This was a key theme in my doctoral research. Based on research that existed at the time, messages about climate change that portrayed the devastation occurring elsewhere didn’t really trigger a response. It was both too far away and too overwhelming. As a result, I focused my research on picturing (my participants took photos) climate change locally. The result was that the participants started reflecting on the underlying reasons for climate change like mass consumption and a disconnect from nature. At the time of this research, climate anxiety wasn’t a recognized thing. Climate anxiety is a chronic fear of impending environmental doom based on climate change. I would say I knew people who experienced climate anxiety but it wasn’t recognized, so it wasn’t studied. Today, the number of people with climate anxiety is slowly growing. I was curious if it triggers hopelessness like some of the communication happening when I was doing my research.
Whitmarsh et al (2022) examined the impacts of climate anxiety in the UK in a new study. They made a number of interesting findings. First, a little less than half of the participants are worried about climate change. I’m sad that it wasn’t higher, but given that climate change was one of a list of 11 issues that included Brexit and COVID-19 that perhaps isn’t surprising. Climate change and sustainability have generally taken quite a large hit in public awareness and concern during both the COVID-19 pandemic and the political climate in many places around the world. Only 4% of participants indicated that they experienced climate anxiety. This is a pretty low number which may impact the generalizability of any of the stats about this small subgroup, but it’s still an important early dataset on a growing group.
So what were the characteristics of those who had some level of climate anxiety? On average they were younger, but that was the only significant demographic factor. Neither gender nor income showed a significant connection. Then we get into other factors. Perhaps not surprisingly, having higher generalized anxiety was connected with higher climate anxiety. Lower mindfulness and higher nature relatedness both had higher climate anxiety. Participating in more green behaviours and visiting greenspaces in the last seven days were also connected to higher anxiety. Finally, both being exposed to more information and seeking more information about climate change were also connected to higher climate anxiety.
None of this is causation but there were certain behaviours that could be predicted by climate anxiety, namely saving energy, buying secondhand, and borrowing and renting items. On the other hand, it decreased the tendency to recycle, which makes me wonder if by buying less they had less to recycle. However, climate anxiety didn’t connect to food choices like eating less red meat, eating local, or reducing food waste. They also didn’t seek products with less packaging.
There are still lots of questions to be explored from this research like why food choices don’t reflect climate anxiety. But this research has potential implications for both education and communication. What does it mean for how we teach or communicate with others about climate change and pro-environmental behaviours? Are there ways that we can help address climate anxiety and perhaps support action? Do we need to include mindfulness practices to minimize climate anxiety? As always, I have more questions than answers but this is such an important area if we are going to address climate change and improve well-being among citizens.