According to Grist magazine, the “biggest pop-culture trend” of 2019 was eco-anxiety, defined as future-oriented concern about life in relation to climate change (Clayton, 2020-1). Coincidentally, 2019 was also the year when the COVID-19 pandemic broke out. Climate change and pandemics are widely regarded as the biggest global threats of this century. As such, they represent important research topics for the academic community, especially in terms of their interconnectedness and similarities. This article delves into the latest academic literature in the new and growing area of environmental psychology, studying eco-anxiety with the aims of both introducing the notion of eco-anxiety and looking at the influence of COVID-19 on eco-anxiety. It will be followed by a second article on eco-anxiety that will outline adaptive and maladaptive responses to eco-anxiety and discuss the role of business schools in general and Australian business schools in particular in promoting adaptive eco-anxiety and mitigating maladaptive eco-anxiety.
Climate change is regarded by many as the greatest challenge encountered by humans. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) defines climate change as “a change in the climate that is directly or indirectly attributable to human activities which alter the composition of the planetary atmosphere and add to the natural climatic variability observed on similar time intervals'' (United Nations, 1992). Climate change in the form of global warming results from increased concentration of greenhouse gases and various pollutants in the air as well as other waste products created by the production, development, and exploitation of natural resources by humans during the industrial and technological revolutions (Verplanken, et al., 2020, Marazziti, et al., 2021, Doherty, Clayton, 2011). The latest Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC, 2021), which examined more than 14,000 scientific papers published by 31 January 2021, stated that the science on climate change is “unequivocal” and environmental changes are “rapid, intensifying and unprecedented” (IPCC, 2021).\
Climate change anxiety
There is a plethora of empirical evidence of adverse effects of climate change - such as increasing temperatures, rising sea levels, extreme weather events, natural disasters, wildfires, wind erosion, deforestation, desertification, changes in patterns of precipitation, and the disappearance of rivers - on the physical health of people (Innocenti, et al., 2021, Clayton, 2020-1, Clayton, 2020-2, Verplanken, et al., 2020, Ágoston, et al., 2022). Yet, little is still known about the impact of climate change on human mental well-being. However, as the signs of climate change are becoming increasingly apparent and more people are becoming aware of them through extensive media coverage, the question of what kind of emotional response people experience in relation to climate change and how it affects their psychological state has gained increased attention from scientists over the recent decade (Innocenti, et al., 2021, Clayton, 2020-1, Clayton, 2020-2, Stanley, et al., 2021, Whitmarsh, et al., 2022, Ágoston, et al., 2022, Ogunbode, et al., 2022).
Climate change anxiety worldwide
A prominent environmental psychologist, Susan Clayton, regards climate change as a real, major, significant, ongoing, developing, uncertain, and globally shared threat, which represents an “environmental stressor” that evokes concern, worry, and anxiety in people (Clayton, 2020-1). Many studies have confirmed this view of the existence of psychological distress in people in connection to environmental issues. For example, the biggest international study on climate change anxiety to date revealed a negative correlation between climate anxiety and mental health of people in 31 out of 32 countries studied (Ogunbode, et al., 2022). Another study, which analysed the statements of 76,328 Facebook users in 31 countries, found that most respondents were worried about climate change (Leiserowitz, et al., 2021). One more international poll detected fear about the future due to climate change among most respondents in Brazil (86%), India (80%), Nigeria (70%), and the Philippines (92%) (Hickman, et al., 2021). Climate change concerns were also reported by 85% of adults surveyed in the United Kingdom (Verplanken, et al., 2020).
Climate change in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic
Worldwide concerns about climate change have become even more pressing and relevant with the coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2 or COVID-19) pandemic that started in China in late 2019 and quickly spread around the globe. Scholars point to many similarities between climate change and the pandemic, with both being major global crises that affect people’s mental as well as physical health (Marazziti, et al., 2021). At the same time, COVID-19 has underlined the world’s unpreparedness to deal with global catastrophic events (Filho, et al., 2021). Ironically enough, the pandemic has also highlighted possible solutions to environmental problems (Marazziti, et al., 2021).
The aim of this article
This article discusses the phenomenon of climate change anxiety in the context of the broader concept, “eco-anxiety”. It provides a brief review of the notion of eco-anxiety, the latest metrics for measuring it, and key predictors of eco-anxiety as well as direct, psychosocial, and indirect impacts of climate change on human psychological well-being. The article also looks at the COVID-19 pandemic as a double-edged sword that presents a major environmental problem and, at the same time, possible solutions to the problem. It also addresses the impact of COVID-19 on peoples’ attitude toward climate change.
