You Need To Stop Feeling Guilty About Climate Change

Dealing with environmental guilt: climate change is not your fault

Tabitha Whiting
7 min readJul 20, 2019
Photo by Niklas Hamann on Unsplash

Environmental guilt (also known as eco anxiety, eco guilt, or green guilt) is real. It’s defines as ‘The feeling that you should be doing more to help the environment and save the planet.’

Climate change is a huge problem for the entirety of humanity. We’re already seeing its impacts, with reports of extreme weather now the norm in our news and media. We’ve known about global warming for decades, and yet we still haven’t managed to cut our collective greenhouse gas emissions to a safe level. Some prominent people are even still denying the existence of climate change. It’s no wonder that we’re worried about it.

“We can say that a significant proportion of people are experiencing stress and worry about the potential impacts of climate change, and that the level of worry is almost certainly increasing.”

— Susan Clayton, Professor of Psychology and Environmental Studies

As I see it, this worry and anxiety stems from powerlessness. We think about the future and it seems like we’re heading towards an inevitable climate crisis which will deeply effect the future of the planet and of people. And as individuals, we feel completely helpless to stop that happening. I

My own environmental guilt

My journey towards acting in a more environmental manner started when I went vegan in 2016. I made this decision mostly for ethical reasons, but I soon began to learn about the environmental impact of animal agriculture too.

From there, I became passionate about plastic pollution and began trying to live a zero waste lifestyle. Ultimately this plastic-free lifestyle wasn’t sustainable for me, and I came to believe that relying on individual behaviour change wasn’t the solution to climate change. And so I reverted to a lot of the packaged goods I had tried to eliminate. This is where my personal environmental guilt began.

Even though I knew that it wasn’t manageable for me at that time, I still felt like I’d gone backwards, like I should be doing more, trying harder. I felt like a fraud writing about climate change, and encouraging the people around me to care about the environment.

I’m not the only one feeling this way

People gather for a plastic-free workshop during Oxford Green Week 2018
Plastic-free workshop during Oxford Green Week 2018

And I don’t think I’m the only one feeling this way. I’ve run a few different talks and events around Oxford on the topics of climate change and plastic pollution. At every event the question of how to deal with personal guilt arose during the Q&A session — guilt about the amount of plastic waste they produced in a week, or guilt about the carbon emissions of a flight home to visit family in Sweden.

And climate scientists feel it too. I recently attended a talk by Dr Debbie Hopkins, a researcher at Oxford University’s Transport Studies Unit on climate change and transport. She opened by saying that in the past year she’d flown to New Zealand four times to see family and attend climate change conferences, and that she felt incredibly guilty about this. But she also said she wouldn’t stop flying to New Zealand — her family live there, and that’s just a decision she’s had to come to terms with.

A recent BBC Radio 4 series called ‘Costing The Earth’ had an episode on eco-anxiety. For the program they interviewed several individuals on how they feel about climate change, with many speaking about feeling anxious about the future state of the earth. They also interviewed a marine biologist named Tim Gordon, who said:

“You’ve spent so many months doing it and you just get on with it — you know, you’ve got a job to do. But then occasionally, for no particularly good reason, it’ll strike — you just float into the middle of the water, look around you and think: ‘Wow, it’s all dying’. There’s been times that you cry into your mask because you look around and realise how tragic it is.”

— Tim Gordon, marine biologist

So we’re all feeling anxious, worried, and guilty when it comes to climate change. That’s not good. So how do we manage these feelings?

How to manage eco anxiety

Eco anxiety comes from feeling powerless as an individual against the monumental task of solving climate change. I think the key to managing this anxiety is to rethink the ‘individual’ aspect of that equation.

When it comes to climate change, we are all guilty. But it isn’t an individual guilt. It’s collective guilt. As a race, humans have acted selfishly, focusing on harvesting natural resources to ensure growth, progression, advancement. We didn’t think of, or care enough about, the consequences of our actions. We are all responsible.

At the same time, that responsibility cannot be equally distributed among all individuals. Much of it comes down to the economic incentives of big business and government, which have dictated our use of resources.

Research led by Rick Heede in 2013 found that two-thirds of all industrial carbon dioxide emissions come from just 90 companies, including oil giants like ExxonMobil, BP and Shell. These 90 companies have individually emitted more carbon into the atmosphere than most countries have. And these companies also knew about the effects of carbon dioxide emissions on the planet before the rest of us, and chose to keep quiet about it, instead encouraging us to become more and more reliant on energy from fossil fuels to increase their profit margins and shareholder value.

Focusing on this injustice has helped me to manage my personal feelings of environmental guilt. For real change to happen, we need to change this system and stop our reliance on fossil fuels. And for that to happen, we need change to be implemented from the top, through business and policy. So that has become my focus, in conversation and in writing. It helps to reduce the feeling that I should be doing more as an individual.

Don’t get me wrong — I still think individual behavioural change is important, and should be encouraged. I do what I can. But I also recognise that aspects of environmentally-friendly living, like shopping plastic-free, simply aren’t accessible to most people within our current systems.

Here are some other things that have helped me to manage feelings of environmental guilt:

  • Focusing on the big things. There are some things that we should all be doing to reduce our personal carbon footprint: reducing the amount of meat and dairy we eat, putting pressure on politicians, choosing to cycle or walk when possible, choosing renewable energy providers, talking to others about climate change — if you’re working on those things, you’re making a huge difference to your personal environmental footprint.
  • Stop checking the news. For me, constant reminders of where we’re heading in traditional news don’t help my guilt.
  • Take time off social media. As well as traditional media, social media doesn’t help either. I’m scrolling through Twitter and I’m reminded that most people either don’t believe that climate change is real, or don’t care. Or I’m on Instagram and I feel surrounded by people living perfect eco-friendly lives: somehow managing to fit a year’s worth of waste in a tiny glass jar, mastering home composting, or growing their own fruit and vegetables. Those are all things I aspire to, but in my current rental flat, in a city without a zero waste shop, it just isn’t possible. And seeing it constantly makes me feel guilty about what I’m not doing.
  • Change language to reduce pressure. If you feel that labels like ‘environmentalist’ place too much pressure on you to live a certain way, then don’t use them. I certainly found this with the term ‘zero waste’. Saying that I try to reduce or minimise my impact is something that I can identify better with. You don’t need the labels to prove that you care.
  • Determine what exactly is making you feel guilty. Is there one particular action in your daily routine, or product in your weekly shop which is causing you to feel guilt? If so, then brainstorm ways that you could change this one item or action. If it’s driving to work, for instance, could you opt for public transport or cycling a couple of days a week? If it’s the chemical cleaner you use, could you swap for an eco alternative, or make your own? Or could you raise awareness of the issue by contacting the company and asking them to change their ingredients or packaging? By making action the priority, even in small ways, you’ll feel less helpless.

If you liked this article, you might also like my previous post: ‘We Need To Stop Sustainability Shaming’.



Tabitha Whiting

Exploring the good and the bad of climate change communication and sustainability marketing 🌱