How Psychology Can Help Fight Climate Change and Anxiety

sScientists and activists have deployed many tactics to combat climate change: expanding technologies such as wind and solar energy, building better batteries to store that renewable energy, and protecting forests, all while striving to reduce of greenhouse gas emissions.

On August 4, at the American Psychological Association convention in Minneapolis, nearly a dozen experts turned the spotlight on another more surprising tool: psychology.

“I used to start my presentations by talking about temperature data and gases that trap heat, but now I start most of my presentations the same way: by asking people, ‘What do you think about climate change?'” said Katharine Hayhoe, lead scientist from the Nature Conservancy, a nonprofit environmental organization, during a panel discussion. “I get the same words everywhere: anxious, concerned, frustrated, concerned, devastated, overwhelmed, angry, hopeless, horrified, afraid, heartbroken, and scared.”

Just simmering in those negative emotions won’t accomplish much: “Not knowing what to do with them can lead us to withdraw, freeze, give up instead of taking action,” Hayhoe says.

Psychology can play a role in combating climate change by finding the most effective ways to change human behavior and encouraging individuals to take action. Extreme weather events also affect people’s mental health and well-being, so psychologists should be prepared.

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

Confronting the Mental Health Toll of Climate Change

Climate change is a growing threat to mental health. Extreme weather events such as wildfires and hurricanes can lead to depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder in people of all ages, sometimes through displacement and food insecurity. And research indicates that higher temperatures are associated with an increased risk of suicide and psychiatric hospitalizations.

Many people also experience climate fear, or existential fear for the future of the planet. According to a study published in the Lancet by 2021, 84% of people aged 16-25 from 10 countries – including the US – are at least moderately concerned about climate change, while 59% are very or extremely concerned.

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

In addition to fear, many people, especially young adults, experience anger at inheriting a problem they did not create. This is a justified response and can be exploited, Clayton emphasized: “Anger can be very powerful in motivating people to get involved,” and for some people it can be more helpful than the passivity that can result from fear. “There is a real place for anger.” What’s important, she added, is figuring out how to translate this into acceptable social action.

Children also experience climate anxiety, and many parents struggle to navigate these complex conversations. “As a parent, I’d say two things: first, don’t lie to a child or they’ll find out, and that will only undermine their confidence,” Clayton said. “And be mindful of their emotional needs. Please don’t tell them the world is coming to an end.”

As a society, we need to provide children with emotional coping skills that receive messages about climate change directly or indirectly, she said. Children need outlets, and it’s important for parents and community leaders, including psychologists, to find ways to promote advocacy from an early age. For example, UNICEF suggests talking about steps the whole family can take together, such as recycling, reducing food waste, saving water and planting trees.

Read more: What extreme heat does to the human body?

How to fight climate change denial?

There is solid scientific evidence that the man-made climate crisis is real. Yet some people refuse to acknowledge that it exists.

Climate denial manifests itself in many ways, said Gale M. Sinatra, a professor of psychology and education at the University of Southern California and co-author of Scientific Denial: Why It Happens And What To Do About It?. Some people are adamant that hurricanes, droughts and scorching heat waves are not signs of a climate crisis. Others express doubt or show “resistance to do something about it” or even talk about it, she said. “A lot of people kind of understand that something is going on, but are hesitant to take action, and in that delay is a denial of this crisis that is coming our way.”

There are several cognitive and emotional reasons a person can subconsciously use to justify their climate denial, Sinatra said. It may involve “motivated reasoning” or wanting to believe in a desired outcome rather than confronting a harsh reality. Or someone’s social identity may have become entangled 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 there are no problems. “Sometimes people don’t want to combine those 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 the person you are talking to also finds important. It can also help to consider an us-versus-them mentality and strive to make conversations inclusive.

For example in scientific denial, Sinatra recommends listening to those who oppose 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 people with asthma breathe. It can also be helpful to ask someone why they don’t value scientific knowledge, and to demonstrate that you are open-minded and willing to consider their point of view. This increases the chance of a meaningful dialogue.

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

Read more: Afraid of climate change? Maybe you have eco-fear

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 Christie Manning, 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 the recent heatwaves have made clear.

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

Connect with the youth. Manning has been thinking about climate change for decades. But in 2018, after a prominent United Nations report was released, she remembers walking home with her then 13-year-old daughter. “She turned to me and said, ‘Mom, I heard about this climate report from a friend at school today, and I want you to tell me what this means for my life. What does it mean for my future?’ It was one of those moments when my heart dropped 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 that will drive 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 feel like we’re working on 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 is important to seek out others. “When I worry about the climate crisis and spend time with people who don’t share those concerns, I start to feel quite alone,” she said. “But when I join a community that feels the same fear that I do, 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 make you feel like you’re really making a dent in a problem, which is the kind of motivation many people need to continue quitting.

Take action outside your comfort zone. As humans, we all have untapped power to change the world around us, Manning said. Often people promise to eat less meat or drive less by default – admiral targets, “but we know those individual actions are not what it takes to solve this crisis.”

She suggests motivating yourself — or encouraging others — to “take bold steps,” such as contacting elected officials or starting a club that will build a community sun garden. “These kinds of actions have big 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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