THE NOTION OF ECO-ANXIETY
Eco-anxiety and solastalgia
Although negative emotional responses to climate change have been gaining more attention in the academic world over the last decade, there is no clear, comprehensive, and operational definition for these responses in the academic literature (Innocenti, et al., 2021, Clayton, 2020-2, Marazziti, et al., 2021, Coffey, et al., 2021, Ágoston, et al., 2022). A variety of notions have been developed by specialists in the field of environmental psychology in an attempt to conceptualise the negative effect of climate change on mental health. The most commonly cited terms are eco-anxiety, solastalgia, ecological grief, climate change distress, climate change anxiety, environmental malaise, environmental anxiety, ecological suffering, ecological stress, eco-angst, and eco-guilt (Innocenti, et al., 2021, Clayton, 2020-2, Coffey, et al., 2021, Ogunbode, et al., 2022). These terms have largely the same meaning but describe different levels of severity and kinds of symptoms and are based on different amounts and types of supporting evidence (Clayton, 2020-2, Coffey, et al., 2021).
The most widely accepted construct used by researchers to express environmentally induced distress in people is by far the term ‘eco-anxiety’ coined by Glenn Albrecht (Coffey, et al., 2021, Ágoston, et al., 2022, Albrecht, 2011, Ogunbode, et al., 2022). In 2017, The American Psychological Association defined eco-anxiety as “a chronic fear of environmental fate” (Clayton, S., et al., 2017). Eco-anxiety encompasses negative psychological (e.g., dread, despair, hopelessness), physical (e.g., panic attacks, insomnia, muscle tension, loss of appetite, crying), and behavioral (e.g., poorer performance in school/work, conflicts with others) symptoms. It is also characterised by a future-oriented fear and worry about the consequences of all environmental conditions including climate change, environmental pollution, and deforestation (Ágoston, et al., 2022, Dodds, J., 2021, Pitiruţ, et al., 2021).
Another frequently quoted and praised term in the academic papers concerning the stress people experience in relation to environmental issues is ‘solastalgia’ (Marazziti, D., et al., 2021, Coffey, Y., et al., 2021, Ágoston, C., et al., 2022). The term was proposed initially by Glenn Albrecht in 2003 (Galway, L. P., et al., 2019) to denote “the distress caused by the environmental change” (Albrecht, G., et al., 2007). Unlike nostalgia, which implies yearning for a place that was left behind, solastalgia suggests the loneliness and powerlessness people feel in the face of unrecognisable and intractable changes brought to their home environment by natural disasters (e.g., floods and wildfires), climate change (e.g., sea level rise), or human activity (e.g., mining, deforestation) (Clayton, 2020-1, Ágoston, et al., 2022).
Glenn Albrecht places solastalgia and eco-anxiety in the same category of “existential and not biomedical” disorders in terms of their origins (Albrecht, 2011). He argues that both are caused by “perceptions of change” and not “direct sensory experience” (Clayton, 2020-1). However, with regards to predominant feelings that constitute anxiety and depression, the contemporary taxonomy of climate emotions (Pihkala, P., 2022) as well as diagnostic systems of mental disorders such as the DSM-5 (American Psychiatric Association, 2013) make a clear distinction between these two mental disorders. Because anxiety is fueled by fear and worry while depression is formed by sadness and grief (American Psychiatric Association, 2013, Pihkala, P., 2022), some academics argue against using the terms ‘eco-anxiety’ and ‘ecological grief’ interchangeably (Ágoston, et al., 2022). Since ‘ecological grief’ is very similar in meaning to ‘solastalgia’ (Coffey, Y., et al., 2021, Ágoston, et al., 2022), ‘solastalgia’ should not be used to replace ‘eco-anxiety’ as well.
Measurements of eco-anxiety
Early measurements of eco-anxiety
There have been several attempts to develop and validate a reliable psychometric tool for measuring negative emotions in relation to climate change (Innocenti, et al., 2021, Clayton, 2020-2, Ágoston, et al., 2022, Lawrence, E. L., et al., 2022). The first “foundational paper” on such measurement was presented by Higginbotham et al., in 2006 (Galway, L. P., et al., 2019), who developed and validated the Environmental Distress Scale (EDS) to measure two factors – climate change anxiety and climate change hopelessness – using a questionnaire focused on 12 emotions: concern, tension, worry, anxiety, depression, anger, stress, sadness, fear, hopelessness, powerlessness, and helplessness (Higginbotham, N., et al., 2006).
The EDS was used in several studies investigating the psychological impact of climate change (Searle, K., Gow, K., 2010, Eisenman, D., et al., 2015, Warsini, S., et al., 2014-1, Warsini, S., et al., 2014-2). Another early effort was made by Reser J. P., et al (2012) who conducted the most extensive survey on perceptions, understandings, and responses to climate change based on a 7-item assessment instrument and national samples of 3096 participants in 2010 and 4347 participants in 2011 (Clayton, 2020-2).
