Motivation and emotion/Book/2023/Climate change emotion

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Climate change emotion:
What is the relationship between climate change and emotion?

Overview[edit | edit source]

Picture this: Sometime this century, we will reach a point where heat waves, storms, droughts, melting glaciers, rising sea-levels, and poor air quality become so frequent and intense that large swaths of animals go extinct, or struggle to survive. Where the vast majority of humans across the world will experience at least one of the following events[grammar?]: mass famine, disease, war, displacement, worsening economic and social inequality, or death. How do you feel hearing about this? Why do you feel that way? And how long will this feeling last?

Climate change can elicit various emotional reactions, and can be both positive and/or negative. The most common set of emotions related to the perceived threat of climate change can range from fear, anger, guilt, despair, and sadness to happiness and joy. Interpreting climate change as a non-immediate threat can reduce the intensity of the emotions experienced. On the contrary, believing that climate change poses an imminent threat to the survival of an individual and their descendents increased emotional responses related to the threat of climate change. Individuals[grammar?] reactions to climate change are also influenced by social norms, values, and beliefs. It can also be influenced by other environmental influences such as perceived government action, media framing, family upbringing, and through schooling. For many, avoidance of negative emotions such as fear and guilt can lead people to ignore the state of climate change in order to not interfere with their current life circumstances and demands. This can lead to a form of learned helplessness, as climate change fails to be mitigated despite individual and governmental efforts to combat it, people become less motivated to act on climate. Climate resilience can reduce negative emotional states and prevent widespread mental health problems across a region.

Focus questions:

  • What categories of emotion are there?[vague]
  • How does psychological distance to climate change effect the intensity of emotions?
  • How do social, cultural, and geographical factors shape emotional responses to the climate change threat?
  • How do people develop learned helplessness as a result of climate change?
  • What is the role of social identity theory in explaining group based emotions towards climate change?

What core emotions are commonly associated with perception of the climate change threat[edit | edit source]

[Provide more detail]

Positive Emotions[edit | edit source]

One of the positive emotions related to climate change perception is optimism. The group of Optimists have a higher percentage of people who believe in climate change, and believe it to be a serious issue for the future (Schneider et al., 2021).[1] How they differ from those with exclusively negative emotions, is that they strongly believe in their ability to mitigate the impact of climate change[grammar?].

Optimism as an emotional reaction to the threat of climate change is usually accompanied with hopeful attitudes towards the opportunities of technological advancements, and economic growth related to the transition to a carbon neutral world (Schneider et al., 2021; Bohm et al., 2023).[1][2]

Such optimistic people are also more likely to adopt more low-carbon behavioural practices in replacement of high carbon behaviours. Such actions include energy saving, second hand shopping, active transport replacements, recycling, and composting behaviours (Brosch, 2021).[3] However, amongst the current research, there is little evidence that addresses the causes of optimism, whether through media influences, friends, families, or genetic predispositions.

Negative Emotions[edit | edit source]

Anger is one of the common core negative emotions experienced in relation to climate change (Chu and Yang, 2019)[4]. Anger can be caused by perceived lack of climate action by government, and societal forces (Brosch, 2021)[3]. Anger can also be directed at specific countries or companies who are perceived to be more responsible for climate action than another (Brosch, 2021)[3]. This anger can also be fuelled by perceived effects on inequality between marginalised identities (Gender, Sex, race, culture, sexual orientation, political affiliation) and between global north and global south countries.

In the other direction, those who disbelieve in the legitimacy of climate change as a threat, are likely to express anger towards government, society, or other external social structures for believing in the severity of climate change or climate action (Brosch, 2021)[3]. The intensity of anger can vary across individuals and between countries. Acceptable ways to express emotions between cultures may be an influencing factor on the reliability of cross-cultural research into climate change emotions when surveying and self-report measures are utilised.

Fear as a concrete, core emotion, can be caused by the effects of climate change on oneself, future generations, or the natural environment, but can also be caused by fear that climate change will not be addressed at a systemic level (Wang and Chen, 2022)[5]. It can also lead to the concept of learned helplessness.

