A Heatwave in October: An Exploration of Climate Anxiety, and Fear

At first I heard just a light mumble about how hot it was here already—a balmy seventy, which, for a Northern California town near the coast at ten in the morning, is significant. I looked up for a second, curious to see who was speaking. They were both gray haired, receding hairlines with well tanned and shining scalps clearly from years of enjoying the heat of the sun on their bare head. In other words, they were likely locals. As he placed his towel and bag down, just having arrived at the beach, he told the other man it was already 91 where he lived, just forty minutes inland.

Tomales Bay. Credit: Oliver Dodd, FlickrCC

“Figured it might be cooler here,” he continued.

It was mid-morning at Shell Beach, a small California state park tucked beside Tomales Bay just north of San Francisco. I had already jumped into the cool water of the bay, and was laying there as I heard these two men talk about the heat.

And like these men, I was at Shell Beach, one of the few open bodies of water in the Bay Are that is not freezing cold, to cool off in the midst of what felt like a common October heatwave. It was the heat that brought us there. It was why the small parking lot for Shell Beach was nearly full before I arrived. It was the heat that we all knew was coming, that the news told us would be significant, rightly alluding to its anomalous nature with constant references to climate change.

There seemed to be an undercurrent of fear in the conversation these men had as I lay there on the beach. I had heard similar talks with slight, hinted worries over the heat, over what it all might mean. It is a specific fear, the fear for the potential this heat, coupled with the winds, could bring. Maybe it will bring fire, or dry croplands, or scorched grass, or power outages just incase a line sparks. The other day I heard one person satirically say that climate

change was clearly not real, a go-to joke I’ve heard so often these days. It seemed to myself, and those I have talked with about this, that climate change was to blame for this heat wave. What else could be the reason?

However, in the temperate Bay Area, September and October can often be the hottest months, so its oddity is surprisingly not so abnormal. Since NOAA began collecting large-scale weather data in 1945, nearly a quarter of every October’s highs in the Bay Area have exceeded 90 degrees. This year, we have already reached a high temperature of 92, but are still not close to the highest ever recorded October temperature of 99 degrees Fahrenheit.

Does this mean that those of us in the Bay Area, fearful of what this weather means for climate change, are wrong? If we look at the average highs of each year, they are consistently becoming hotter, especially over the past two decades. So, not at all.

However, those men hinted at fear as with local reporters, and people I spoke with day to day that week. They were scared feeling, like myself, that we are in the midst of a new kind of experience, one definitively brought on by climate change. Perhaps that fear, my fear, as I sat there in the heat of the day was from the numbers a little over-worrisome. That does not invalidate the feeling I experienced. Yes, it wasn’t exactly climate change specifically that brought about this heat wave, but the fear that it prompted from me, from the media, from many of us who spend so much time, perhaps too much, thinking about climate change, was understandable.

Over the past few decades, there is a growing understanding that the trauma of a changing planet has an impact on our mental well being. To see weather patterns shift wildly is to witness the shift in the world that we played a part in, to see the weather become much more like the shifting plates, inconsistently moving, sometimes slowly and quietly, and then, like now, suddenly and with the force of an earthquake, upending what was once there, making the world new and nearly unrecognizable. As people have come to accept this fear for the future of the climate, psychologists have named it ecological anxiety, or climate anxiety.

While climate change may be the greatest challenge we as a global people must face, oftentimes many do not believe or know that their anxieties have any relation to the current ecological collapse that we are witnessing, at least according to climate and family therapist and Bay Area resident, Emily Chandler.

“People I know who are brilliant and have worked in the climate space for a long time and have had anxiety, they wouldn’t necessarily know there’s a term like ecological anxiety,” Chandler said.

As Chandler put it, climate psychology, the study of the psychological impact of climate change, while present in psychological studies since the seventies, is still in the process of becoming accepted in the psychiatric community and general public. However, she believes there is a slow but sure acceptance that the ideas behind climate psychology are growing. Chandler said that talk of climate change by her clients who she sees outside of her climate specialty, unprompted by her, will often bring up climate change.

“I would see clients who came for other things, like marital distress, and climate issues would come up. They would say, ‘we are really unhappy in such an expensive place, and our relationship is really distressed. And we thought about getting air conditioning, but we’re not sure how to do that in a way that is helpful for us and also not bad for the planet and contributing more damage to the world.’”

From her patients inadvertently talking about climate change, she sees that it is growing as an understandable accepted point of tension in our personal lives. However, the challenge that Chandler, and therapists like her face, is how to address the very specific anxieties that perspire from climate change specifically because patients can never quite leave it, because it is an ever present aspect of our lives.

“Therapists who’ve seen panic and who have seen anxiety in other contexts will say, ‘Okay, step number one is just avoidance. We’re just not going to go into places that seem like you’re gonna get to a 10 out of 10. And we’re just gonna, like, stay safe,” said Chandler. “But it’s totally a stop gap. Eventually, you need to get to a place where you feel, I think, integrated as a person.”

The solutions to climate change themselves are so complex it makes the fatigue of this kind of anxiety so specifically challenging, both to name, and to remedy. However, as Chandler pointed out, it does all begin with naming the problem, and for most of these experiences we have none.

We already understand most of the experience just by being in the world today. We have climate change, now we have the anxiety that accompanies it. We have the fear of some odd weather pattern arriving with unknown consequences. We have the anxiety that the fires may become worse this year, or the winters drier, or uncharacteristically colder. We fear that we cannot control this future. And while this has always been the case, that the future is always out of our control, this future we now think of could mean the end of the human species, are the enormity fo it all the more daunting.

What’s more, the future of this world, of its impact, is not today even a question of if it will come, but rather when. That the world is changing in fundamental ways, and for the worse, holds no doubt for most of us. It’s just a matter of time, of how quickly the change will come. And that uncertainty of “when” and “how fast” and the emotional distress it creates is what Chandler, and many therapists like her, are attempting to address. Despite the enormity of the experience of climate change we all face, despite the conflict between trying to live a beautiful life and also not hiding from the distress of the situation (especially in places much better off in this ever worsening future, such as Europe and North America), people are at least trying to name this new and terrifying emotional experience that we are all facing today. We can move forward from there.

In my old Ford Ranger, burning fuel easily as I drove an hour south back home, lulled by the winding road, I did feel pleasant, relaxed from the cool waters of Tomales Bay and the soft warmth of the sun. The heat was heavy as I rolled down my window, and every moment I passed a tree’s shadow I found relief. Yet, sitting there in the back of my mind, as always, was that little prick of fear, wondering when might be the last time I’ll pass on this road before a fire reaches it, and how soon that future might come, and if that future might be one of hopeful change, or fatalistic inevitability.