The three best measures of eco-anxiety
Almost a decade later, a systematic scoping review of contemporary academic literature centered specifically around eco-anxiety highlighted three reliable measures of the impact of climate change on mental health (Coffey, et al., 2021). The earliest of those measures was developed by Helm et al., (2018). Unlike preceding studies that found no correlation between climate change anxiety and mental health, Helm et al discovered a positive connection between perceived environmental stress and depressive symptoms using a 4-item scale (Clayton, 2020-2, Coffey, et al., 2021).
Building on that work, Clayton & Karazsia designed a novel 13-item Climate Change Anxiety Scale (CCAS) in 2020 of the connection between experience of climate change (cause), negative emotional response to it (effect), and cognitive and functional impairment as a result of it (consequence) (Clayton, 2020-2). In 2021, Stanley et al (2021) formed a new 6-item scale that made a clear distinction between three eco-emotions - eco-anxiety, eco-depression, and eco-anger - and measured each emotion individually, identifying their unique effects on mental health (Stanley, et al., 2021). The study by Stanley et al was the only study conducted on a national representative sample as opposed to samples of university students or Mechanical Turk panel participants that other studies had relied on (Coffey, Y., et al., 2021).
Climate Change Anxiety Scale (CCAS)
Over the last three years the CCAS (Clayton, 2020-2) has been the most popular measure of eco-related distress. It is used and cited by the majority of researchers nowadays (Innocenti, et al., 2021, Clayton, 2020-2, Verplanken, B., 2020, Coffey, et al., 2021, Whitmarsh, L., et al., 2022, Ágoston, et al., 2022). Although Clayton & Karazsia did not formulate the CCAS as a clinical assessment tool (since climate change anxiety is not a clinical diagnosis), they used it to address the question of whether climate change anxiety could be considered clinically relevant. By adapting eight items from existing rumination measure (thoughts about climate change) (Treynor, W., et al., 2003) and five items from the existing functional impairment measure (relationships with others and ability to complete work) (Weiss, M.D., 2000), Clayton & Karazsia showed that both cognitive-emotional impairment and functional impairment were significantly associated with depression and anxiety (Clayton, 2020-2). Their results have been replicated and validated in at least four countries. The studies done in Italy (Innocenti, et al., 2021), the United Kingdom (Whitmarsh, L., et al., 2022), Germany (Wullenkord, M., et al., 2021), and the Philippines (Reyes, et al., 2021) have tested the internal consistency, test-retest reliability, and discriminant validity as well as the psychometric properties of the CCAS. The studies have established that the CCAS is highly reliable and correlates with psychological distress.
Two new measurements of eco-anxiety
Only three months after publication of the scoping review of eco-anxiety literature by Coffey et al (2021), Hogg, T. L. et al (2021) presented another eco-anxiety scale. Their 13-item scale reinforced the ‘existence of eco-anxiety as a broad construct’ and ‘a quantifiable psychological experience’. It also took into consideration ‘the complexity of people’s concerns about different environmental phenomena’ by including four dimensions: affective symptoms, rumination, behavioral symptoms, and anxiety about one’s negative impact on the planet. Importantly, the model demonstrated that each dimension differs from stress, anxiety, and depression.
A later study, by Agoston et al (July 2022), supported the concern expressed earlier by Stanley et al (2021) about the risks of treating eco-anxiety as ‘an isolated emotional experience’ and the need to differentiate between multiple eco-emotions. It proposed three questionnaires - an 11-item Eco-Guilt Questionnaire, a 6-item Ecological Grief Questionnaire and a 22-item Eco-Anxiety Questionnaire - and used a substantial item pool to demonstrate the separateness of ego-guilt, eco-grief, and eco-anxiety. Thus, the overall research effort of the academics in the field of eco-anxiety has moved from identifying and describing eco-anxiety as a unique emotion in 2006 to recognising and validating a wide spectrum of eco-emotions by 2022.
Factors predicting eco-anxiety
Since eco-anxiety is a new area of academic study, there is still more to be discovered when it comes to identifying the factors that might indicate eco-anxiety. However, the research that has already been undertaken highlights four variables (age, geographic location, connection to nature, and mental health) that contribute strongly to eco-anxiety and two variables (gender and wealth) that produce mixed results.
Eco-anxiety seems to affect young people the most (Coffey, et al., 2021, Searle, K., Gow, K., 2010, Higginbotham, N., et al., 2006, American Psychological Association, 2020). A US study that drew on a sample of 22,468 participants concluded that representatives of iGeneration and Millennials experienced a greater increase in worry during 2010-19 than did people from Generation X, Baby Boomers, and the Silent and the Greatest Generations (Swim, J. K., et al., 2022). A British survey in 2011 also found that younger people were less skeptical about climate change than older adults (Poortinga, W., et al., 2011) and an American Psychological Association in 2018 showed that millennials were more concerned about climate change than older individuals (APA, 2018). A national poll in the USA conducted in 2019 identified fear related to climate change in 57% of teenage participants (Kaplan, S., Guskin, E., 2019) and an international poll undertaken in 2021 observed high levels of climate change anxiety in 45% of 10,000 young people from 10 different countries (Hickman, C., Marks, E., et al., 2021).