Similarly, to the consequences of fear, sadness can be provoked by a sense of helplessness and fear of the effects of climate change, particularly when these thoughts are seen to be materialised as imminent and unchangeable (Brosch, 2021)[3]. Persistent fear can result in negative psychological outcomes and lead to the development of further comorbid conditions such as depression (Searle et al., 2010)[6].

Guilt and shame are other notable negative, concrete, core emotions experienced by those who are aware of climate change. they can be experienced in an individual, and group appraisal (Pihkala, 2022).[7] At the individual level, people may feel that they do not adopt enough eco-friendly behavioural practices (Rees et al., 2015).[8] It can also be due to the feeling that they may not be doing enough to address systemic changes that need to happen in order to mitigate the effects of climate change (Rees et al., 2015).[8] At a group level, an individual may perceive that their ingroup is not doing enough to prevent negative effects on intergroup peoples (Mackay et al., 2021).[9]

How does age play a role in the intensity of climate change emotions?[edit | edit source]

Some recent research has found potential age differences in the frequency and intensity of such emotions. A longitudinal study from the USA, found that negative emotions experienced in relation to climate change were more prevalent amongst younger generations than in older generations (Swim et al., 2022).[10] This effect has been shown to increase with current and emerging younger generations of youth. The childhood foundation found that within Australia, 44 percent of children between 10 and 14 years of age were fearful of the effects of climate change (Tucci et al., 2007)[11]. A recent survey  conducted in 2019 found that 89 percent of 7-to-25-year old’s were fearful of the effects of climate change (Chiw et al., 2019).[12] However, there are very little comparative research findings that use similar measures or universal questions to measure fear, and age ranges vary between studies so it is hard to provide reliable statistics on negative emotions and climate change threat perception.

Case Study

One ten year old participant in Leger-Goods et al., 2023 qualitative study stated: "It's a little bit, just like thinking what's going to happen, and if it's nothing if the Angst, whole like the... Well, the ice melts, and then there's no polar bear. No... Most of the animals are dead... So sometimes it is kind of... well... Scary"

Another child, 12 years of age expressed the persistent added stress of the prospect that ecological collapse presents in their life: "It really stresses me out a lot... So, yeah, it adds stress. [What stresses you out?] Stress. Well, it's especially the changes in habitat... and that even if we stopped polluting like now on the giant planet... even if we did nothing... actually it's going to last years."


How is Eco-Anxiety related to climate change emotional responses?[edit | edit source]

Those with eco-anxiety exhibit the negative emotions related to climate change and is a phenomenon characterised by anxiety over destructive effects of climate change on people and the environment. It is also defined by feelings of grief related to loss of life and environment (Kurth and Pihkala, 2022).[14] Finally, eco-anxiety intersects with moral reactions to climate change; feeling guilt, shame, and  a sense of wrongdoing over their own impact or their groups impact on worsening climate change (Kurth and Pihkala, 2022).[14] Those with eco-anxiety are more likely to exhibit a heightened level of distress when seeing environmental disasters in the media, and during first hand experiences of environmental damage (Clayton and Karazsia, 2020).[15] Those with eco-anxiety suffer long-term obsessive thoughts about such issues, and are less likely to be able to pay attention to daily tasks (Clayton and Karazsia, 2020).[15]This can lead to social isolation and rumination, and therefore, an increased risk of developing co-morbid mental health conditions such as depression, OCD, and other anxiety disorders (Clayton and Karazsia, 2020).[15] Those from ethnic minorities, women and gender non-conforming people, previous mental health illnesses, the young, and those from countries around the equator who are more likely to be negatively impacted by the effects of climate change disproportionately suffer from eco-anxiety (Clayton, 2020; Standen et al., 2022).[15][16] Those who engaged in climate activism, as an adaptive form of coping, were more resilient to the effects of eco-anxiety and were able to reduce the symptoms (Stanley et al., 2021).[17]

