Climate Corner: From the Center for Behavior and Climate
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OUR NEED FOR AGENCY AND HOPE
by Caroly Shumway, Ph.D.
I read the Washington Post every morning. There are days, though, that the news is so bleak, it fills me with despair. I know that I'm not alone. Newspaper columns often adhere to the old adage, "If it bleeds, it leads." This applies to climate change as well. According to Media Matters for America, only one-third of climate stories in 2020 included possible solutions. And yet, when the Washington Post offers up a story about people doing good things, the comments pages make it apparent that there are lots and lots of people out there who wish these types of stories would lead instead.
When we read positive, solution-oriented stories, we feel that we can also make a difference — that we have agency. Agency is defined as "having the power and capability to produce an effect or exert influence" (American Psychological Association, n.d.).Close cousins to agency are efficacy, the belief that our actions make a difference, and Perceived Behavioral Control, feeling like you have the ability to do something.
Washington Post columnist Amanda Ripley writes, "Humans need a sense of agency…Feeling like you and your fellow humans can do something — even something small — is how we convert anger into action, frustration into invention."
What are the consequences for not providing hope or agency? Young people are very aware that climate change will increasingly affect their life. More than 50% of a sample of 10,000 young people (ages 16-25) in ten countries felt anxious, sad, helpless, and powerless with respect to climate change (Hickman et al. 2021). 45% said their feelings negatively affected their daily lives. Their climate anxiety was correlated with their perception of government failing to act.
We all need to feel that our actions matter, and that we are in control. Efficacy predicts both intention to collectively act on climate and collective action itself, at least among those who were most alarmed about climate change (Bamberg et al., 2015,Doherty and Webler, 2016). Perceived Behavioral Control strongly predicts an individual's intention to engage in pro-environmental behavior (Bamberg and Möser, 2007). Less-engaged youth had lower self-efficacy and collective efficacy scores. Essentially, they had less belief that their actions mattered in mitigating climate change (Hickman et al., 2021).
And what of hope? The psychologist C.R. Snyder theorized that hope has three components:1) goals – what we want to happen; 2) pathway thinking – an ability to determine routes to get to where we want to go; and 3) agency thinking – motivation to get there (Snyder, 2000). Hope and efficacy were strongly correlated with a willingness to engage in pro-environmental behaviors and to support climate change policies (Lorenzoni et al., 2007). Hope among high school students was associated with the belief in their ability to take climate action that would make a difference (Li and Monroe, 2019). Hope and parental influence were the strongest predictors of high school students' pro-environmental behaviors, after controlling for other factors (Ojala, 2011).
How can we increase agency and hope?
Washington Columnist David Von Drehle wrote recently that "One cannot meaningly answer the climate crisis if they lack excitement about the human capacity for invention and reinvention…It stands to reason — doesn't it? That the answer is not greater and greater attention to more and more crises. It is more time spent by each of us on the nurture of joy and the cultivation of hope."
I could not agree more.
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