The researchers believe that the reasons teenagers and college students suffer from eco-anxiety the most might be explained by the fact that they do not possess political and economic power, do not trust the government and authorities (Clayton, et al., 2017, Hickman, C., Marks, E., et al., 2021), and have less control over their own behaviour (Ojala, M., 2012), but more time to think about global issues and plans for the future compared to adults, who are focused on present obligations (Clayton, 2020-1).
Geographical location & connection to nature
In terms of such variables influencing eco-anxiety as geographical location and connection to nature, the studies have reported that people (especially indigenous people) who are situated in geographically vulnerable (Clayton, 2020-2, Coffey, et al., 2021) and rural areas (Ágoston, et al., 2022) as well as people who feel more emotionally and mentally attached to nature (Dean, J., et al., 2018, Balundė, A., et al., 2019, Olivos, P., Aragonés, J. I., 2011, Olivos, P., Clayton, S., 2017) are more prone to eco-anxiety. One stratified sample of over 1500 participants established that people who scored higher on the scale measuring personal identification with nature displayed higher levels of anxiety, stress, and depression (Dean, J., et al., 2018).
It is possible that the reasons these particular groups are more concerned about environmental conditions are their stronger place identity and a more direct experience of the degradation or loss of landscapes, ecosystems, and species (Ágoston, et al., 2022). Tschakert & Dietrich add to that by proposing the most exhaustive explanation of all: “Individuals living in countries which are directly affected by the disastrous consequences of climate change may worry about their lives, while individuals living in richer countries may worry about possible changes in their lifestyle” (Tschakert, P., Dietrich, K. A., 2010 as cited in Innocenti, et al., 2021).
With regard to the relationship between mental health and eco-anxiety, it appears that those people who have higher generalised anxiety, tend to experience greater climate anxiety since the stress of climate anxiety aggravates pre-existing mental health disorders (Innocenti, et al., 2021, Clayton, 2020-2, Verplanken, B., et al., 2020, Higginbotham, N., et al., 2006, Reyes, et al., 2021, Wullenkord, M., et al., 2021). In contrast, in October 2022, the first study on the association between climate anxiety and mindfulness was published by a group of scientists from leading universities in the United Kingdom (Whitmarsh, L., et al., 2022). This study found a negative correlation between mindfulness and climate anxiety, which is in line with previous studies that recorded the adverse relation between mindfulness and generalised anxiety, depression, and stress (Carpenter, J. K., et al., 2019, Galante, J., Friedrich, C., et al., 2021, Paucsik, M., 2022, Hofmann, S.G., 2010) as well as between mindfulness and psychological distress caused by COVID-19 pandemics (Conversano, C., et al., 2020, Götmann, A., et al., 2021). In addition, this study recommended mindfulness (a practice of openness to and acceptance of experiences without judgment) (Götmann, A., et al., 2021 as cited in Sytnik, V., 2022) as a helpful technique in dealing with rumination (concentration on negative thoughts and feelings) about climate anxiety itself (Clayton, 2020-2, Whitmarsh, L., et al., 2022).
Gender & wealth
Academic discourse regarding the effects of gender and wealth on eco-anxiety is ambiguous. While some researchers claim that eco-anxiety is virtually immune to gender as well as to income, social status, class, or wealth (Whitmarsh, L., et al., 2022, Wullenkord, M., et al., 2021, Davis, R., et al., 2021), others provide evidence of both unemployed workers in their forties and women generally experiencing greater eco-anxiety (Clayton, 2020-2, Ágoston, et al., 2022, Searle, K., Gow, K., 2010, Higginbotham, N., et al., 2006, Berry, H.L., et al., 2018).
Direct, psychosocial, and indirect impacts of eco-anxiety
Doherty and Clayton (Doherty, T. J., Clayton, S., 2011) divide the psychological impacts of changing environmental conditions (climate change, global warming, deforestation, and environmental pollution) into three categories: direct, psychosocial, and indirect. A similar classification was made a decade earlier by Fritze et al (Fritze, J.G., et al., 2008).
