Is a healthy dose of climate anxiety beneficial for climate change?

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Environmental activist Greta Thunsberg has become a household name in Western countries due to her school strikes, candid campaigning, and emotive and somewhat blunt speeches on climate change.

She says that she first heard about climate change in 2011 when she was eight years old. The situation made her depressed because little was being done about it. At the time, she stopped talking and eating, lost ten kilograms in two months, and was eventually diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and selective mutism, which means she only speaks when necessary.

Is the “Greta Effect” induced by our global anxiety?

If Greta had not experienced panic and extreme concern about climate change, where would the world be now? The “Greta Effect” would not have gone viral.

After struggling with depression for a few years and convincing her family to reduce their carbon footprint, she began her school strikes.

Greta’s activism has received worldwide media attention and shamed countries into stepping up and taking action. She has led by example by refusing to fly to UN Climate Action Summit in New York and sailing from Europe to the USA instead. 

People from all around the world have begun to speak out and change their ways due to Greta’s influence. Her views on flying less and using trains instead of planes have been attributed to a steady fall in the number of domestic airline passengers across Europe. Even KLM airlines has jumped on board the “flight shame” movement and encouraged passengers to use trains on shorter journeys to reduce the environmental impact from flying. Not everyone agrees that KLM’s actions are motivated by social responsibility, as the airline has shifted the focus to individual behaviour rather than changing the aviation industry.

New research finds that the impact of climate change motivates behaviour changes

While the devastating news about climate change can cause anxiety, it also motivates behavioural changes. Latest figures from the American Psychology Association (APA), based on a survey conducted in December 2019, reveal that people are taking some steps to combat climate change, with 6 in 10 saying they have changed behaviour to reduce their contribution to climate change. Nearly three-quarters (72%) say they are very or somewhat motivated to make changes.

The APA survey also found that the most common motivations for behaviour changes among those who have taken action to reduce their contribution to climate change are wanting to preserve the planet for future generations (52%), followed by hearing about climate change and its impacts in the news (43%).

When people who have already made or are willing to make changes were asked what action they would take, the most common behavioural changes were as follows:

  • Reducing waste, including recycling (89%)
  • Upgrading insulation in their homes (81%)
  • Limiting utility use in their homes (79%)
  • Using renewable energy sources, such as solar panels or purchasing electricity from a renewable energy supplier (78%)
  • Consuming less in general (77%)
  • Limiting air travel (75%)

The catch-22 of climate anxiety: new challenges and questions for social policy

Do we need a dose of climate anxiety from either experiencing a disaster or seeing the effects of others in order to be motivated to take effective climate change action and change our behaviours?

According to the APA, “Psychological research shows us that when people learn about and experience local climate impacts, their understanding of the effects of climate change increases. A quarter of those who have not yet made a behaviour change to reduce their contribution to climate change say personally experiencing environmental impacts of climate change (e.g., natural disasters, extreme weather conditions) (25%) or seeing environmental impacts of climate change in their community (24%) would make them want to try to reduce their contribution to climate change.”

This presents social policy researchers and advisors, psychologists, and mental health organisations working directly with those experiencing climate anxiety with an interesting dilemma. It raises many questions for further research and analysis:

  • How much climate anxiety is enough to motivate individuals to change their behaviours?
  • When will governments begin to recognise climate anxiety as the next big social policy issue?
  • How much climate anxiety and activism is required before governments develop a plan and a vision for climate change that puts wellbeing ahead of economic outcomes?
  • How can support agencies provide effective mental health services to individuals experiencing climate anxiety?
  • Is there a need for whole-of-community climate anxiety support responses in addition to individualised treatment, given that climate anxiety can be experienced both collectively and individually?
  • What will it take to encourage businesses to seriously consider the affects of their manufacturing and production actions to reduce their carbon emissions, as well as the impacts of the products they manufacture, distribute, and/or sell to ensure these products either directly or indirectly alleviate, rather than accelerate climate anxiety?
  • What constitutes the tipping point of climate anxiety – rather than inspiring people to take action, it prevents them from being empowered to take action because they are debilitated by the condition?

Copyright © L.A. Golding 2020

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