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Study finds two distinct ways that people cope with climate change

In a new study from the University of Arizona, experts have explored how people are coping with climate change, and the affect that this may have on behavior and mental health. The researchers identified two main groups of people: those who take action to preserve the environment and those who do nothing because they feel that their efforts would not make a significant difference.

The experts say that understanding how people cope with climate change could help policymakers communicate more effectively about the issue.

“Profound environmental changes will affect vast human populations, if not pose an existential threat to humanity, raising the question of how individuals will adapt psychologically to address these changes and how they manage stress and anxiety in the face of chronic threats such as climate change,” wrote the study authors. 

“We propose that ecological coping (efforts to manage adaptational demands of a degrading environment) is an important construct. Our purpose is to use a person-centered approach to identify profiles of ecological coping and to determine how these profiles differ on mental health outcomes and pro-environmental behaviors.”

Led by Professor Sabrina Helm, the research team conducted an online survey of 334 parents who had children between the ages of 3 and 10 living in their home. 

The individuals were asked about their general climate change beliefs, how stressed they feel about environmental issues, and how they cope with that stress. They were also asked how effective they think consumers can be in helping to combat climate change. 

The survey participants reported on their mental health, as well as how often they engaged in certain behaviors, such as eating meat or making efforts to conserve energy and water. 

From the survey responses, two prevailing climate change coping profiles emerged, which the experts refer to as adaptive approach coping and maladaptive avoidance coping. 

Overall, about 70 percent of the survey respondents fit the adaptive approach coping profile. These individuals expressed higher levels of environmental concern (and related stress) and believed more in consumer effectiveness.

The participants in the maladaptive avoidance coping group were less likely to feel guilt or personal responsibility for climate change. They were also less likely to engage in pro-environmental behaviors, and to believe that their actions could make a meaningful contribution.

Surprisingly, said Professor Helm, no differences were found between the two groups with regard to general health, anxiety, or depressive symptoms.

“Overall, we know that climate change-related anxiety is on the rise, and that may be the case for both of these profiles,” said Professor Helm. “We didn’t look at climate anxiety specifically, but we looked at depressive and anxiety symptoms in general; the two groups didn’t differ in their level of anxiety or mental health outcomes.”

The researchers were also surprised to find that there were no significant differences in the demographic makeup of the two groups when it came to factors such as race, income, education level, or employment status. 

One difference, however, was that women were more likely to be in the adaptive approach coping group. Professor Helm noted that this is consistent with the findings of prior research.”There’s a whole host of literature suggesting that females have more environmental concern.”

According to Professor Helm, the fact that the demographics of the two groups were so similar suggests that targeting climate change-related messaging based on demographic information alone might not be the most effective strategy.

“If you think in terms of messaging about climate change or environmental problems, very often we look at social demographic targeting, and according to our findings, that’s not very useful because those two profiles should probably be receiving different kinds of messaging,” explained Professor Helm. 

“Those who are already acting pro-environmentally need reinforcement of that behavior, versus those who are in the maladaptive avoidance coping profile who don’t do much at all and need to be incentivized to start doing something.”

Professor Helm said that future research should examine whether the same two coping profiles exist in children and teenagers, who may be experiencing greater anxiety about climate change.

“It seems from other data that climate change concern and climate-related anxiety are particularly high among young people. Our study didn’t cover the below-18 group, so understanding what’s going on in that demographic might be interesting, to see if our findings hold there.”

The study is published in the journal Anxiety Stress & Coping.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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