Direct impact of eco-anxiety
Direct impact refers to the immediate traumatic effect on mental health of people caused by their direct experience of harsh consequences of changing environmental conditions (Doherty, T. J., Clayton, S., 2011, Fritze, J.G., et al., 2008). It has been well documented that extreme weather events and natural disasters related to environmental factors such as high temperatures, high humidity rates, storms, hurricanes, tsunamis, tornadoes, floods, and wildfires are positively linked to mental health symptoms ranging from mild stress to psychiatric disorders such as adaptation stress disorder (ASD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, depression, aggression, sleep disturbances, mood disorders, psychophysical exhaustion, substance abuse, domestic violence, suicidal thoughts, and suicides (Clayton, 2020-1, Verplanken, B., et al., 2020, Marazziti, D., et al., 2021, Doherty, T. J., Clayton, S., 2011, Helm, S., et al., 2018, Fritze, J.G., et al., 2008, Pihkala, P., 2020, Pihkala, P., 2018, Watts, N., et al., 2019). It has also been established that pollutants in the air cause cognitive impairment in the elderly and behavioural problems in children (Clayton, 2020-1).
Psychosocial impact of eco-anxiety
Psychosocial impact applies to disruptions in the social and economic life of people due to migration and conflicts related to climate change (Doherty, T. J., Clayton, S., 2011, Fritze, J.G., et al., 2008). When people lose or are forced to leave their homes and migrate because of gradual environmental changes such as rising temperature, increased droughts and desertification, variation in precipitation patterns, rising sea levels, melting glaciers, and thawing permafrost, they experience high levels of stress associated with a journey alone, not to mention the stress of adjusting to a new habitat, grief over the loss of valued places, possessions, and social connections; fear of possible harm, malnutrition, or diseases; concerns about disrupted education, medical support, and financial instability; uncertainty about the future, and conflicts over scarce resources needed for survival (Clayton, 2020-1, Marazziti, D., et al., 2021, Doherty, T. J., Clayton, S., 2011, Fritze, J.G., et al., 2008).
It has been noted that extreme heat has a particularly strong negative effect on mental health, leading to increased levels of depression, aggressive behavior, interpersonal conflicts, and suicides. In addition to these short-term effects on the psychological health of people, gradual environmental changes also might cause long-term psychopathological disorders such as dissociation, identity disorders, and personality changes (Clayton, 2020-1, Marazziti, et al., 2021).
Indirect impact of eco-anxiety
Indirect impacts are the anxiety people feel about the future based on viewing changing environmental conditions as a global threat (Doherty, T. J., Clayton, S., 2011, Fritze, J.G., et al., 2008). Not only people who have personally experienced the direct impacts of environmental issues through natural disasters, extreme weather events, or forced migration, but also people who have merely become aware of environmental problems through books, media reports, and scientific papers, have been shown to experience different degrees of eco-anxiety (Clayton, 2020-1, Clayton, 2020-2, Verplanken, et al., 2020, Marazziti, et al., 2021, Searle, K., Gow, K., 2010, Reser, J. P., et al., 2012, Helm, S., et al., 2018, Wolf, J., Moser, S.C., 2011).
Scientists point out, however, that individuals’ subjective views on whether particular weather or natural events can be linked to environmental issues and their views on what amount of worry about it is appropriate, are largely formed by the individuals’ social context. Such aspects of human life as culture (Clayton, 2020-1), social normative cues and political views (Ogunbode, et al., 2018), the amount and kind of the information produced by the traditional and social media, and the degree of individual exposure to that information, as well as the belief that loved ones are also concerned about environmental issues, can shape positive or negative emotions about environmental problems, encouraging either acceptance or denial of these phenomena (Clayton, 2020-2, Whitmarsh, et al., 2022).
COVID-19 IMPACT ON ECO-ANXIETY
Evidence of environmental problems
Since the 1980s, the scientific world has been producing an increasing amount of evidence of environmental changes caused by human activities (American Psychological Association, 2020). The link between human behaviour and environmental changes became more obvious in 2020 with an outbreak of COVID-19. Since it is believed that COVID-19 could have originated in bats and been transmitted to humans, this pandemic has drawn attention to the main cause of infections that are spread between animals and people: the weakening of the natural barrier between humans and wild animals in situations where the habitats of wild animals are destroyed in order to increase the area for livestock farming (Marazziti, D., et al., 2021).
