It has been recognised that knowledge about climate change problems can cause eco-anxiety in people that may either evoke or hinder pro-environmental behaviour. This article discusses six factors that predict maladaptive and six factors that predict adaptive responses to eco-anxiety.
Over the past century the production, development, and exploitation of natural resources by humans have substantially increased the emission of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide (from the burning of fossil fuels), methane (from the decomposition of organic waste in landfills and the production of animals for food), and nitrous oxide (from industrial processes) (Verplanken, et al., 2020, Marazziti, et al., 2021, Doherty, Clayton, 2011). This has led to an unprecedented 1° Celsius rise in the global average surface temperature. It is estimated that if global warming is limited to 2° Celsius, the Earth will still warm 20 times faster than it would warm naturally (Nuccitelli, 2017). Global warming causes changes in the climate that manifest in increasing frequency and acuteness of ecological catastrophes and natural disasters. During the first two decades of this century, 11,000 extreme weather events caused the loss of more than 475,000 human lives and US $2.56 trillion in purchasing power parity (PPP) (Global Climate Risk Index, 2021).
Scientists around the world have established that climate change has detrimental effects on the physical health of people (Innocenti, et al., 2021, Clayton, 2020-1, Clayton, 2020-2, Verplanken, et al., 2020, Ágoston, et al., 2022). More recently, the academic community worldwide has started to investigate the negative impacts that climate change has on the mental well-being of humans (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.) Several definitions have been put forward to denote the adverse emotional response that people have to the idea of climate change (Innocenti, et al., 2021, Clayton, 2020-2, Coffey, et al., 2021, Ogunbode, et al., 2022). The term that has stood out due to encompassing all (psychological, physical, and behavioural) aspects of environmentally evoked distress in people is “eco-anxiety” proposed by Glen Albrecht (Albrecht, 2011) and defined as “a chronic fear of environmental fate” (Clayton, S., et al., 2017). Several tools have been developed to capture and measure psychological responses of people to the climate change to determine the prevalence and intensity of eco-anxiety in people worldwide, such as Environmental Distress Scale (EDS) (Higginbotham, N., et al., 2006) and Climate Change Anxiety Scale (CCAS) (Clayton, 2020-2).
Adaptive and maladaptive eco-anxiety
Apart from monitoring the scale and degree of eco-anxiety worldwide, the academic community is also placing paramount importance on inquiring into the nature of eco-anxiety. The key research question is whether eco-anxiety is a natural or pathological phenomenon. As of now, there is no definitive answer to it. Eco-anxiety appears to be a complex emotional response that manifests itself either as an adaptive response of behavioural engagement that can motivate pro-environmental action or as a maladaptive response of behavioural avoidance than can impair a person’s ability to function (Clayton, 2020-2, Coffey et al., 221, Filho et al., 2021, Ágoston et al., 2022).
Eco-anxiety is adaptive when a person has the capacity to acknowledge and accept their emotions about environmental problems and deal with them. This form of eco-anxiety encourages people to find solutions to the environmental problems that create it and dissolves once those solutions are found. In cases when a person suppresses or denies their eco-anxiety and it becomes chronic, difficult to control, and interferes with their sleep, work or socialising, eco-anxiety is said to be maladaptive. This type of eco-anxiety prevents individuals from taking constructive actions to resolve the issues that cause it and turns into a medical issue itself (Clayton, 2020-1, Clayton, 2020-2, Verplanken et al., 2020, Filho et al., 2021). There is also a view that having too little climate anxiety might be pathological too (Dodds, 2021).
