In the past few years, the effects of climate change have become undeniably apparent. In the last two years alone, headlines have been full of climate disasters — from forest fire smoke turning San Francisco’s sky luminous red, to torrential flooding in Germany and China.
In the face of events like this, anxiety and fear about climate change is undoubtedly increasing. Far from being indicative of mental illness, climate anxiety (also known as eco-anxiety or climate distress) more neatly fits under the banner of “practical anxiety”: fear that motivates change to help us respond to threats. Even though this in itself is useful, the experiences of fear can be unrelenting, and have serious consequences for mental health and functioning.
Young people are more at risk than those from older generations; an uncertain and dangerous climate situation poses the most risk to their futures, after all.
It’s with this in mind that Caroline Hickman and colleagues at the University of Bath set out to investigate the extent of young people’s feelings and thoughts on climate change, and the functional impact associated with them. In their global study, posted as a preprint at SSRN, they look how the threats of climate change, as well as government response to these threats, affect the emotions and day to day functioning of young people.
How important is it to you to protect our planet’s wildest places? Would you put a price on it — or is it the kind of goal that just can’t be subject to a cost-benefit analysis? If the latter, then for you, protecting Earth’s wilds is a “sacred value”. Patriotism, or the protection of human lives, or diversity in the workplace can be sacred values, too. So what happens when a for-profit organisation embraces such values — is the pursuit of social or environmental values and profit a “win-win”, as is often claimed?
A new paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology: Interpersonal Relations and Group Processes, suggests not — and it’s the value that suffers, as it becomes less sacred. If this is right, then businesses that co-opt such values in their advertising (think no end of outdoor clothing companies that make a big deal about caring for the wilderness, as just one example) are degrading the very values that they claim to promote.
Climate change is a cause of serious concern for many — but that doesn’t mean anxiety about the planet is always at the top of people’s agendas. As we reported last year, the effectiveness of climate change appeals can vary considerably. And other research suggests that worries about the environment can be displaced by other issues (fewer Americans reported concern about climate change after the 2008 financial crisis, for example). This latter phenomenon is known as the “finite pool of worry” hypothesis: that as some concerns creep up our radar, others become neglected.
So with COVID-19 taking up space both in the media and in our minds, are people thinking less about climate change? According to a new study in PNAS, the answer is no: climate change is now such a major concern that even serious threats of another nature don’t diminish fears at all.
The “tragedy of the commons” was popularised in the 1960s as a way of explaining how public or shared resources which we’re incentivised to use can become depleted or ruined by individual self-interest. And because we have shared ownership of public resources we feel we have less responsibility for them and therefore less of an impetus to contribute time, energy or money to keeping them going.
As we become more aware (and more concerned) about threats to the environment, the tragedy of the commons seems even more pertinent. How do we keep parks, rivers, lakes and other local resources well-maintained? According to a new study, published in the Journal of Marketing, it might come down to a sense of ownership — the more we feel a property or resource is ours, the better we’ll take care of it.
There’s no getting around the fact that climate change is an existential crisis of the highest order — but how best to communicate that threat is unclear. Too much pessimism and people become paralysed with anxiety, pushing thoughts about the crisis away altogether. Too much optimism, on the other hand, can lead to complacency — if things are going to be okay, why would we feel the need to engage with what’s going on?
It’s this tension that Brandi S. Morris and colleagues from Aarhus University explore in a new study, published in Humanities and Social Sciences Communications. They suggest that climate change appeals with pessimistic endings could trigger higher engagement with the issue than those that end on an optimistic note.
We all know that it’s vital that we take action to reduce the harm we do to the environment. So understanding the barriers to such action is critical, too. A new paper, published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, identifies a potentially important one: when people believe that it’s important to protect the environment, they’re less likely to act on those beliefs if they’re more religious.
Though COVID-19 is front and centre right now, most people would agree that climate change is the biggest threat facing humanity. As we explored earlier this year, how to engage people to combat that change is a thornier subject. Now a major new meta-analysis, published in Psychological Science, has revealed that particular personality traits are associated with more — or fewer — pro-environmental attitudes and behaviours.
The work has potentially important practical implications. Reframing pro-environmental campaigns to resonate with people who would otherwise be more resistant to them could effect real change. As the researchers write, “personality factors may play a significant and systematic role in such reframing.”
One of the biggest political challenges of this era is getting powerful people to take the threat of climate change seriously. The most straightforward way to do that would be with bottom-up pressure: if the people who vote demand that their leaders take assertive action against climate change, then politicians will have no choice but to do so (at least if they want to get into office, or to stay there). The major challenge to this, in turn, has been the lingering influence of climate denialism: disbelief in the reality that humans are the cause of climate change, or in the seriousness of the problem.
What can be done to combat climate denialism? Back in 2011, the researchers Jonathon P. Schuldt, Sara H. Konrath, and Norbert Schwarz published an article in Public Opinion Quarterly which suggested one possible partial remedy: framing the issue a bit differently. They found that 75.0% of Americans expressed belief in “climate change,” but only 67.7% in “global warming.” It was Republicans driving this effect: among this more politically conservative subset of Americans, the difference was 60.2% versus 44.0%.
Those findings suggested that environmental campaigns and policy initiatives might do better if they refer to “climate change” rather than “global warming”, write Alistair Raymond Bryce Soutter and René Mõttus in a new paper in the Journal of Environmental Psychology. But while some follow-up studies had been conducted on this issue, with fairly mixed results, no one had yet carried out a direct, pre-registered replication. So Soutter and Mõttus attempted to both replicate the original result and expand it to two other countries: the United Kingdom and Australia. (This gave them a total sample size of 5,717, about double that of the original study.)
How environmentally friendly am I really? It’s a question we ask ourselves more and more frequently as the climate emergency remains firmly at the top of the political agenda. So we dutifully eschew single-use purchases, lug our tote bags to the supermarket instead of using plastic bags, and take part in Veganuary, safe in the knowledge we’re doing our bit.
But, as it turns out, we may be overestimating how well we’re actually doing at being green. According to new research published in Basic and Applied Social Psychology, most of us tend to magnify our own environmental efforts, believing we’re doing more than others even when that isn’t the case. The finding is the latest in a number of studies to demonstrate the “better-than-average” effect: we also believe we are more intelligent than others, for example, and that we work harder.
Watching climate activist Greta Thunberg’s passionate speech to world leaders at the UN in New York last September, it was impossible not to be struck by her depth of feeling. For me, it was deeply moving. For a guest speaking on Fox News, this was “climate hysteria” from a “mentally ill Swedish child”.
It’s hardly news to point out that Thunberg is polarising. For everyone who feels shocked and shamed into doing whatever they can — no matter how small — to mitigate climate change, there seems to be someone else who finds her outrage unbearable. But would Thunberg really be more broadly appealing if she did things any differently? Are there, in other words, any lessons from psychological research that she and other activists might bear in mind?