How psychology can help combat climate change and climate anxiety

Sscientists and activists have used many tactics to help combating climate change: expanding technologies like wind and solar power, building better batteries to store this renewable energy, and protecting forests while striving to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

On August 4, during American Psychological Association Congress in Minneapolis, nearly a dozen experts turned their attention to another, more surprising tool: psychology.

“I used to start my presentations by talking about temperature data and heat-trapping gases, but now I start most of my presentations the same way: by asking people, ‘How do you feel about climate change?'” said Catherine Hayhow, chief scientist for the Nature Conservancy, an environmental nonprofit, during a panel discussion. “I get the same words everywhere: anxious, worried, disappointed, concerned, devastated, overwhelmed, angry, hopeless, terrified, scared, heartbroken and scared.”

Simply simmering in these negative emotions won’t accomplish much: “If we don’t know what to do with them, it can cause us to withdraw, freeze, give up instead of taking action,” Hayhow says.

Psychology can play a role in helping to combat climate change by gathering the most effective ways to change human behavior and encourage people to take action. Extreme weather events also affect people’s mental health and well-being, so psychologists need to be prepared.

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

Addressing the effects of climate change on mental health

Climate change is on the rise threat to mental health. Extreme weather events such as wildfires and hurricanes can lead to depression, anxiety and PTSD in people of all ages, sometimes causing displacement and food insecurity. And research showed that higher temperatures were associated with an increased risk of suicide and mental health-related hospital admissions.

Many people also experience climate anxietyor existential fear for the future of the planet. According to research published in Lancet in 2021, 84% of 16- to 25-year-olds in 10 countries — including the US — are at least moderately concerned about climate change, while 59% are very or extremely concerned.

It’s not unusual to have “very strong emotional responses” to this crisis, Susan Clayton, a professor of psychology at the College of Wooster in Ohio, said during the presentation. Those experiencing extreme emotions may benefit from counseling or other mental health treatment, as well as some reassurance that they don’t have to have all the answers. Psychologists and others in leadership positions need to remind people that “this is a systemic problem,” Clayton said. “People who struggle with climate anxiety may feel personally responsible for saving the world. No one should have to carry this burden on their shoulders.

In addition to anxiety, many people, especially young adults, feel anger at inheriting a problem they did not create. It’s a legitimate response, and it can be managed, Clayton stressed: “Anger can be really powerful in motivating people to engage,” and for some people, it can be more helpful than the passivity that can result from anxiety. “There is a real place for anger.” What’s important, she added, is figuring out how to translate it into acceptable social action.

Children also experience anxiety about the climate, and many parents struggle with how to navigate these complex conversations. “As a parent, I would say two things: first, don’t lie to a child because they’re going to find out, and that only undermines their confidence,” Clayton said. “And be mindful of their emotional needs. Please don’t tell them the world is going to end.”

As a society, we need to provide emotional coping skills to children who are directly or indirectly receiving messages about climate change, she said. Children need outlets, and it is important that parents and community leaders, including psychologists, identify ways to promoting advocacy from an earlier age. For example, UNICEF suggests we’re talking about steps the whole family can take together, like recycling, reducing food waste, conserving water and planting trees.

Read more: What causes extreme heat to the human body

How to fight climate change denial

there is solid scientific evidence that the human-caused climate crisis is real. But some people refuse to admit it exists.

Climate denial manifests itself in many ways, said Gail M. Sinatra, a professor of psychology and education at the University of Southern California and co-author of Science denial: why it happens and what to do about it. Some people are adamant that hurricanes, droughts and heat waves are not signs of a climate crisis. Others express doubt or show “resistance to doing something about it” or even talk about it, she said. “Many people understand that something is happening, but hesitate to act, and in this delay is the denial of this crisis that lies ahead.”

There are a variety of cognitive and emotional reasons a person can subconsciously use to justify their climate denial, Sinatra said. It may be related to “motivated reasoning” or a desire to believe in a preferred outcome rather than face the harsh reality. Or one’s social identity may be entangled in driving a large truck, for example, who does not want to trade for an electric vehicle – so it is easiest to pretend that there are no problems. “Sometimes people don’t want to combine these things because they don’t want to change their lifestyle,” she said.

So what can be done about climate denial? One strategy is to tailor the message to what interests the person you’re talking to. It can also help to keep an “us vs. them” mentality in mind and strive to make conversations inclusive.

For example in Denial of scienceSinatra recommends listening to those who resist science and trying to understand their concerns and fears. Strive to find common ground, she advises, such as a shared desire to improve the air that people with asthma breathe. It can also be helpful to ask someone why they don’t value scientific knowledge and demonstrate that you are open-minded and willing to consider their point of view. This increases the chances of having a meaningful dialogue.

To make sure you don’t fall for climate change misinformation, Sinatra suggests becoming skilled at searching for and evaluating scientific claims and being aware that people are being shown content based on algorithms that can help “ to counter any bias you might develop from just following Google or your social media feeds.”

Read more: Terrified of climate change? You may have eco-anxiety

How to empower people to fight climate change

The climate crisis can sometimes feel like a distant threat — something we can deal with tomorrow, said Christy Manning, director of sustainability and faculty member in the Department of Environmental Studies at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota. But we know that’s not the case, as recent heat waves have shown.

Manning described three psychology-based tactics that can help people take action to mitigate climate change:

Connect with the young. Manning has been thinking about climate change for decades. But back in 2018, after an important UN report was published, she recalls walking home with her then 13-year-old daughter. “She turned to me and said, ‘Mom, today I learned about this climate report from a friend at school and I need you to tell me what it means for my life. What does this mean for my future?’ It was one of those moments where my heart dropped into my stomach because I know what this means for the lives of all young people if we don’t come 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 and be willing to take action on the climate crisis. “Let’s encourage everyone 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 it will spur more action and raise the stakes for all of us.”

Ask yourself: what fuels your positive emotions? If we don’t find a way to feel hope or a sense that we’re working toward solutions, we’re likely to 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 worry about the climate crisis and spend time with people who don’t share that worry, I start to feel quite alone,” she said. “But if I join a community that feels the same fear as me and we take action together, I feel that social support and I feel validated.”

Joining a community, such as a local advocacy group, can also help you feel like you’re actually making a breakthrough on a problem, which is the kind of motivation many people need to keep pushing back.

Act outside your comfort zone. As humans, we all have an untapped power to change the world around us, Manning said. People often default to promising to eat less meat or drive less — admiralty goals, “but we know that these individual actions are not what it will take to solve this crisis.”

She suggests motivating yourself — or encouraging others — to “take bold steps,” such as contacting elected officials or starting a club to build a community solar garden. “These are the kinds of actions that have big ripple effects and can lead to systemic change,” Manning said. “And people have the power to take those steps. We need to encourage them and help them overcome their discomfort.”

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