Sustainability and the climate crisis have become a part of the common lexicon. But if our actions are to determine the course of our collective future, what are the emotions that might best drive it? Hope? Anger? Persevering through complacency? What if the fundamental challenge is actually our attention?
Climate anxiety is finding its way into conversations of today, with the closest thing acknowledged so far being Seasonal Affective Disorder.
However, climate fatigue has cropped up in the recent past across the globe, with the Middle East seemingly playing catch up.
According to Dr Rasha Bayoumi, Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Birmingham – Dubai Campus, the youth at COP28 have addressed climate anxiety and, in some spots, climate fatigue.
“With climate anxiety, it’s more of a fear and worry,” Bayoumi says.“The main difference is the emotional impact here, which is the sense of impending doom. With climate fatigue, it’s another stage where you’re emotionally exhausted and desensitized to prolonged exposure to all the information.”
She adds, “You’re likely to develop climate anxiety first, and then when you feel helplessness and hopelessness as humans when you get exposed to it over and over, you reach climate fatigue.”
According to the World Resources Institute, five Middle Eastern nations – Bahrain, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, and Qatar – are among the world’s six most water-stressed countries. And the scarcity of water is only going to worsen with rising temperatures.
Reactions to this statement varying from anger to ambivalence will clue you into where you stand on the climate fatigue spectrum.
It doesn’t help that the problem is multifaceted, encompassing everything from the affluent and inaccessible nature of the mainstream climate movement to the unique environmental challenges the region grapples with.
Echoing the same is Elsy T. Milan, a young climate activist from Lebanon. “People have said caring about the climate is something for the privileged. If you’re rich, you join these organizations, go on these hiking trips, and plant trees. They initially didn’t see it as something necessary.”
Having been at the nexus of several climate conferences, the most recent of them being COP28, she highlights the elitism of the negotiation language as a further barrier to alienating people. “If you’re not in the space of climate action, you won’t understand most of it. Specific topics within energy, global financing, etc., do not address the typical citizen and instead create barriers.”
CLIMATE IS CLIMBING THE PRIORITY LIST
The consistent influx of “doom and gloom” reportage in contrast to the ability to affect change is a direct push towards giving up, despite climate awareness being on the rise.
The lack of such data means there’s no way to gauge an understanding of the region’s climate crisis, let alone the impact of climate fatigue.
The major environmental challenges that will directly impact people and make them care, according to Pranay Kumar, Circular Economy Specialist (CEA, Global), include water scarcity and food security issues.
According to the Stockholm Environment Institute, the UAE will lose up to 6% of its populated and developed coastline by the end of the century.
Milan posits the need for immediate and multifaceted action in such a scenario. “The major focus for the Gulf at the moment is deploying green resources. This includes solar and wind energy and preserving biodiversity. This is the time to take active steps towards fixing things.”
MEDIA AND BATTLING CLIMATE CHANGE
Media coverage taking on a dismal tone has emerged as the foremost counterproductive barrier to climate action and a strong factor in inciting climate anxiety and fatigue.
“Climate reporting and related conversations only tell us what we already know. However, the reporting could be more hopeful, highlighting the progress made while acknowledging much more to do,” says Prof. Tadhg O’Donovan, Chief Scientist at Heriot-Watt University.
Dr. Bayoumi says there are two elements to dealing with climate fatigue: responsive and proactive. “Responsive includes combating, from self-care to seeing a therapist, etc. But the proactive way is to change top-down messaging. A big part of climate fatigue stems from negative messaging and scenarios that look like there’s no exit from them. This triggers the fight and flight in people; they focus on that and freeze, and there’s no way out.”
For Milan, a massive step in the right direction involves the involvement of the youth, ensuing conversations from the sidelines to actual negotiation tables.
More importantly, she says, “The media has a very important part to play because people are divided. And climate is increasingly becoming a political issue instead of a scientific issue. This needs to change.”
Climate fatigue isn’t as straightforward as mere ambivalence to the news. Dr. Bayoumi highlights how policymakers might hesitate to lean into positive top-down messaging for fear of the problem not being taken seriously.
In light of this, Masdar’s recent campaign that chose humor to underline the need for sustainability while not downplaying its inconvenience in daily life is just what we might need.
In terms of data dives, the Environment Agency Abu Dhabi and PureHealth have agreed to conduct specialized studies and research programs to explore the impact of climate change on public health in Abu Dhabi. While it mentions exploring the impact on community wellbeing, only time will tell if mental health and climate fatigue will be included.
Given the multicultural nature of the region, however, Dr. Bayoumi says, “We are the perfect place to test out treatments and solutions. The UAE gives you 100+ nationalities to test and see how different things will manifest. Anxiety may manifest very emotionally in one culture and very physically in other cultures.”
As Prof. Tadhg reiterates, climate reports from the World Meteorological Organization provisionally confirmed that 2023 was the warmest year on record. This could trigger a spiral or have you indifferently embrace the apocalypse. The takeaway here is neither helps, and it’s critical to start acknowledging the same.