hope for the future.

There are potentially many ways that students and others may deal with feelings of climate anxiety. It’s natural for faculty and universities to think about adding instructional support and other kinds of support services for students, and we have and do (see: Cougar Health Services – Mental HealthCrisis Support; Student Care Network).

I dare say that given the relative explosion in mental health issues that Covid either triggered or helped expose, that mental health is now an openly-discussed and high priority issue for all of education and society in general. It’s hardly just students in the broadly-defined natural sciences and environmental sciences that may be affected by anxiety, depression, and other factors affecting mental health.

Among the many climate-related discussions in my classes, I also discuss how we might deal with climate anxiety: “…given that many of you are graduating, near graduating, or are other advanced students, do you feel that training of future students in disciplines within the School of the Environment would benefit by being exposed to how to deal with feelings of climate anxiety and eco-grief as working professionals (e.g., such as medical professionals and others receive training on how to deal with the emotional impacts of their jobs)? 

The response to this discussion topic was also overwhelmingly positive with a full 96% of people answering either “yes” or that they wouldn’t need it personally, but could see that it might help other people (Fig. 2). 

Pie chart of students wanting climate anxiety class

One ad hoc comment that was commonly included by some students was that they felt the class should not be a required course, but should be an elective for those who wanted it.

It should not be surprising that students might want instruction and advice in how to process and deal with climate and eco-anxiety. New university courses on coping with stress, depression, and anxiety are extremely popular.

Seeking Happiness

Dr. Laurie Santos, a cognitive scientist and Professor of Psychology at Yale University, began teaching a class called Psychology and the Good Life in 2018 and it immediately became a major success, billed as the most popular class in the university’s 300-year history (see: New York Times – Yale’s Happiness Professor Says Anxiety is Destroying her Students). 

If you enjoy podcasts, Dr. Santos publishes The Happiness Lab, where she explores various aspects of seeking and finding happiness. 


Highly Recommended Listening: 

Similarly, our colleague from across the state, Dr. Jennifer Atkinson, a professor of environmental humanities at the Univ. of Washington, offers a popular class on climate change and dealing with climate grief and ecological grief.

 Podcast: Jennifer Atkinson – Facing It – Episode 1: Facing Down Climate Grief

“The age of climate crisis is upon us, and grief and anxiety are on the rise. Our pilot episode introduces the emotional burden of climate change, and why despair leaves so many people unable to respond to this existential threat. Overcoming that paralysis is the first step in moving to action, and yet official climate strategies rarely address this emotional toll.

Meanwhile, frontline communities — particularly people of color, indigenous communities, and other historically-marginalized groups — are experiencing the heaviest mental health impacts of climate disruption and displacement.” — Jennifer Atkinson


What to Do About Climate Anxiety & Environmental Grief

While neither I nor any of my colleagues in the WSU School of the Environment are trained psychologists (that I’m aware of), nonetheless as faculty we try to help students whenever we can. It’s our job. Faculty are often on the front lines of dealing with individual student issues given that we are instructors, supervisors, and mentors to many students.

If students want to talk to us about climate anxiety or other problems, we’re happy to help. Given that the climate crisis and companion losses of biological diversity (extinction) are THE defining issues of our times, now and into the future, we obviously cover many different aspects of climate change in our various courses. 

We have a specific course, The Science and Policy of Climate Change, dedicated entirely to the subject of climate change. However, given the diversity of our classes in earth science, geology, ecology, forestry, wildlife, and environmental science, we study and come at the consequences of climate change from many different angles. It is useful for students to hear from different professors in different contexts and get their perspectives on big environmental issues.

In my own senior-level classes, such as conservation biology and restoration ecology, I necessarily cover climate change in a fair bit of detail, so much so that students often tell me that they thought they knew a lot about climate change, but after taking my classes, they realize how much more there is to learn. But aside from presenting them with the technical details I also attempt to simultaneously discuss and provide advice about how individuals might deal with their feelings about climate change.

There are many ways, both large and small, to deal with the feelings and emotions that the climate crisis generates for people. In this report series in SoE Science News, we’ll begin to describe some of them, so we hope you’ll check into future issues of our reporting. 

Given that we’re teachers, it’s only natural that we’ll start this reporting by giving you an assignment. However, unlike some academic assignments, we think you’ll like this one (see the following report).

Our Next Climate Anxiety Report: Today’s Lab Assignment: Take a Bath  


R. Sayler
WSU School of the Environment

See more stories @ SoE Science News