What is the role of cultural values in commonly expressed emotional responses towards the climate crisis?[edit | edit source]

People are more or less likely to exhibit certain core emotions in one culture as opposed to another. Bohm et al., 2023 recruited participants from France, Germany, and Norway to take part in a survey assessing people’s perceptions of climate change, their emotional responses, and motivations for behavioural change.[18] French and German participants experienced more anger and fear, which motivated them to engage in more individual c02 reductive practices.[18] Whereas Norwegian participants were more likely to feel hopeful for the future of the climate and support increases in taxes for the collective effort towards climate change mitigation.[18] As the study suggests, between global northern, traditionally western countries, there are differences in cultural values and appraisals related to climate change, which drives certain emotional responses (Bohm et al., 2023).[18] Norway, being more secular and egalitarian due to its hope appraisals for innovation and technological advancement through collective costs of higher taxes (Bohm et al., 2023).[18] Then there is France and Germany who present more “hierarchical and traditional” values whereby fear based appraisals drive support for policies geared towards limiting high carbon behavioural practices (Bohm et al., 2023).[18] Findings such as these emphasize how governments and individuals reinforce one another, and the intensity of emotions experienced. Governments who juxtapose these cultural values and demands for change, amplify feelings of anger and resentment (Stoll-Kleemann, 2001).[19]

Limitation of the view of cultural values.[edit | edit source]

A limit of such studies involves the role and strength of fossil fuel lobbyists in media and governmental influence over the public. Norway has nationalised more of their fossil fuel industries which leads to less influence from private corporations over advertisements, climate change responsibility perceptions, as opposed to those in other western countries, whereby individual action can be pushed as the solution to climate change as opposed to more systemic approaches.

Construal-level theory and climate change emotion.[edit | edit source]

One way of understanding the intensity of climate change emotions experienced between-people is through the concept of Construal-Level theory. If the effects of climate change are perceived as more distant and abstract, the corresponding emotion will be much less intense and possibly non-existent. If the threat is seen as more immediately threatening, to oneself, or to their offspring, then the individual is likely to feel negative emotions related to climate change more immensely. Research within Australia by Wang et al., 2019 has shown that amongst 319 participants, when the threat of climate change is seen as psychologically close, it intensified emotions related to climate change and further motivated pro-environmental behaviours.[20] However, while the psychological distance component of construal level theory showed significant results, high level construal, or thinking of climate change as an abstract issue, did not show significant associations with decreased motivation to engage in climate friendly behaviours.

While construal-level theory can predict negative emotions associated with climate change, it may not be completely predictive of eco-friendly behavioural changes (Ejelov et al., 2018).[21] Brugger (2020) argues that construal-level theory should not be relied on to as it requires the individual to hold consistent and stable appraisals of psychological distance, which he says does not hold when assessing the fluid changes in threat perception climate change poses to people.[22] However, rather than neglecting the application of construal-level theory entirely, it can be applied using alternative theories such as the social identity theory to address the reasons for change in beliefs of psychological distance towards climate change effects.

Social Identity Theory[edit | edit source]

A diagram portraying the process of social identity formation

Where construal-level theory has gaps in its associations with climate friendly behaviours, social identity theory can explain mediations between negative emotions, and climate friendly behaviours, as it involves group norms and expectations that give validity to people’s emotional responses to the climate change threat. Changes in perceived psychological distance can be as a result of changing group norms and emotions. Group-based guilt occurs when an individual feels as if their in-group is contributing to the trend of global warming (Ferguson and Branscombe, 2010).[23] Similarly, group-based anger occurs when the ingroup feels as if the outgroup is not doing enough to address the effects of climate change (Williams, 2023).[24]