Dual nature of eco-anxiety
Many researchers believe that eco-anxiety can serve as a healthy psychological adaptation mechanism that propels people to adopt pro-environmental behaviour (Innocenti et al., 2021, Clayton, 2020-2, Verplanken et al., 2020, Coffey et al., 221). Based on the 2019 findings of the American Psychological Association, people who reported eco-anxiety were more than twice as likely (87%) as those who did not (40%) to claim that they were open to taking practical steps towards solving environmental problems (American Psychological Association, 2020 cited in Clayton, 2020-1). In like manner, the above-mentioned cross-sectional data from 32 countries confirmed that climate anxiety was predictive of pro-environmental behaviour in 24 countries and environmental activism in 12 (Ogunbode et al., 2022). However, several studies have established that climate anxiety is predictive of actions that require a higher degree of effort and are not the most effective ones (Clayton, 2020-2, Verplanken et al., 2020, Filho et al., 2021, Ágoston et al., 2022). Such actions include renting, borrowing, and repurposing items, as well as saving energy at home (Filho et al., 2021), using public transportation (Clayton, 2020-2), and purchasing electric cars (Verplanken et al., 2020).
The developers of the CCAS, Clayton & Karazsia, emphasised this contradictory nature of eco-anxiety in their study, which showed both: a possibility that climate anxiety might be unhealthy because it contributed to general anxiety and depression; and a chance that it might be healthy by leading to constructive behaviour (Clayton, 2020-2). Verplanket et al. came to the same conclusion in their two studies: the first study found a positive correlation between climate change anxiety and pro-environmental behaviour (Verplanken, Roy, 2013) and the second demonstrated a positive connection between climate change worry and pathological worry (Verplanken et al., 2020).
In fact, the creator of terminology that depicts a range of emotions about environmental problems, Glenn Albrecht, specifically separated the term “eco-anxiety” – a “generalised sense that the ecological foundations of existence are in the process of collapse” (Albrecht, 2012) – from “ecoparalysis”, which impedes people from effectively responding to environmental challenges “due to a perception that they are intractable” (Clayton, 2020-1). This means that while people might be very anxious about environmental issues, they may or may not do very much about them (Converse, Austin, 2021, Filho et al., 2021, Ágoston et al., 2022). For this reason, environmental social scientists have been trying to identify predicting factors of adaptive and maladaptive eco-anxiety as well as find strategies that can mitigate maladaptive factors of eco-anxiety and stimulate adaptive ones (Clayton, 2020-2, Converse, Austin, 2021, Coffey et al., 221, Pitiruţ et al., 2021).
Given that information about environmental problems has the potential to reach almost every person on the planet through modern communications technology, it is important that humanity obtain and share knowledge about the dual nature of eco-anxiety in order to prepare successful strategies to handle environmental issues. Author and activist Cory Doctorow believes that a society is ready to adopt radical changes when it arrives at the point of “peak indifference” – the point at which the number of people who are concerned about a particular problem in society surpasses the number of people who are not (Doctorow, 2019). However, concern about environmental problems does not necessarily transform into constructive action due to eco-anxiety containing maladaptive as well as adaptive elements. Therefore, “peak indifference” is the vital moment when societal attention shifts from the fact that there are environmental problems to the fact that there are environmental solutions to soften maladaptive eco-anxiety and activate adaptive eco-anxiety (Doctorow, 2019).
“Peak indifference” can be turned into “peak action” when there is a change in collective consciousness towards sustainable environmental choices (Converse, Austin, 2021). While a change of such a magnitude cannot be accomplished by any one individual’s effort, society relies on individuals’ contributions in achieving a critical mass of people that makes a pro-environmental change of collective consciousness possible. At the same time, everyone’s behaviour depends on the availability of examples of pro-environmental actions set by the entire society (Converse, Austin, 2021, Albrecht, 2011, Hoffman, 2011, Marlon et al., 2019). This makes the role of environmental communicators central in coordinating the relationship between the global society and individuals worldwide.
NATURE OF ECO-ANXIETY
Six factors predicting maladaptive eco-anxiety
First, the cross-sectional data gathered in 32 countries by a group of scientists from all over the world outlined patterns of eco-anxiety that were more closely related to pro-environmental actions in individualistic wealthy Western countries than in countries of the Global South. The study ascribes this discrepancy to economic, financial, and political hurdles in addition to the lack of relevant education and opportunities that preclude the population in poor and developing countries from practising pro-environmental behaviour (Ogunbode et al., 2022). Moreover, the struggle and imbalance between pro-environmental and the recent post COVID-19 recovery policies seem to be more pronounced in less politically stable and less economically developed countries (Loureiro, Alló, 2021).
