According to a new study, climate anxiety could be an important trigger for changes to high-carbon lifestyles to encourage more environmentally friendly lifestyles.
Climate anxiety, described by the American Psychological Association as a chronic fear of environmental doom arising from the impacts of climate change, has increased over the last few years. Now, a team from the University of Bath surveyed 1,338 UK adults over two-time points (in 2020 and 2022) to understand climate anxiety, factors that predict it and whether it could predict individual behavioural changes and climate action.
The results were published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology which coincides with a new briefing paper from the Centre for Climate Change & Social Transformations, which focused on UK public preferences for low-carbon lifestyles.
What is climate anxiety?
Climate anxiety is a sense of fear, worry or tension linked to climate change.
The adverse effects of climate change have been publicised over decades; in more recent times, more heatwaves, droughts, floods and fires are reported, causing distress and concern for many people.
In many cases, climate anxiety could be eased by opting for a more environmentally friendly lifestyle.
Researching how the public feels about climate change
The researchers found that despite only three-quarters of the UK public claim they are worried about climate change, only 4.6% of the public reported feelings of climate anxiety in 2022. They revealed that younger people and those with higher generalised anxiety were more likely to experience this anxiety.
Notably, climate anxiety is not always perceived as a negative as it can act as a motivating force for people to take climate action. Popular implementations to combat climate worries include saving energy, buying second-hand, borrowing, renting or repurposing items. However, crucial lifestyle changes, such as reducing red meat consumption were not related to climate anxiety, despite being highly effective.
The researchers found that media exposure rather than personal experiences of climate change predicted climate anxiety. The authors outlined that there are important implications of these findings for organisations responsible for communicating climate change.
An environmental psychologist at the University of Bath, Professor Lorraine Whitmarsh MBE, led the study. She explained: “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. Our findings suggest this can spur some people to take action to help tackle the issue – but we also know there are barriers to behaviour change that need to be addressed through more government action.”
In the study, the authors emphasise the importance of the media as a motivating force for the lifestyle changes required as we decarbonise. They suggest that the media and public discourse about climate anxiety have the power to create a positive vision for a greener, cleaner future which is significantly less dependent on fossil fuels.
Lois Player, co-author of the study also from the Department of Psychology at the University of Bath, explained: “Our results suggest that the media could play an important role in creating positive pro-environmental behaviour change, but only if they carefully communicate the reality of climate change without inducing a sense of hopelessness.”