Sarah Jacket Ray has spent her career carving an academic niche at the intersection of environmental and social justice issues. In the late 2010s, when concern about the climate crisis finally began to rise toward its current peak, Ray, a professor of environmental studies at California Polytechnic State University, Humboldt, turned her focus to a relatively new phenomenon entering the discourse: climate anxiety. — “chronic fear of the destruction of the environment”. As Ray began writing and speaking about climate anxiety, she quickly noticed that the people interested in her work changed. “What happened? It got a lot whiter,” she says.
Her growing discomfort prompted her to write an opinion piece Scientific American in March 2021, in which she expressed concern about what she called the “unbearable whiteness” of the climate anxiety conversation. In her words, she “sounded the alarm” that if marginalized people continued to be left out of the discussion, climate anxiety could manifest as fear or anger against marginalized communities and that society would abandon the intersectional approach needed to act on the climate crisis. . .
She wanted to capture the ways in which “white emotions can take all the oxygen in the room.” The very notion of climate anxiety seemed to mean much more to white and rich people experiencing an existential threat for the first time. Climate justice writer Mary Annaïse Heglar has called this “existential exceptionalism”—when the privileged present climate change as human first existential crisis, effectively undoing centuries of oppression that largely targeted the existence of people of color and other marginalized populations.
Ray’s work was “really important and provocative for opening up much-needed critical questions about who is highlighted in the climate anxiety conversation,” says Britt Wray, an expert in human and planetary health at Stanford University and author of the new book Generation Dread: Finding Purpose in an Age of Climate Crisis. Wray’s more recent research shows that while white people may make up the majority of voices in the conversation, climate anxiety is a phenomenon that does not discriminate by race, class or geography.
In 2021, Wray and her colleagues published a study that surveyed 10,000 young people (between the ages of 16 and 25) in various settings around the world, from Nigeria to India, the United Kingdom and Brazil. They found that more than 45 percent of participants said their feelings about the climate crisis were negatively affecting their ability to function on a daily basis – eating, going to work, sleeping, studying. And when the researchers looked at countries where climate disasters had already become more intense, such as Nigeria, the Philippines and India, the proportion reporting distress was much higher—around 75 percent of respondents in some of these places. “It really points to the inequality and injustice wrapped up in climate anxiety as we understand how it plays out in people’s lives,” says Wray.
Part of the reason certain groups dominated the conversation could simply be down to language. The reality is that what the term “climate anxiety” means to a middle-class white European could be completely different from what it means to a poor farmer in Lagos. Why someone might say they experience anxiety stems from a mix of preconceived notions about what anxiety is, their background, and what words are available to them. “Climate anxiety, as a term, is very privileged,” says Ray. “Not to mention all the emotions we don’t even have language for, right?”