Second, many people perceive environmental problems as a distant threat. In Western countries, many regard environmental changes as something that will happen in the far distant future and to people in far distant places (Pitiruţ et al., 2021). Such attitude towards environmental changes was demonstrated, for instance, in a study from one coastal area in the United Kingdom that explored public and expert opinions on the risks of flooding, erosion, and ecological change posed by high tides, storms and other short-term changes in sea level that were conditioned by long-term global average sea levels rise (Thomas et al., 2015). Most of the residents and professionals who took part in this survey gave three reasons why the consequences of sea level rise were not a high priority for them. They felt that those consequences would:
- Would affect “the rest of the world” more than they would affect them;
- Were less important to them than their private pressing matters; and
- Would need to be managed by the government since they are the government’s responsibility and not their own.
Therefore, the survey respondents favoured such mitigation measures as dredging, geoengineering, and limiting population growth that were the prerogative of the government over measures that would require changes in their personal lifestyles.
Mistrust in government
Third, while the respondents in the above-mentioned British survey wanted the government to take charge of pro-environmental practices, they also expressed doubt in the ability of government to implement those practices in an effective and open manner (Thomas et al., 2015). Some people are simply apprehensive of power abuse by the governments, and some suspect that governments use climate science as a means of securing own profit (Loureiro, Alló, 2021). The public's scepticism of the government is particularly visible in the energy sector (Loureiro, Alló, 2021).
The study participants in one thematic analysis of public standpoint on the ways of financing the energy transition in Great Britain stated that they thought that most financial obligations in this sector should fall on the British government and energy companies and that the current contributions of those parties were too low. The study warned that while general public were willing to bear some of the costs, their support for energy system change could fade unless their concerns over the profit-driven energy system and the perceived close relationship between the energy industry and government were addressed and more transparent processes and a more equal distribution of costs and benefits in the energy transition were in place (Becker et al., 2019). In this way, pro-environmental intentions of individuals may not turn into pro-environmental action if those intentions are taken for granted and overused by the government and other players involved.
Fear of nuclear energy
Fourth, besides mistrusting the environmental policies and practices of governments, people also may have reservations about certain pro-environmental practices themselves. For example, not all new ecology-friendly sources of energy are accepted equally by the general population. While such green energy solutions as wind, hydropower, solar, biomass, and geothermal get wide approval from the public, nuclear energy is put at the bottom of the public's list of “preferred” energy options (Corner et al., 2011). This even though nuclear power has been used since the oil crises in the 1970s and its share in global energy production has risen from 0.4% in 1970 to 6% in 2000 (Hooke, 2022).
The accidents at Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in the USA in 1979, at Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the USSR in 1986, and at Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan in 2011 turned public against nuclear energy (Poortinga et al., 2013, Corner et al., 2011). Even such obvious benefits of nuclear energy as low carbon emissions, minimal waste, almost zero emissions of air pollutants, electricity that is 15% cheaper than that obtained from fossil fuels and more than 60% cheaper than electricity generated from renewable resources, and energy security due to the abundant availability of uranium (nuclear energy fuel source) in many countries (Hooke, 2022) do not outweigh the safety risks in the minds of many people as seen, for example, from the national studies in such countries as Japan and the United Kingdom (Poortinga et al., 2013, Pidgeon et al., 2007, Corner et al., 2011).