In-groups form norms and expectations for behaviours that members should exhibit to be accepted within the in-group (Scheepers and Ellemers, 2019).[25] Failing to meet these norms and expectations can lead to anxiety, and social isolation (Scheepers and Ellemers, 2019).[25] People who identify with in-groups such as environmental activists groups, those living in vulnerable pacific islands, and marginalised communities who may be disproportionately impacted by the actions of the out-group (Williams, 2023).[24] There is also research to suggest that intragroup conflict such as that between police enforcement and climate activists can heighten group-based anger (Rees et al., 2015).[26] For those where the threat is not as impactful to the ingroup, such as those in rich countries, and workers in the clean electricity sector may experience more positive group-based emotions such as hope and optimism (Williams, 2023).[24] Group-based guilt is also driven by an individual’s perception that humans have caused climate change, especially when they believe their country has been significantly responsible for climate change (Rees et al., 2015).[26]

Learned helplessness[edit | edit source]

Belief in a lack of efficacy when it comes to climate change mitigation, can lead to learned helplessness. Learned helplessness is a phenomenon whereby an individual will believe they are unable to make a meaningful impact on preventing climate change, so they will resist any opportunities to engage in climate activism, or climate change mitigation as they believe the effects are inevitable and unavoidable regardless (Scwaab et al., 2022).[27] This can lead to a feedback loop whereby negative emotions are reinforced by learned helplessness, and withdrawal from climate action becomes more engrained (Scwaab et al., 2022).[27]

Cunsolo and Ellis (2018) found that people who felt more grievance over climate change were more likely to feel hopeless, and were at a higher risk of developing anxiety or depression.[28] Similarly, Hickman et al., (2021), found that 40 percent of people stated that they felt hopeless regarding how they can help mitigate climate change. Amongst these people, they were also reported heightened anxiety and depressive symptoms when thinking about climate change.[29]

Figure 1: Concern for climate change can present itself through activism

Quiz[edit | edit source]

Answer the following questions:

1 Alex does not worry about climate change because he believes it will not effect[grammar?] him in his lifetime. What theory best describes her lack of emotional response?

Social identity theory
Threat appraisal theory
Construal level theory
Learned helplessness

2 Media framing can play a key role in emotional responses to the threat of climate change:


Conclusion[edit | edit source]

Climate change can elicit Strong or weak emotions. Much of this is subject to a range of different biases through means of cognitive appraisals. perceiving climate change as an immediate threat, and one caused by humans can elicit feelings of guilt, anger, fear, and sadness. Integration of all the negative emotions of climate catastrophe, particularly fear, can lead to a long-term condition called eco-anxiety, and is an emerging trend amoungst[spelling?] younger people. Belief in climate change in the 20th century as a natural non-human induced phenomenon was related to less negative emotions. This was is also true for those who perceived climate change as a future, distant problem that would not affect the individual's immediate life circumstances. The in-group, out-group model can help to understand the intensity of one's emotions in relation to perceived threat; identifying climate change as negatively impacting themselves, people within their social groups, and their immediate and future offspring can evoke many strong, negative emotions. Threat perception can be heavily influenced by media and background education on climate change. Positive emotions in the form of hope and by extension: optimism, is commonly linked to reassurance that technological advancements and future government action will offset climate change. Integrating social identity theory, learned helplessness, and construal level theory can help explain variance between peoples' intensity and experiences of certain core emotions.

