Very few actually have climate anxiety
The term is often used by journalists and researchers. But a new study suggests that climate anxiety is not very widespread.
Forest fires, floods, hurricanes, drought, extreme heat.
Our planet is now experiencing climate change unprecedented in human history.
For some, the news of these events becomes such a psychological burden that it can affect their lives.
A constant sinking feeling
Mia Chamberlain is currently studying psychology.
Last winter, she told a podcast about how, for a period, she had such a strong fear of the climate crisis and the future that it gave her a constant sinking feeling.
She could get upset and cry, but also get angry and irritated. She felt powerless.
“For a while I had to avoid reading the news and leave the classroom when we talked about climate change,” she said in a Norwegian science podcast (link in Norwegian).
Eventually, she was able to alter this fear of the future into a fighting spirit. She began to get involved in politics and in the environmental movement.
Have studied the British
How many people actually have climate anxiety?
British researchers have now studied this.
The study is based on an online survey among 1,338 British adults in 2020 and in 2022.
Almost half of the participants in the survey reported that they are very or extremely concerned about climate change. This is roughly the same as the researchers in Norway have found through research here.
Only 4.6 per cent reported that they experienced climate anxiety.
Young people most often experienced what the researchers call climate anxiety. This was also the case for those who watched and listened to a lot of news, and those who already had other anxiety problems.
Sceptical of the term
Thea Gregersen is a researcher at NORCE, where she works with climate psychology.
Gregersen is fundamentally critical of the concept of climate anxiety. She believes that the term is imprecise – and that this also pervades the research.
Researchers have defined climate anxiety in different ways, and it is therefore difficult to compare the studies that have come out, she believes.
“Climate anxiety has usually been defined as negative feelings linked to climate change,” Gregersen says.
She reminds us that that climate anxiety is not a recognised diagnosis. Therefore, it becomes a vague term that embraces many things.
Often it is concerns about climate change that are measured. Not the fear of them.
Looking at symptoms
Gregersen has read the British study and thinks it differs slightly from other studies.
The researchers here have gone a little further into the concept. They recognise that there is a difference between anxiety and worry.
The researchers have used measures of climate anxiety that focus more on symptoms. They see if these have a negative impact on everyday life, for example in the form of poor sleep quality or concentration.
Here they find that only 4.6 per cent can be said to have climate anxiety.
Rational to worry
The individual's problems must of course be taken seriously, Gregersen argues.
But we have to be aware of how we talk about the term in public discourse, she believes.
Having anxiety suggests that some emotions are exaggerated and irrational.
But it is rational to have negative feelings about climate change, she believes.
“I am therefore surprised that only around half of the population say they are concerned about climate change,” Gregersen says.
"It is important that we recognise that it is not at all strange to have this concern," she says.
Don't eat less meat
The British researchers found that both those who are concerned about climate change and those who can be said to have climate anxiety try to do a little more to save the climate than others.
For example, they try to save energy, buy used, and rent or borrow items instead of buying new.
However, their concerns and anxiety did not have such a big impact on other parts of their lifestyles. For example, they did not eat less meat, nor did they drive less.
Good intentions are not enough
Gregersen is not surprised.
Neither worry nor climate anxiety actually explains much of the variation in behaviour between the participants in this study, she believes.
The researcher recognises this from previous studies.
“Many other factors, which are not included in the study, perhaps explain better why people choose to eat meat or only buy clothes at thrift stores. For example, factors such as culture, politics and accessibility can have a big impact on how we live our lives," she says.
Concern about climate change and a desire to contribute is an important basis, but it is often not enough to have good intentions, Gregersen says.
Translated by Alette Bjordal Gjellesvik.
Read the Norwegian version of this article on forskning.no
Whitmarsh et al. Climate anxiety: What predicts it and how is it related to climate action?, Journal of Environmental Psychology, vol. 83, 2022. DOI: 10.1016/j.jenvp.2022.101866