Fifth is the so-called “free-rider problem”. This problem is best illustrated within the framework of the Paris Agreement – an international treaty on climate change that was signed by 196 countries in December 2015 with the goal of limiting global warming to below 2 °C of pre-industrial-era levels. Under this agreement, countries bear 100% of the cost of the environmental policies that they implement. However, the benefits of those policies across national borders due to the boundlessness of the global atmosphere, making climate mitigation a non-excludable, non-rival public good (Gollier, Tirole, 2015). This creates a temptation for any individual country to cut their own climate mitigation costs and just share in the gains of the efforts put in by complaint countries - in other words, to “free ride”.
The same principle applies to people when they make decisions about their individual levels of involvement in collective pro-environmental action. Whenever people feel discouraged to take part in climate mitigation activities because they either find it pointless to contribute while there is a risk that others will not or because they consider their contribution to be negligible compared to the magnitude of the global environmental problem, they experience maladaptive eco-anxiety (Loureiro, Alló, 2021).
Finally, people may refrain from exhibiting too much interest in environmental problems and acting on their pro-environmental views because of so-called “social polarisation” - the division of public into two camps that hold drastically different environmental opinions (Albrecht, 2011). Andrew Hoffman, a Professor of Sustainable Enterprise, calls these camps “institutional logics”: the climate change “convinced” and the climate change “sceptical” (Hoffman, 2011). He argues that these two logics are “engaging in different debates on similar issues with the former focusing on solutions while the latter debates the definition of the problem”.
According to Professor Hoffman, this debate has long ceased to be a constructive and integrative discussion of possible solutions to environmental issues and has become a destructive and dividing fight over who is right and who is wrong. As a result, while some people may choose to participate in this fight, others may choose not to voice their true feelings towards environmental problems out of the fear of being disapproved, ridiculed, or confronted by the rest of society (Albrecht, 2011). In either case, such social disconnection can undermine people’s resilience and push them into isolation (Albrecht, 2011).
Six factors predicting adaptive eco-anxiety
The first factor contributing to making eco-anxiety adaptive is a pro-ecological view of the world. It has been found that having environmental values promotes the easiest and most effective pro-environmental actions, such as reducing food and water waste, recycling, buying products with less packaging, and consuming less red meat (Filho et al., 2021). A belief that humanity does affect the environment in a detrimental way and should stop damaging it is found to influence eco-anxiety in ways that either promote or discourage productive pro-environmental behaviours or shape pro-environmental behaviours in ways that either loosen (Clayton, 2020-2, Filho et al., 2021) or intensify eco-anxiety (Clayton, 2020-2, Ágoston et al., 2022).
Many studies have found that reconnecting with nature through such activities as visiting green areas, exploring wildernesses, gardening, or practicing horticulture not only performs a therapeutical restorative function for people, but also inspires them to be more mindful about environmental changes and take more pro-environmental actions (Clayton, 2020-2, Albrecht, 2011). Likewise, several studies have shown that environmental conservation activism prompts feelings of empowerment, competence, efficacy, and happiness as well as adaptation to a new reality of life which together result in better psychological health (Clayton, 2020-2, Albrecht, 2011). Exceptions are individuals with extremely high levels of eco-anxiety, who require some form of distraction from environmental problems by such means as abstaining from media and discussions of this topic and re-focusing their attention on different interests, things, and activities (Albrecht, 2011).
Personal experience and personality traits
Two factors influencing the adaptive side of eco-anxiety are personal experience and personality traits. Many studies have discovered a positive bond between personal experience of climate change and people’s willingness to reduce their own contribution to environmental problems (Innocenti et al., 2021, Clayton, 2020-2, Verplanken et al., 2020). Also, people who believe themselves to be capable of coping with environmental problems or, in other words, have “climate self-efficacy” (Clayton, 2020-1) or a “green self-identity” (Verplanken et al., 2020), are more likely to be engaged in pro-environmental actions while people who possess such subclinical personality traits as Machiavellianism, narcissism, and psychopathy are less likely to get involved in finding solutions to environmental issues (Pitiruţ et al., 2021).