Environmental pollution & rising temperatures
In addition to deforestation, the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted two more important environmental changes that can be attributed to humans: environmental pollution and rising temperatures. One academic review of the scientific literature on possible relationships between climate change, environmental pollution and epidemics/pandemics that included 313 of considered 48,312 articles, emphasised these two factors due to their prominent association with the spread, incidence, and mortality rates of COVID-19 (Marazziti, et al., 2021). In terms of air pollution, the review cited analyses made in China that unanimously concluded that even slight increases of such pollutants as particulate matter PM2.5 and PM10 in the air lead to substantial increases in the incidence of COVID-19 cases and related hospital admissions, a worsening in the progression and prognosis of the disease, and a drastic increase (of 15% in one analysis) of COVID-19-related deaths (Marazziti, D., et al., 2021). Similar conclusions were reached in studies conducted in Italy, the Netherlands, the United States, South Korea, India, and Pakistan (Marazziti, et al., 2021). As for temperature, the same review referred to a study undertaken in South Korea that showed that, when the daily temperature was below 8°C, each 1°C increase in temperature was accompanied by a 9% rise in COVID-19 confirmed cases, (Marazziti, D., et al., 2021). The studies for Italy, Norway, and Indonesia suggested that only the average daily temperature was significantly correlated to COVID-19 transmission (Marazziti, et al., 2021). In line with these results, one study from China proposed that both higher and lower temperatures could decrease the rate of COVID-19’s morbidity (Marazziti, et al., 2021).
In addition to such environmental factors as pollution and global warming, socio-economic factors like urbanisation, population density, and mass travel in economically developed areas, as well as poor accessibility to transport, food systems, and medical facilities in less economically developed areas can facilitate the spread of COVID-19 (Marazziti, et al., 2021, Filho, W. L., et al., 2021). Thus, the pandemic not only uncovered some ecological and social weaknesses of the human race, but also shed light on the fact that despite world inequalities of income and wealth, people across the whole planet are vulnerable to pandemics.
Possible environmental solutions
Reduction in energy & transportation sectors worldwide
While the COVID-19 pandemic has underlined global environmental problems, it has also pointed to possible solutions to those problems - so much so that Cable News Network (CNN) suggested that the planet could be “an unlikely beneficiary of coronavirus” (Wright, R., 2020). The implementation of unprecedented social distancing measures such as lockdowns, quarantines, travel restrictions, and closure of businesses as well as educational and governmental institutions in most countries in order to contain the pandemic (Götmann, A., Bechtoldt, M. N., 2021) led to a reduction of 3.8% in the global demand of energy from January to March 2020 (Watts, N., Amann, M., et al., 2019). At the same time, the global demand for coal fell by around 8%, oil by 5%, gas by 2%, and electricity by 20%. Also, global transportation was reduced by around 50% for road travel and 60% for aviation (Watts, N., Amann, M., et al., 2019). These changes contributed to a reduction in global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions of 5.4% in 2020 (Friedlingstein, P. et al., 2022).
Reduction in CO2 & NO2 emissions worldwide
Improvements in air quality associated with the decrease in pollutants due to the COVID-19-related global slowdown in industrial, economic, and transportation activities were observed across the globe. In China, CO2 emissions fell by 25% during the first four weeks of lockdown measures (Marazziti, D., et al., 2021). In Italy, scientists recorded an unprecedented drop in nitrogen dioxide (NO2) levels of up to 40% in March 2020 (Georgiou, A., 2020). In Japan, CO2 emissions fell by 8.2% from 18 April to 14 May in 2020 compared to the same period in 2019 (Takane, Y., et al., 2022). In Egypt, declines of 17% for NO2 emissions and 15.6% for CO2 emissions were recorded during several months of 2020 compared to the same months in 2019 (Watts, N., Amann, M., et al., 2019). Since about 500 tons of CO2 are produced per $1 million of gross world product, some experts believe that the shrinking of the world’s GDP due to COVID-19 prevention and control measures has produced a proportional lowering in global CO2 emissions (Georgiou, A., 2020).
CO2 emissions & CO2 concentrations
It is important to distinguish between CO2 emissions and CO2 concentrations. CO2 emissions are the pollutants that go into the biosphere on a daily basis while CO2 concentrations are the pollutants that remain in the air, land, and oceans for centuries. While CO2 emissions have been known to fall sharply during economic crises and rise up again rapidly when the crises are over, CO2 concentrations have been on a steady rise since the first records of them were made in 1960 (Watts, N., Amann, M., et al., 2019, World Meteorological Organization, 2020, Global Monitoring Laboratory, 2021). Hence, scientists rely on CO2 concentrations as a more stable metric for evaluating actual pollution levels responsible for long-term changes in the environment. Since CO2 concentrations reached an all-time high of 414.11 parts per million (ppm) in February 2020 (compared to 411.75 ppm in February 2019 and 407.8 ppm in 2018) despite all COVID-19 pandemic-related restrictions, they provide a better measure of the health of the planet (World Meteorological Organization, 2020).
Lives lost & saved
The decline in air pollution during COVID-19 might be credited for a reduction of deaths from such environmental pollution-related diseases as cardiovascular and respiratory diseases. Marshall Burke, Assistant Professor at Stanford’s Department of Earth System Science, calculated that twenty times more lives were saved in China due to the improved air quality caused by the pandemic-related disruptions than were lost due to the virus itself during the first two months of the pandemic (Kottasová, I., 2020). On the other hand, the Secretary-General of the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), Petteri Taalas, has repeatedly urged against overestimating the benefits provided by the brief decrease of CO2 emissions during COVID-19 and against underestimating the loss of life as well as the huge social, economic, physical, and mental health costs caused by the pandemic in the first place (World Meteorological Organization, 2020).
