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From Climate Anxiety to Hope and Action

by Rebecca Edgecumbe, M.A., BCBA

In August 2020, the forest that I grew up exploring was consumed by wildfire. I grieved the loss of my beloved natural sanctuary, a place where I had found peace in the enduring constancy and abiding permanence of Nature. While the pain of this loss has subsided over time, my growing concern about the observable effects of climate change, worry about whether humans will take sufficient action to mitigate the worst effects, and the very real fear and guilt about the world that my children will inherit, give me climate anxiety.

What is Climate Anxiety and Who Has It?

Climate anxiety is defined as the experience of environmental-related distress, including emotions of fear, worry, guilt, shame, hopelessness and despair (Ojala et.al. 2021). I know I'm not the only one feeling this way. The American Psychological Association reported in 2020 that two-thirds of Americans feel anxiety about the impact of climate change on the planet. This year, Ogenbode et al. found that nearly 50% of young adults from 32 countries are very or extremely worried about climate change.

While feeling anxiety is unpleasant, it can actually be a rational response to a challenging or threatening situation. Every day we encounter examples of the negative impacts of climate change occurring worldwide. It is natural to be concerned about these events and concerned about the future of our planet. What is important is how we cope with our climate anxiety and what we do about it.

How Can we Cope with Climate Anxiety?

Researchers who study how individuals respond to anxiety have described three coping strategies. Clayton (2020) describes problem-focused coping strategies that emphasize one’s ability to address and resolve the threat and emotion-focused coping strategies that include re-framing one’s thoughts to minimize or deny the perceived threat. Clayton notes that “problem-focused coping tends to be associated with greater wellbeing in the long run, because emotion-focused coping does not address the underlying problem. However, when problems are not amenable to solution, problem-focused coping could lead to greater distress. In general, when it comes to climate change, it is unlikely that any one individual’s coping response can completely diffuse the threat of climate change.”

Lazarus & Folkman (1984) and Folkman (2008) defined a third coping strategy: meaning-focused coping where individuals find value in their struggle with the problem. As Clayton writes, this can involve drawing upon “one’s beliefs, values, and goals to elicit positive feelings associated with a stressor.” While this strategy may not eliminate climate anxiety, it acts as a “buffer (to) the detrimental effect of those emotions on wellbeing.” 

When considering how young people respond to stress and anxiety, Clarke (2006) explored the degree of control that the individual has over the stressor.  When an individual can control or influence the stressor, it is adaptive to take action to resolve the stressor.  However, when one has little control over the stressor, it is adaptive to avoid, accept, or adapt to the problem. Interestingly, the adaptive response to controllable stressors is similar to the problem-focused coping described above, while the adaptive response to uncontrollable stressors is similar to emotion-focused coping. Clarke found that when dealing with uncontrollable stressors such as climate change, taking individual actions may be detrimental to well-being.  Working together collectively as part of a group, however, may mitigate this effect. Groups such as EarthForce that work to increase youth civic engagement report increased response efficacy of the young students engaged. EarthForce states that half of the youth that participate in their program continue to be civic advocates over their lives.

Taking Action and Hope

At the North American Associate for Environmental Education's recent conference, Ducks Unlimited Canada presented coping strategies for youth, developed in collaboration with psychologist Ines Lopes. The approach asks individuals to consider whether they feel they have any control over a situation and defines responses that are both high and low in self-efficacy.  (Self-efficacy refers to one’s belief in their own ability to achieve goals and is therefore associated with taking action to solve problems.) The goal of the coping strategies model is to help individuals understand that they do have some control over climate change, and to move toward self-efficacious responses such as taking action and developing skills.

Hope is another motivator for action. According to Snyder (as cited in Chawla, 2020), a positive sense of hope, “requires a vision of a possible future, an awareness of pathways toward this goal and a belief in agency to achieve it.” Further, constructive hope refers to taking action to realize this goal. Chawla notes that, “when young people acknowledge the seriousness of global environmental problems yet find meaning in their own and other people’s efforts to take action despite risk and uncertainty,” they are demonstrating constructive hope.

When faced with the enormity of the climate crisis, its effects on our day to day lives, and the uncertainty of our future, it is normal to experience climate anxiety. Effectively dealing with that anxiety involves identifying one’s sense of self-efficacy, finding hope, and taking action to mitigate the effects of climate change. Action can take many collective and individual forms including talking with family and friends about your climate anxiety, voting and investing with climate in mind, writing to your legislator, joining a climate group, habitat restoration, changing consumer habits including your own, or protesting. Visit the Center for Behavior and Climate or check out Project Drawdown's great video series, ClimateSolutions101, to learn more about what you can do to take action on climate change.

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