Problem-focused, emotional-focused, and meaning-focused ways of coping
The degree to which people can deal with environmental challenges largely depends on their individual abilities to deal with their own emotional, cognitive, and behavioural responses to those challenges (Clayton, 2020-1). There are three ways in which people might react to environmental stressors: by focusing on emotions, problems, or meaning (Clayton, 2020-1, Clayton, 2020-2, Ojala, 2012). These ways constitute the fourth factor contributing to adaptive eco-anxiety. The problem-focused approach involves learning about a particular environmental problem through talking to others and reading to work on changing personal behaviour in a way that contributes to a collective solution of the given problem. The emotion-focused way implies using cognitive reframing to downplay or even deny environmental issues. The meaning-focused approach also focuses on cognitive reappraisal, but with the intention of understanding environmental problems by putting them into historical perspective and trusting scientists to find pro-environmental solutions (Clayton, 2020-1, Clayton, 2020-2, Ojala, 2012).
Emotional-focused coping is proven to be effective in the short term since it can temporarily reduce environmental agitation, but not effective in the long run as it does not address the underlying environmental issues. Problem-focused coping is found to be more productive in the long run because it can promote the search for solutions to environmental problems, but it may lead to a greater environmental distress if that search is not successful.
Meaning-focused coping is the only type of coping that promotes engagement in environmental problem-solving while mitigating stress about the environment in both the short and long terms. All three types of coping with ecological stressors produce some negative emotions, but only meaning-focused strategies lessen the adverse effect of those emotions on human mental health (Clayton, 2020-1, Clayton, 2020-2, Ojala, 2012).
Eco-worry, eco-grief, and eco-anger
The fifth factor responsible for providing eco-anxiety with its adaptive quality are certain negative emotions associated with ecological problems, mainly eco-worry, eco-grief, and eco-anger (Verplanken et al., 2020, Stanley et al., 2021, Ágoston et al., 2022). Scholars in environmental psychology seek to distinguish between these and other eco-emotions because they have different effects on people’s well-being and climate action (Coffey et al., 221, Ágoston et al., 2022). For example, eco-worry and eco-grief correlate more highly with pro-environmental behaviour than do eco-guilt and eco-shame (Verplanken et al., 2020, Ágoston et al., 2022, Pitiruţ et al., 2021). When people experience eco-shame, they think that their “flawed character” is the reason for their destructive behaviour towards the environment and when people feel eco-guilt, they concentrate on the irreversibility of the damage that has already been done to the environment in the past. That is why eco-guilt and eco-shame are not strong motivational forces when it comes to pro-environmental action, although eco-guilt is slightly more motivational, if compared to eco-shame in isolation (Ágoston et al., 2022). In contrast, people who are worried and sorry about the state of the environment feel more optimistic, hopeful, determined, and empowered to join the pro-environmental movement (Verplanken et al., 2020).
Another major driver of a constructive approach to tackling environmental problems is eco-anger. Stanley et al., experimented with separating eco-anger, eco-anxiety and eco-depression and observing each of these eco-emotion’s influence on individuals’ mental well-being and participation in pro-environmental action (Stanley et al., 2021). These researchers concluded that eco-anger was linked to better psychological well-being in people as well as to a greater commitment to both personal and collective pro-ecological behaviour. At the same time, both eco-anxiety and eco-depression were related to worse mental health outcomes and unrelated to personal actions towards mitigating climate change. Eco-anxiety was also associated with stronger avoidance of collective pro-climate activism while people with eco-depression were slightly more likely to take part in mutual climate change solutions (Stanley et al., 2021).
The sixth variable making eco-anxiety adaptive is a collection of social norms, values, and beliefs about the environment that is shared by people in social groups to which they feel they belong. Environmental psychologists explain that people get more enthusiastic about taking care of the environment when they see others doing the same (Clayton, 2020-2, Converse, Austin, 2021, Loureiro, Alló, 2021, Albrecht, 2011, Hoffman, 2011). For instance, participants in one national study in the USA said that watching others take pro-environmental action is their number one reason for staying hopeful about the environment (Marlon et al., 2019).