The world cannot tackle environmental issues successfully by relying on a sudden and spontaneous reduction in CO2 emission brought about by COVID-19 or any other global health or economic crisis. However, the current pandemic has shown that many more lives can be saved, and more economic gains can be realised if the reduction in CO2 emissions is sustained over a long enough period of time to be transformed into a reduction in CO2 concentrations.
One study in Japan confirmed that “stay-at-home advisories” induced by COVID-19 can change the urban climate (Takane, Y., et al., 2022). Japanese scientists invented a unique method to quantitatively evaluate the effects of air temperature, heat emission, and electricity consumption on urban climate and tested it in a Tokyo commercial district. They deduced that “under a significantly reduced population” due to remote work, CO2 emissions would be 30% of pre-COVID levels, which would lead to a temperature drop of 0.2 °C or 20% of the pollution-induced warming. Thus, the shift in human behaviour towards reduced commuting and traveling and increased distance work can contribute to long-term decarbonisation (Takane, Y., et al., 2022). In this sense, COVID-19 has taught the world a lesson that by adopting such “climate-friendly business and personal practices” worldwide, environmental problems can be reduced (World Meteorological Organization, 2020).
COVID-19’s impact on attitudes toward climate change
Although the environmental crisis may be the most serious global problem ever (Loureiro, M. L, Alló, M., 2021, Lawrence, E. L. et al., 2022), there is concern that the urgency of COVID-19 has drawn attention away from environmental issues in many countries. A number of researchers have tried to understand whether public attitude towards environmental problems was influenced by COVID-19 in any way.
Reduced climate change conversations on Twitter
The most salient example of such endeavors is the work of Loureiro and Alló (Loureiro, M. L, Alló, M., 2021). These Spanish researchers examined conversations about climate change on the social network Twitter, taking them as “a proxy for societal concerns and awareness” of environmental problems. They analysed more than 48 million tweets posted in 213 countries from 2018 to September 2020 and concluded that COVID-19 had shrunk the overall number of messages written about climate change on Twitter. They also noted that the extent to which COVID-19 weakened the environmental concern in different countries depended on the socio-economic factors of those countries, with the more economically vulnerable areas being at a greater risk.
Halted climate change research worldwide
Another paper, coincidentally published in the same issue of “Environmental Science and Policy” journal as the study by Loureiro and Alló (Loureiro, M. L, Alló, M., 2021), looked at the impact of COVID-19 lockdowns during March-April 2020 on climate change science and management research worldwide (Filho, W. L., et al., 2021). Based on the data obtained from academic and government institutions in 83 countries, the authors observed that many climate field data recordings and other research activities were canceled because of quarantines, travel restrictions, and organisations closures; existing funding and budget were redirected to dealing with the COVID-19 crisis; climate policies implementation and adaptation were postponed; and the focus of climate change research was changed towards incorporating pandemics into the present and future studies.
Eco-anxiety among university students
A survey undertaken in Germany compared emotional response towards COVID-19 and climate change among university students (Kulcar, V., et al., 2022). It found a stronger negative reaction towards the pandemic than towards climate change on account of the pandemic interfering with students’ daily life and climate change being a more abstract and distant threat.
However, while it seems logical that COVID-19 could put the environmental agenda aside across the international community, not all academic findings indicate a lessened environmental concern due to COVID-19. One study in the United Kingdom also concentrated on contrasting psychological responses towards COVID-19 and climate change among college students (Lawrence, E. L. et al., 2022), but delivered directly opposite results to those of the German study (Kulcar, V., et al., 2022). According to the British survey, young people had much more anxiety about the environmental crisis than about COVID-19 even though the latter crisis brought much more disruption to their everyday lives (Lawrence, E. L. et al., 2022).
Increased eco-anxiety worldwide
Public worry about climate change appears to have receded during the pandemic in most, but not all, countries. Loureiro and Alló found that climate change concern was not diminished in the United States, the United Kingdom, Italy, France, or Finland (Loureiro, M. L, Alló, M., 2021). Analogous findings have been documented by some other researchers who argued that COVID-19 either did not increase significantly (Whitmarsh, L., et al., 2022) or did not increase at all eco-anxiety in people (Verplanken, B., et al., 2020).
