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Climate fatigue protest

What is Climate Fatigue, and What Does it Mean?

These days, it has put down roots in the collective consciousness and represents a great concern to the overwhelming majority of us. From the devastation of natural environments to the loss of species, natural disasters that displace or decimate entire communities to a growing list of potential causes of death attributable to air and water pollution, food scarcity, disease and dislocation, the climate crisis is now behaving, well…like a crisis. 

The impact of that shift is multifaceted. It’s influencing a whole host of behaviours and attitudes around the world, from recasting the mould for business growth and development to growing investment into vital technologies like direct-air capture and commercial solar, and evolving consumer habits. It’s also having a profound and multigenerational impact on our physical and mental health, and our ability to act.

Here’s what you need to know about climate fatigue.

What do we mean by climate fatigue? 

Climate fatigue is characterised by a state of emotional exhaustion that comes from choosing to make green choices and make oneself a positive force against climate change, while also feeling powerless to make any difference. It’s the experience of being a voice in a crowd or a drop in the ocean, and it’s a very real phenomenon that many are feeling all around the world. 

With the large corporations and policymakers responsible for so much of what has happened – and what will or will not happen down the road – it’s understandable why so many of us run into that sense of inconsequentiality at times. And, as the effects of the climate crisis continue to snowball, what may once have been passing feelings and moments of apathy are becoming a real staple of life in 2023. 

It's not just an emotional experience, either – although that is plenty powerful in its own right. In the business world, more and more studies and reports are identifying that same sense of climate fatigue reflected in consumer behaviour and choices. Around 20% of consumers are tired of hearing about the climate crisis, despite the fact that the number of people worried about the climate crisis is consistently climbing higher. Often, this is largely attributable to some of the biggest hurdles consumers face – the cost of sustainable products means many simply can’t implement enough changes to their ways of life, sustainable alternatives are (at times) not as practical as what they’re looking to replace. 

The trend is tied into climate doomism – a trending hashtag that takes a ‘throw everything in the air’ and ‘bury one’s head in the sand’ stance with regards to the climate crisis. This hashtag has proved particularly popular on the video-sharing platform TikTok, where videos featuring the tag have collectively garnered over 600,000 views. Interestingly, TikTok’s primary user base is 18–24-year-olds – Gen Z-ers who typically represent one of the most active generations when it comes to climate reform. 

It is growing increasingly difficult for the ‘average person’ to approach the climate crisis with an open, keep-calm-and-carry-on mindset, even for those who aim to spearhead change. 

The risk of climate fatigue

The most obvious risk to growing climate fatigue is that action will dwindle, and that one of the most powerful forces acting on the policymakers and large scale enterprises will quickly turn ineffectual. The more we treat the climate crisis as a foregone conclusion, the fewer incentives businesses will face to improve their practices.

This escalates all the way up to the government level. The Guardian recently reported on the fact that, thanks to recent opinion polls, green parties are anticipated to lose more than a third of their current seats in the European parliament elections in 2024 – a fact which could have a devastating impact on the green deal. In many small ways, climate reform and activism are beginning to slip through fingers.

In the UK, the government has continuously softened its resolve when it comes to implementing vital changes for reaching its targets for carbon neutrality – particularly of late. They announced new licensing measures with a view to bolstering the UK’s own energy capacity – effectively liberating the country from its risky dependence on importing fossil fuels. These licensing rounds are, they claim, also going to streamline the transition to lower carbon emissions, but the government’s continued focus on fossil fuel energy rather than boosting the UK’s clean, renewable infrastructure set alarm bells ringing. This, in addition to backtracking on the 2030 deadline for banning the sale of new diesel and petrol cars – along with approval on the UK’s first deep coal mine in more than three decades – paints a bleak picture.

In response to these developments, ClientEarth released a statement. In that statement, they wrote: 

The UK simply cannot be a climate leader with this approach. It is an approach that will lock the UK into expensive and polluting forms of energy while making it harder to meet its legally binding emissions reduction targets.

While plenty of consumers are growing tired of compromising for the slightly greener choice – making those small but tedious sacrifices in the name of ‘doing their bit’ – instances like these prove exactly where the power lies for the ‘average person’. If climate fatigue is left unchecked and able to extend beyond consumer habits and social media trends – which, in some cases, it already has – then history tells us that policies will swiftly change, promises will be forgotten, and initiatives will lose that vital momentum they need if they’re ever going to get off the start line. 

Is it part of the ebb and flow? 

Maybe – maybe not. It is impossible for everyone to be active all the time, and moments of motionlessness or lost progress are easily forgivable when it’s individuals, rather than prominent corporations or entire governments. 

This Vox article does a good job talking about the ‘finite pool of worry’ – a term coined by Elka Weber in 2006. The basic principle is this: we can only worry about so many bad events at any given time before something needs to be set down. 

The past few years have pushed that finite pool to the point of filling over. The Russo-Ukraine war and, now, the Israel-Hamas war, the cost-of-living crisis, Covid-19, energy wars, and a long list of deadly natural disasters around the world are all more than enough on their own. 

As the climate crisis escalates and contributes more and more to that pool, there’s a real risk that we will be stuck in that ebb for a long time – perhaps irreversibly so. 

So, how do we overcome it?

Already, some of the bigger news sites, charities, and activists are publishing their own guides to getting beyond what is, hopefully, a temporary setback in a much longer story. The trick is to remember that feelings of inadequacy are like rot to a wooden structure; they mean very little at first and can be removed from the equation very quickly. The only danger lies in inaction. 

By refocusing on individual actions and our own small abilities to be of consequence, we can regain whatever it is – passion, fire, hunger, fury – that we need in order to be of big consequence as a collective. The government – and policymakers the world over – have made many sizeable commitments to reversing the damage done to the planet and securing the world for future generations. Those decisions were not made as a result of the policymaker’s own activism – they were the result of sustained, heavy pressure from the masses. 

Reframing what it means to make a difference will take time. Many of us are used to seeing activism as the polar opposite of denial and inaction – a black-and-white split between the deniers and the Greta Thunbergs among us. If we are to overcome – or at least learn to live alongside climate fatigue – we need to reacquaint ourselves with the power of those small victories. 

The climate crisis is having a terrible effect on mental health and wellbeing, along with our physical health. It’s no surprise that, in the wake of so many tragic events, we are beginning to feel powerlessness in the place of motivation and positive, change-the-world fury at policymakers. With the UK’s targets for carbon reductions and neutrality growing ever closer and a General Election on the horizon, there are still plenty of opportunities to make a difference. The biggest mistake would be to assume that climate fatigue is the end of the road. Instead, it could be a pivotal point in human history – a time of pause before we rear against unfair and untenable practices with more force than ever before.

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