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

  1. 1.0 1.1 Schneider, Claudia R; Zaval, Lisa; Markowitz, Ezra M (2021-12-01). "Positive emotions and climate change". Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences. Human Response to Climate Change: From Neurons to Collective Action 42: 114–120. doi:10.1016/j.cobeha.2021.04.009. ISSN 2352-1546. 
  2. Böhm, Gisela; Pfister, Hans-Rüdiger; Doran, Rouven; Ogunbode, Charles A.; Poortinga, Wouter; Tvinnereim, Endre; Steentjes, Katharine; Mays, Claire et al. (2023). "Emotional reactions to climate change: a comparison across France, Germany, Norway, and the United Kingdom". Frontiers in Psychology 14. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2023.1139133/full. ISSN 1664-1078. 
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 Brosch, Tobias (2021-12-01). "Affect and emotions as drivers of climate change perception and action: a review". Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences. Human Response to Climate Change: From Neurons to Collective Action 42: 15–21. doi:10.1016/j.cobeha.2021.02.001. ISSN 2352-1546. 
  4. Chu, Haoran; Yang, Janet Z. (2019-12). "Emotion and the Psychological Distance of Climate Change". Science Communication 41 (6): 761–789. doi:10.1177/1075547019889637. ISSN 1075-5470. 
  5. Wang, Xueqi; Chen, Jin (2022-09-01). "Fear emotion reduces reported mitigation behavior in adolescents subject to climate change education". Climatic Change 174 (1): 1. doi:10.1007/s10584-022-03419-7. ISSN 1573-1480. 
  6. Searle, Kristina; Gow, Kathryn (2010-01-01). "Do concerns about climate change lead to distress?". International Journal of Climate Change Strategies and Management 2 (4): 362–379. doi:10.1108/17568691011089891. ISSN 1756-8692. 
  7. Pihkala, Panu (2022). "Toward a Taxonomy of Climate Emotions". Frontiers in Climate 3. doi:10.3389/fclim.2021.738154/full. ISSN 2624-9553. 
  8. 8.0 8.1 Rees, Jonas H.; Klug, Sabine; Bamberg, Sebastian (2015-06-01). "Guilty conscience: motivating pro-environmental behavior by inducing negative moral emotions". Climatic Change 130 (3): 439–452. doi:10.1007/s10584-014-1278-x. ISSN 1573-1480. 
  9. Mackay, Caroline M. L.; Schmitt, Michael T.; Lutz, Annika E.; Mendel, Jonathan (2021-12-01). "Recent developments in the social identity approach to the psychology of climate change". Current Opinion in Psychology. Psychology of Climate Change (2021) 42: 95–101. doi:10.1016/j.copsyc.2021.04.009. ISSN 2352-250X. 
  10. Swim, Janet K.; Aviste, Rosemary; Lengieza, Michael L.; Fasano, Carlie J. (2022-03-01). "OK Boomer: A decade of generational differences in feelings about climate change". Global Environmental Change 73: 102479. doi:10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2022.102479. ISSN 0959-3780. 
  11. Tucci, Joe; Mitchell, Janise; Goddard, Chris (2007-07-03). Children's fears, hopes and heroes: modern childhood in Australia (in en). 
  12. Chiw, A., & Ling, H. S. (2019). Young people of Australia and climate change: Perceptions and concerns. Millennium Kids, 1-31. Chicago
  13. Léger-Goodes, Terra; Malboeuf-Hurtubise, Catherine; Hurtubise, Karen; Simons, Kyra; Boucher, Amélie; Paradis, Pier-Olivier; Herba, Catherine M.; Camden, Chantal et al. (2023-04-20). "How children make sense of climate change: A descriptive qualitative study of eco-anxiety in parent-child dyads". PLOS ONE 18 (4): e0284774. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0284774. ISSN 1932-6203. PMID 37079612. PMC PMC10118127. 
  14. 14.0 14.1 Kurth, Charlie; Pihkala, Panu (2022). "Eco-anxiety: What it is and why it matters". Frontiers in Psychology 13. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2022.981814/full. ISSN 1664-1078. 
  15. 15.0 15.1 15.2 15.3 Hickman, C., Marks, E., Pihkala, P., Clayton, S., Lewandowski, R. E., Mayall, E. E., ... & van Susteren, L. (2021). Climate anxiety in children and young people and their beliefs about government responses to climate change: a global survey. The Lancet Planetary Health, 5(12), e863-e873.
