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Climate anxiety can lead to climate action

Interest in climate, or eco-anxiety – characterized as the chronic fear of environmental doom emerging from observing the impacts of climate change – has increased over the past years, and is particularly prevalent among young people. A recent study led by the Center for Climate Change and Social Transformations at the University of Bath has now found that climate anxiety might be an important trigger for climate action, by helping eco-anxious people adapt their high-carbon lifestyles to become more environmentally friendly. 

The scientists investigated the views of 1,338 UK adults over two time points, in 2020 and 2022, to assess the prevalence of eco-anxiety, identify the factors that predict it, and find out whether it could lead to behavioral changes and climate action. Although over three-quarters of the UK populations claim to be worried about climate change, the analysis revealed that only 4.6 percent reported experiencing climate anxiety in 2022 (a small increase from four percent in 2020). Younger individuals and those with higher generalized anxiety were more likely to experience eco-anxiety.

According to the scientists, this phenomenon should not be seen as a purely negative one. Instead, for many people it could be a motivating force for taking actions to reduce greenhouse emissions, such as saving energy, buying second-hand, borrowing, renting, or repurposing various items.

Interestingly, the researchers discovered that media exposure – for instance, TV images of raging storms and other extreme weather events – seemed to have a stronger influence on climate anxiety than direct, personal experience of climate impacts.

“With increasing media coverage of climate impacts, such as droughts and fires in the UK and devastating flooding in Pakistan, climate anxiety may well increase,” said study lead author Lorraine Whitmarsh, an environmental psychologist at the University of Bath. “Our findings suggest this can spur some people to take action to help tackle the issue – but we also know there are barriers to behavior change that need to be addressed through more government action.”

The experts highlight the importance of media as a motivating force for the lifestyle changes that are needed to mitigate climate change. “Our results suggest that the media could play an important role in creating positive pro-environmental behavior change, but only if they carefully communicate the reality of climate change without inducing a sense of hopelessness,” concluded co-author Lois Player, a graduate student in Psychology at Bath. 

The study is published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology.   

By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer  

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