Olympic & Paralympic Games “environmental ambition” 2024
Some scientists attribute insensitivity of eco-anxiety to the influence of COVID-19 (Verplanken, B., et al., 2020) to a sense of personal responsibility and guilt that people feel about environmental issues, but lack in connection with COVID-19 (Lawrence, E. L. et al., 2022). In fact, the gravity that some attach to environmental issues is reflected in the “environmental ambition” of the upcoming Olympic and Paralympic Games, which are to be held in Paris, France in 2024. These Games are to become “the first major sporting event to positively impact the climate by more than halving the emissions arising in relation to the Games and by offsetting even more CO2 emissions than they will generate” (Paris Olympics 2024). All in all, however, the ongoing academic research aimed at determining the influence of COVID-19 on eco-anxiety in people has produced inconclusive results so far.
Climate change & eco-anxiety
Many people believe that climate change is the biggest crisis humanity has ever faced. Over recent decades, more and more people have become affected by what appear to be the direct consequences of climate change in the form of extreme weather events and natural cataclysms and even more people have become familiar with environmental problems through widening global information resources. Scientists around the world have long established that environmental degradation has a negative impact on physical health. More recently, academics have started to generate evidence that ecological crises also have a negative effect on mental health. An increasing number of people worldwide are experiencing concern, worry, anxiety, depression, stress, and other negative psychological responses in relation to environmental issues.
Terms & measurements
Considerable academic effort has been expended in an attempt to capture, describe, and measure the mental reaction of people to the threat of climate change. Many new terms have been created to define this reaction, but the term that has stood out and has become the most popular and widely used is “eco-anxiety”. The first breakthrough in measuring eco-anxiety was made in 2006 with the development of the Environmental Distress Scale. Since then, the science of environmental psychology has progressed to more sophisticated tools that can measure not only eco-anxiety but also a much wider range of eco-emotions. The most reliable measure of mental responses related to climate change is considered to be Climate Change Anxiety Scale.
Contributing factors & impact categories
There are at least four scientifically accepted factors that contribute to eco-anxiety: age, geographic location, connection to nature, and mental health. There are grounds for believing that younger people (iGeneration and Millennials), people who live in geographically vulnerable areas, people who strongly identify with nature, and people who are prone to higher generalised anxiety display higher eco-anxiety symptoms. It is still unknown whether such factors as gender and wealth influence eco-anxiety to a significant extent. Environmental psychologists also divide the psychological impact of environmental conditions into three groups: direct, indirect, and psychosocial. While the direct impact is experienced by people affected directly by climate change consequences, the indirect impact is borne by people who learn about environmental problems through various sources of information, and the psychosocial impact is endured by people whose social and economic life has been disrupted by forced migration and conflicts related to climate change.
COVID-19: Evidence of environmental problems & their solutions
Climate change has become more apparent in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. The latter has drawn the attention of the global community of people to the possibility that man-made environmental problems such as deforestation, environmental pollution, and increasing temperatures facilitated the emergence and transmission of the COVID-19 virus. At the same time, COVID-19 and the associated social distancing measures and the slowdown in industrial and economic activities worldwide have led to reductions in energy consumption and transportation usage which, in turn, have resulted in a decrease in short-term CO2 and NO2 emissions globally. Furthermore, COVID-19 has shown that such pro-environmental changes in human lifestyle as reduced commuting and traveling as well as distance work can play an important role in reducing long-term concentrations of CO2 and NO2.
COVID-19 impact on eco-anxiety
According to some scholars, the urgency of the COVID-19 pandemic has temporarily overshadowed environmental issues in many countries. There is evidence that climate change research and the implementation of climate change policies were postponed in many countries during the first year of the pandemic. There is also some evidence that COVID-19 diverted peoples’ attention away from environmental issues. However, there is also evidence of the opposite. Some researchers have argued that concerns about environmental issues have, in fact, increased during the pandemic, as reflected, for example, in the “environmental ambition” of the upcoming Paris Olympic and Paralympic Games.
First & second articles on eco-anxiety
Eco-anxiety is an emerging topic in the field of environmental psychology. It deserves exploration due to its relevance to the state of the world we live in now with regards to the environment. Therefore, this article aimed at introducing readers to the notion of eco-anxiety by looking at its definition, measurement systems, predictive factors, and impacts as well as by investigating the influence that the current pandemic has had on climate change and on eco-anxiety. The discussion of the nature of eco-anxiety that includes maladaptive and adaptive aspects will be continued in a second article on eco-anxiety. This article will discuss the role that business schools can play in promoting adaptive eco-anxiety, touching upon Australian business schools in particular.
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Valeriya Sytnik has an honours degree in International Business Management from the University of Nottingham, Ningbo, China. She is a Fellow of the Centre for Scholarship and Research (CSR) at UBSS. Valeriya has been working in China as a marketing manager for her family trading company, Tramplin (HK) Innovation Co. Limited since 2011. She intends to pursue a second degree in psychology. Her research interests focus on the social psychology of conflict analysis and resolution.