How Psychology Can Help Fight Climate Change and Anxiety

SScientists and activists use many strategies to combat climate change. They expand technologies such as wind power and solar energy and build better batteries that store it. Also, they protect forests while trying to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

On Aug. 4, during the American Psychological Association’s Convention in Minneapolis, nearly a dozen experts turned the spotlight on another more surprising tool: psychology.

“I used to begin my presentations by talking about temperature data and heat-trapping gasses, but now I begin most of my presentations in the same way: by asking people, ‘How do you feel about climate change?’” said Katharine Hayhoe, chief scientist for the Nature Conservancy, a nonprofit environmental organization, during a panel discussion. “I get the same words everywhere: anxious, worried, frustrated, concerned, devastated, overwhelmed, angry, hopeless, horrified, frightened, heartbroken, and afraid.”

Simply simmering in those negative emotions won’t accomplish much: “If we don’t know what to do with them, that can cause us to withdraw, to freeze, to give up rather than take action,” Hayhoe says.

By identifying the best ways to influence behavior change and encouraging people to act, psychology can help combat climate change. Extreme weather events also affect people’s mental health and wellbeing, so psychologists need to be prepared.

Here’s a look at how psychology can be utilized in the climate crisis.

Climate change and mental health: How to confront it

The threat of climate change to our mental health is growing. People of all ages can be affected by extreme weather events such as hurricanes or wildfires. Sometimes, this may lead to anxiety and depression. Higher temperatures have been linked to suicide rates and hospital admissions for mental disorders.

Many are experiencing anxiety about climate change, which is a fear of what the future holds for humanity. A study in The Observer found that 73 percent of people are experiencing climate anxiety. Lancet in 2021, 84% of people ages 16 to 25 from 10 countries—including the U.S.—are at least moderately worried about climate change, while 59% are very or extremely worried.

It’s not unusual to have “very powerful emotional responses” to this crisis, said Susan Clayton, a professor of psychology at the College of Wooster in Ohio, during the presentation. Those who are experiencing extreme emotions might benefit from counseling or other mental-health treatment—as well as some assurance that they don’t have to have all the answers. Psychologists and others in leadership positions ought to remind people that “this is a systemic issue,” Clayton said. “People struggling with climate anxiety may feel personally responsible for saving the world. No individual should have to bear that weight on their shoulders.”

Many people feel anger at inheriting problems they didn’t create. This is a common reason for anxiety and young adults are particularly affected. This is a justified response, and it can be harnessed, Clayton stressed: “Anger can be really powerful in motivating people to get involved,” and for some people, it may be more useful than the passivity that can result from anxiety. “There’s a real place for anger.” What’s important, she added, is figuring out how to translate it into acceptable social action.

Climate anxiety is also affecting children, so parents need to learn how to manage these complicated conversations. “As a parent, I would say two things: one, don’t lie to a child, because they’ll find out, and that just undermines their trust,” Clayton said. “And bear in mind their emotional needs. Please don’t tell them the world is going to come to an end.”

She said that as a society we must provide emotional coping skills for children who receive messages or are exposed to them about climate change. Kids need outlets, and it’s important for parents and community leaders, including psychologists, to identify ways to promote advocacy from an early age. UNICEF, for example, suggests that the whole family discuss steps they can do together to reduce food waste and save water.

Learn More Extreme Heat Can Do to Your Body

Climate-change denialism: How can we stop it?

There’s solid scientific evidence that the human-caused climate crisis is real. But some refuse to admit it.

Gale M. Sinatra, co-author of The Climate Denialism Project, stated that climate denial can manifest in many different ways. She is also a Professor of Psychology and Education at the University of Southern California. Science Denial: Why it Happens, and How to Avoid It. Some people are adamant that hurricanes, droughts, and scorching heat waves aren’t signs of a climate crisis. Others express doubt or demonstrate “resistance to do something about it” or even talk about it, she said. “A lot of people kind of understand something is going on but are hesitant to act, and in that delay is a denial of this crisis that’s upon us.”

Sinatra stated that there may be a number of reasons someone subconsciously uses to justify their climate denial. It might have to do with “motivated reasoning,” or wanting to believe in a preferred outcome rather than confronting a harsh reality. Or, someone’s social identity might be tangled up in driving a big truck, for example, that they don’t want to trade in for an electric vehicle—so it’s easiest to pretend no problems exist. “Sometimes people don’t want to put those things together because they don’t want to change their lifestyle,” she said.

What can we do to stop climate denial? One strategy is to tailor the message to whatever the person you’re speaking to cares about. Also, it can help not to think of yourself as an enemy and instead try to bring people together.

Take, for example.Science DenialSinatra suggests listening to people who are resistant to science and trying their best to understand what they fear and how to help them. She suggests that you seek common ground. For example, a desire to make asthma sufferers breathe easier. It can also be helpful to ask someone why they don’t value scientific knowledge, and to demonstrate that you’re open minded and willing to consider their point of view. It increases the likelihood of having meaningful conversations.

To make sure you don’t fall for misinformation about climate change, Sinatra suggests becoming skilled at searching for and evaluating scientific claims, and being aware that people are shown content based on algorithms, which can help “counteract any biases you may be developing by simply following Google or your social media feeds.”

Learn More Do you fear climate change? Perhaps you have Eco-Anxiety

How can we empower people to combat climate change

The climate crisis can sometimes feel like a distant threat—something we can deal with tomorrow, said Christie Manning, the director of sustainability and a faculty member in the department of environmental studies at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota. But we know that’s not the case, as recent heat waves have made clear.

Manning highlighted three psychological strategies that empower individuals to act to reduce climate change.

Make connections with your youth Manning has thought about climate change since the 1970s. She recalled walking with her daughter, then 13, home in 2018 after the publication of a significant United Nations report. “She turned to me and said, ‘Mom, I learned about this climate report from a friend at school today, and I need you to tell me what this means for my life. What does it mean for my future?’ It was one of those moments where my heart dropped into my stomach, because I know what this means for all young people’s lives if we don’t get our act together and do something about the climate crisis.”

That conversation raised the stakes for Manning—and she believes that people who have a connection with a young person are more likely to care about and be willing to take action on the climate crisis. “Let’s encourage everybody we know to have a conversation with a young person, to listen to young people and their concerns,” she said. “Because if we listen to them, I think that will galvanize more action and raise the stakes for all of us.”

Find out what fuels your positive emotions. If we don’t find some way to feel hope, or a sense that we’re working on solutions, we’ll likely experience paralysis and anxiety, Manning said. Many people find such meaning when they become part of a community, so it’s important to seek out others. “If I’m worried about the climate crisis and I spend time with people who don’t share that worry, I start to feel pretty alone,” she said. “But if I join with a community that feels the same fear I do, and we’re taking action together, I feel that social support, and I feel validated.”

Joining a community, like a local advocacy group, can also help you feel like you’re actually making a dent in a problem, which is the sort of motivation many people need to continue plugging away.

Take action outside your comfort zone. Manning stated that as humans we have the untapped power of changing the world. Often, people default to pledging to eat less meat, or driving less—admiral goals, “but we know that those individual actions are not what it’s going to take to solve this crisis.”

She suggests motivating yourself—or encouraging others—to “take bold steps,” like contacting elected officials or forming a club that will build a community solar garden. “These are the kinds of actions that have great ripple effects and can bring about systemic change,” Manning said. “And individuals have the power to take these steps. We need to encourage them and help them overcome their discomfort.”

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