Converse and Austin (2021) suggest that “people-watching” is the most crucial element in forming the social perceptions and social inferences about the environment that determine whether society embraces environmental sustainability and acts on it. They warn that without pro-ecological examples set by others, people may fall into despair even if they themselves are ready to take on environmental responsibilities. Since ecological despair can be as “contagious” as ecological hope (Converse, Austin, 2021), the question of how to mitigate maladaptive eco-anxiety and boost adaptive eco-anxiety becomes critical.
Climate change and eco-anxiety
Just a couple of centuries of human activities related to industrial and technological revolutions have heated our planet at a rate that exceeds the natural climate change rate of our planet by many times. To keep the temperature change at a safe level, the author believes that the global community of people should decrease the emissions into the atmosphere of such greenhouse gases as carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide. This can be achieved only by changing the current complex array of industrial, production, transportation, economic, political and lifestyle practices of people. To find optimal solutions to climate change problems and successfully implement them, a critical level of awareness about environmental issues must be reached among people worldwide.
However, the more people learn about the negative impacts of the climate change consequences on their physical and mental well-being as well as on the health of the world around them, the more they become stressed, anxious, and depressed about the environmental problems. Psychological responses to climate change, known in the academic literature as “eco-anxiety”, may either motivate or discourage people from working towards improving environmental conditions. Environmental psychologists have been studying this dual nature of eco-anxiety trying to identify factors that predict its adaptive and maladaptive sides.
Six factors predicting maladaptive eco-anxiety
There are at least six factors that contribute to the maladaptive aspect of eco-anxiety. First is location: eco-anxiety seems to be less associated with pro-environmental actions in countries of the Global South due to unfavourable economic, financial, political, and educational conditions in those areas. Second distant threat: when people do not prioritise climate change consequences, regarding them as something that would affect other people in other places, and shift responsibility for the environment on to the governments, they tend to be less engaged in pro-environmental actions. Third is mistrust in government: concerns about the environment might not turn into pro-ecological behaviour if people feel that their efforts are being taken advantage of by governments for their own gains.
Fourth is fear of nuclear energy: the worry about the safety of nuclear energy despite its numerous obvious benefits might outweigh the worry about consequences of climate change despite its numerous obvious threats. Fifth is the “free-rider problem”: people might avoid taking part in collective pro-environmental movements if they feel that their contribution would not be substantial enough or fear that others may fail to contribute at all. Sixth is social polarisation: people might be so divided in their views on the underlying causes of and possible solution to climate change that they may step out of the conversation about it all together.
Six factors predicting adaptive eco-anxiety
There are at least six sets of factors that contribute to the adaptive aspect of eco-anxiety. First is environmental values: people who believe that humanity must take responsibility for environmental problems, preserve wild nature, and reduce global warming are more prone to become involved in the mitigation of climate change. Second is personal experience: people who have personally experienced the consequences of climate change in the form of extreme weather events and natural disasters are found to be more eager to contribute to the climate change solutions. Third is personality traits: people who trust themselves to solve environmental problems seem to do better in terms of pro-environmental behaviour than people who are disposed to Machiavellianism, narcissism, or psychopathy.
Fourth is problem-focused, emotional-focused, and meaning-focused ways of coping: people who do not succumb to emotions evoked by the climate change and who do not get desperate if they cannot find environmental solutions immediately, but look upon the challenges of the climate change from the meaning-oriented perspective, taking all aspects of life into account, are more prepared to deal with environmental problems than others. Fifth is eco-worry, eco-grief, and eco-anger: people who feel angry, worry, and grieve about the current state of the environment are more likely to take part in a joint collaborative pro-ecological effort than people who feel guilty, ashamed, anxious, and depressed about environmental conditions. Sixth is people-watching: people who have an opportunity to observe and follow an example of pro-environmental behaviour set by others seem to strive for environmental sustainability more than people who are deprived of such an example.
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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.