Paralysis or solution, how “climate anxiety” determines our reaction to Global warming

Paralysis or solution, how “climate anxiety” determines our reaction to Global warming

This is not a new phenomenon, but it is beginning to emerge. Eco-anxiety or climate anxiety affects a much larger proportion of the population than is generally thought. Its effects, more or less obvious, can even have serious consequences for our health. But this anxiety can also make us react. While some people take refuge in denial or paralysis, others use it as a lever for action against global warming

No, people did not wait for the first IPCC reports before becoming concerned about the environment. Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, apprehension about this issue has always been an underlying reality of human activity and the changes it brings about.

In the 19th century, German Romanticism coined the concept of “Sehnsucht”: a kind of melancholy or even nostalgic despair for a natural paradise destroyed by humankind as it gradually transformed its environment, thus divorcing itself from its roots. Likewise, Dickens in his novel Hard Times was at pains to condemn the environmental and societal consequences of industrialisation. For those who noticed them, these changes had been a cause for concern for many years.

“Climate anxiety”, The-One-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named

But while a form of climate anxiety has existed for at least two centuries, ‘climate anxiety’ as we define it today has long remained without a name. It was only identified and theorised very late on, by Véronique Lapaige in 1996, and even today it remains a poorly understood term with a shifting definition that struggles to capture the full range of degrees of anxiety about climate change. Nonetheless, the term emerged in national and global discussions during the late 2010s, in the context of the climate marches and the increasingly visible effects of climate change on our environment: heatwaves, fires, floods, cyclones, the collapse of biodiversity, the endangerment of ecosystems, and more.

In France, for example, the CSA’s figures on the “concerns of the French” put climate at the bottom of the list of main concerns (8% of respondents) in 2015, but by September 2022 it had risen to second place, ahead of security, unemployment and immigration. According to an Ipsos-Sopra Steria poll for France Télévisions, published on 3 March 2022, 80% of French people are now worried about the climate.

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However, it is still hard to determine how far climate anxiety will structure the response of Western societies to the crisis, because anxiety, like anxiety-provoking discourse, has shifting consequences for those exposed to it. Will this phenomenon be an obstacle to the fight against climate change or, on the contrary, a lever for action?

Definition of a diffuse phenomenon

In his 2019 article “Climate Anxiety”, Finnish researcher Panu Pikhala defines climate anxiety as one of the many facets of the “eco-anxiety” phenomenon. In his view, this is an anxiety disorder in individuals characterised by distressing emotions of significant intensity in the face of the threat posed by global warming.

However, climate anxiety is not strictly speaking an illness. Although its effects can be extremely burdensome and incapacitating for the subject, climate anxiety is in fact a catch-all term for the many difficult psychological consequences engendered by awareness of the climate crisis and the worry entailed.

The anxiety-provoking aspect that causes the disorder differs with each individual: the direct effect of climatic trauma for a victim of a climatic disaster; the indirect effect of stress felt by a subject witnessing the degradation of an environment or ecosystem and exposed to anxiety-provoking discourse on the climate crisis, or physiological effects (heat and pollution tend to worsen people’s mental health, and have a proven correlation with high suicide rates). “In communities affected by Hurricane Katrina, the number of suicides and suicidal thoughts more than doubled in the two years after the hurricane, and 49% of people living in the affected areas developed an anxiety or mood disorder such as depression” (Kessler et al., 2008; Galea et al., 2007).

“A lack of control or even terrible powerlessness in the face of this situation”

For this reason, climate anxiety is now rooted in people’s minds. In Finland, the issue has become almost institutional, given the psychological reaction to the heatwaves suffered by Northern Europe in 2017 by a large part of the population (Santaoja, 2018). The debate is also taking place on the web: Google searches on the theme of climate anxiety have noticeably risen in recent years, particularly in Western countries and Northern Europe, as shown by the website

This is because the notion of climate anxiety is still very much confined to Western countries (Yumiko Coffey, Navjot Bhullar, Joanne Durkin, Md Shahidul Islam, Kim Usher, 2021). Certain population groups are much more likely to develop symptoms. It is generally more prevalent in people who already suffer from anxiety, but also, and especially, in populations living in environments that are particularly vulnerable to the consequences of climate disruption (tsunamis, earthquakes and other natural disasters), or who have jobs directly affected by climate change (fishermen, shepherds, coastguards, etc.) (Pikahla P., 2019). According to a study presented by Clayton in 2020, children, teenagers and young adults are also much more vulnerable to climate anxiety, “primarily because of the dramatic consequences global warming could have on their future, but also because they feel a lack of control or even terrible powerlessness in the face of this situation” (Clayton, 2020; Coffey, 2021).

Global exposure

Although predominantly a Western concept, this is a global phenomenon that can affect any population or generation. In 2016, between 20% and 40% of Europeans said they were “very worried” about climate change (Steentjes et al., 2017). In 2018, Greenlanders surveyed in a study (Minor et al., 2019) also said they had strong or moderate feelings of fear (38% of respondents), sadness (19%) and despair (18%) about climate change. In Tuvalu, which could be particularly affected by the climate crisis, 95% of respondents in 2020 expressed anxiety which, in 87% of cases, had an influence on people’s ability to behave normally (Gibson, Barnett, Haslam, & Kaplan, 2020).