  16. Standen, Jeffrey C.; Spencer, Jessica; Lee, Grace W.; Van Buskirk, Joe; Matthews, Veronica; Hanigan, Ivan; Boylan, Sinead; Jegasothy, Edward et al. (2022-01). "Aboriginal Population and Climate Change in Australia: Implications for Health and Adaptation Planning". International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 19 (12): 7502. doi:10.3390/ijerph19127502. ISSN 1660-4601. PMID 35742752. PMC PMC9223431. 
  17. Stanley, Samantha K.; Hogg, Teaghan L.; Leviston, Zoe; Walker, Iain (2021-03-01). "From anger to action: Differential impacts of eco-anxiety, eco-depression, and eco-anger on climate action and wellbeing". The Journal of Climate Change and Health 1: 100003. doi:10.1016/j.joclim.2021.100003. ISSN 2667-2782. 
  18. 18.0 18.1 18.2 18.3 18.4 18.5 Böhm, G., Pfister, H. R., Doran, R., Ogunbode, C. A., Poortinga, W., Tvinnereim, E., ... & Pidgeon, N. (2023). Emotional reactions to climate change: a comparison across France, Germany, Norway, and the United Kingdom. Frontiers in Psychology, 14.
  19. Stoll-Kleemann, S., O’Riordan, T., & Jaeger, C. C. (2001). The psychology of denial concerning climate mitigation measures: evidence from Swiss focus groups. Global environmental change, 11(2), 107-117.
  20. Wang, Susie; Hurlstone, Mark J.; Leviston, Zoe; Walker, Iain; Lawrence, Carmen (2019). "Climate Change From a Distance: An Analysis of Construal Level and Psychological Distance From Climate Change". Frontiers in Psychology 10. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2019.00230. ISSN 1664-1078. PMID 30853924. PMC PMC6395381. 
  21. Ejelöv, Emma; Hansla, André; Bergquist, Magnus; Nilsson, Andreas (2018). "Regulating Emotional Responses to Climate Change – A Construal Level Perspective". Frontiers in Psychology 9. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2018.00629. ISSN 1664-1078. PMID 29780340. PMC PMC5946018. 
  22. Brügger, A. (2020). Understanding the psychological distance of climate change: The limitations of construal level theory and suggestions for alternative theoretical perspectives. Global environmental change, 60, 102023.
  23. Ferguson, Mark A.; Branscombe, Nyla R. (2010-06-01). "Collective guilt mediates the effect of beliefs about global warming on willingness to engage in mitigation behavior". Journal of Environmental Psychology 30 (2): 135–142. doi:10.1016/j.jenvp.2009.11.010. ISSN 0272-4944. 
  24. 24.0 24.1 24.2 Williams, M. O. (2023). Climate distress and social identity: bringing theory to clinical practice. Frontiers in Psychology, 14. Chicago
  25. 25.0 25.1 Williams, Marc O. (2023-08-31). "Climate distress and social identity: bringing theory to clinical practice". Frontiers in Psychology 14. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2023.1126922. ISSN 1664-1078. PMID 37720638. PMC PMC10501148. 
  26. 26.0 26.1 Rees, J. H., Klug, S., & Bamberg, S. (2015). Guilty conscience: motivating pro-environmental behavior by inducing negative moral emotions. Climatic change, 130, 439-452.
  27. 27.0 27.1 Schwaab, L., Gebhardt, N., Friederich, H. C., & Nikendei, C. (2022). Climate Change Related Depression, Anxiety and Stress Symptoms Perceived by Medical Students. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 19(15), 9142.
  28. Cunsolo, A., & Ellis, N. R. (2018). Ecological grief as a mental health response to climate change-related loss. Nature Climate Change, 8(4), 275-281.
  29. Hickman, C., Marks, E., Pihkala, P., Clayton, S., Lewandowski, R. E., Mayall, E. E., ... & van Susteren, L. (2021). Climate anxiety in children and young people and their beliefs about government responses to climate change: a global survey. The Lancet Planetary Health, 5(12), e863-e873.

External links[edit | edit source] A TED talk on climate change emotions. Relevant news article on mental health care in relation to climate eco-anxiety. The impact of personal motivation on perceived effort and performance of pro-environmental behaviors. Eco-anxiety: What it is and why it matters.