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.
Ten thousand participants aged between 16 and 25 years old were recruited via an online survey portal. These participants were based in ten different countries from around the world, as far flung as Australia, Brazil, India, and Finland. All completed a measure of climate anxiety constructed specifically for this study by 11 experts in relevant areas of psychology and law. Participants were not made aware of the topic of the survey before starting.
The measure itself contained eight broad sections; these related to worry about climate change, its impact on their functioning, emotions and thoughts about climate change, as well as feelings of being ignored on the topic, beliefs about government response to the threat, and the emotional impact of that response. In order to more closely investigate particular constructs, such as negative feelings about climate change or negative thoughts about government response, the team also condensed scores from relevant items across these sections during their analyses. And, last but not least, emotional impacts of government responses were split into two scales — the reassurance scale, and the betrayal scale — to allow closer analysis of positive and negative feelings, respectively.
Across all countries, the majority of participants (60%) reported feeling “very” or “extremely” worried about climate change. More than 45% reported that these feelings negatively impacted their daily lives. By country, those expressing the highest amount of worry tended to be from poorer regions, in the Global South, and those who had been more directly impacted by climate change. For example Portugal, where there have in recent years been extensive wildfires, rated highest for worry amongst its neighbours in the Global North.
Participants reported a wide range of negative emotions: 77% said the future was frightening, and over 50% had felt afraid, sad, anxious, angry, powerless, helpless, and/or guilty about climate change. Optimism and indifference, unfortunately, were not often reported. When talking to others about climate change, almost half of participants said their concerns had been ignored or dismissed.
When it came to rating government response, participants were generally unimpressed. Over 60% of respondents disagreed with every positive statement about their government’s climate action, though this did vary significantly between countries. Across all regions, however, feelings of betrayal were higher than those of reassurance.
Correlational analyses indicated close positive relationships between negative thoughts, worry about climate change, and impact on functioning. These factors also correlated strongly with feelings of government betrayal and negative beliefs about their response to the climate threats at hand, suggesting that those who believed the government to be underperforming in their response to climate change experienced more negative psychological consequences. In many, this is likely to constitute Moral Injury – significant psychological distress caused by witnessing a traumatic event that runs against the viewer’s morals, that they are powerless to stop. Not only can Moral Injury further increase mental health risks, the authors say, but it could also open the door to lawsuits based on psychological harm.
The measure used in this study was not standardised, as no suitable measure existed previously, meaning further investigation as to its validity would likely be beneficial. And of course, the data is correlational, meaning that no conclusions about causality can be drawn from this data (no matter how intuitive they may feel).
Even so, taken together, the data collected in study stands as firm evidence that climate anxiety is evident across the globe. This continued stress on the younger members of our populations severely affects their emotions and ability to function day-to-day. Given the timescale of issues at hand, it’s easy to imagine how the rapidly increasing threats of climate change could give rise to mental health issues among many young people, especially if governments continue to fail in their responses. Further research into these climate-specific stressors as precursors to mental health issues in young people will likely illuminate this relationship further.
The authors say that their results also demonstrate the point that climate anxiety isn’t simply caused by ecological catastrophe: it’s also directly related to government inaction. Greater levels of action and commitment by governments can not only enable us to limit warming to 1.5 degrees by the end of the century, it also has the potential to improve the mental wellbeing of citizens around the world.
– Young People’s Voices on Climate Anxiety, Government Betrayal and Moral Injury: A Global Phenomenon [this paper is a preprint meaning that it has not yet been subjected to peer review and the final published version may differ from the version this report was based on]
Emma L. Barratt (@E_Barratt) is a staff writer at BPS Research Digest