Media coverage of climate change and its social and environmental consequences helps to trigger or exacerbate feelings of eco-anxiety, particularly among young people. Exposure to images and information about natural disasters in the various media, whether traditional channels or social networks, is a source of anxiety for the younger generation. This depends on two factors: the degree to which each individual is exposed to this information, and the tendency – which differs from one person to another – to seek out articles and images on climate change on their own.

Hope brings new life

There are many different symptoms of climate anxiety, and these vary according to the intensity of the phenomenon. With moderate anxiety, it may be occasional sleeplessness, feelings of agitation or sadness or difficulty in making decisions. When it is more severe, it can have more serious consequences, such as severe insomnia, depressive symptoms or clinical anxiety, as well as behaviour that is obsessive (“climate anorexia”, “climate orthorexia”, etc.), or even destructive, such as substance abuse (Pihkala P, 2019).

This is why we need to make a clear distinction between ecological awareness and climate anxiety. The latter has a far more violent effect on the subject’s psychology and potentially dramatic consequences for their mental health.

Climate anxiety can provoke extremely disparate responses, ranging from total paralysis to climate action. These diverse reactions reflect not only the degree of anxiety felt, but also the relationship between anxiety and hope (Sangervo J. et al., 2022). In the study presented by Julia Sangervo, the vast majority of participants considered hope to be a more powerful lever for individual climate action than climate anxiety. For anxious participants, hope substantially increased their propensity to act, to the extent that they took considerably more action than participants who said they were not anxious, or anxious but despairing. Climate anxiety could thus represent a driving force for action, in that it is symptomatic of significant concern for the environment and the climate. But it must be reconciled with the hope of a real positive impact in terms of managing the climate crisis if it is to lead to productive action. Moreover, hope and anxiety only have a truly proactive effect on the issue if they are experienced collectively: experienced alone, they can on the contrary lead to climate inaction, where anxiety leads to relative paralysis, and hope works against the sense of urgency and the motivation to act.

Three types of reaction

The model developed by Hamilton and Kasser, based on the premise that humanity’s ability to adapt physically to climate change is highly dependent on its psychological capacity to adapt, pinpoints three types of reaction to a major climate threat: denial, partial acceptance and total acceptance of the risk. Anxious subjects mainly consist of those who partially or fully accept the risk. According to this model, their reactions thus vary according to their degree of conscious acceptance of the threat.

Those who partially accept the risk bring inappropriate defence mechanisms into play, modifying their ecological behaviour sufficiently to prevent the emergence of negative emotions associated with the phenomenon. These methods are ill-suited to the current crisis, as they do not lead to effective climate action, and improve the situation of neither the individual nor the planet. Reducing the scale of the threat or displacing it, distracting oneself through pleasure-seeking, transferring responsibility onto others or showing disproportionate or unrealistic optimism are some examples of this strategy. A person who carries out minor climate actions, such as recycling or reducing heating, may convince themselves that these actions are enough to have an impact on the current crisis and absolve them of responsibility for the situation.

Those who fully accept the reality of the threat are also those who succeed in psychologically adapting to the scale of the climate crisis and accepting the negative emotions that come with it. They can then engage in actions that are appropriate to remedy the situation individually or collectively.

Facing discouragement

Nonetheless, even the individuals most likely to adopt pro-environmental behaviour and consumption patterns may be affected by a feeling of moral disengagement, given the lack of political and societal action, and the conviction that their commitment alone will not have enough of an effect to make their effort worthwhile (Stoll-Kleemann S., O’Riordan T, 2020). Once again, even the individuals who are most aware of the climate crisis, and are prone to anxiety, only feel ready to act if they have reason to hope that their actions have meaning.

The majority of actions taken have only a low impact, although they do require a certain amount of effort on the part of the subject (buying second-hand products, borrowing or hiring certain objects, etc.). Most high-impact actions, such as changing one’s diet, reducing meat consumption or air and car travel, are given little consideration by respondents (Whitmarsh, 2022). This can partly be explained by a lack of knowledge about the real ecological impact of these actions.

Moreover, many individuals do not engage in ecological behaviour that imposes constraints, because the impression that they are alone in taking action makes them abandon the idea of having a positive and significant effect. However, the pro-environmental actions of every individual can have a normative dimension and lead to changes in other people’s behaviour in that they reveal the relative ease of adapting to a more environmentally-friendly lifestyle.

Before anxiety, anxiety-provoking discourse

The most common collective actions are demonstrations, which are generally favoured by the younger generations, or the creation of or participation in associations or organisations working to protect the environment.

Actions linked to climate anxiety, while relatively effective in reducing it, do not thus have a real impact on the climate situation. They are much more likely to reduce the consequences for the subject’s mental health than to alleviate global warming.

Yet climate anxiety has yet to reach its peak. While the people who are truly anxious and aware of this anxiety are still a minority, the world’s population is now constantly confronted with violent images of the consequences of climate disruption and scientific discourse on the subject that is highly alarming.

We are thus witnessing a widespread dissemination of this anxiety, whether or not conscious, and whether or not accepted.

As Libby Lester and Simon Cottle explain in their article “Visualising Climate Change: Television News and Ecological Citizenship”, images of the dramatic consequences of global warming are now widely relayed by the popular media, particularly television and the social networks. These images are accompanied by a scientific discourse that is increasingly popularised and highly anxiety-provoking, since it reminds us that the chances of limiting the damage are shrinking faster than we can implement an effective response to protect the environment.

Why we behave like children

According to Hamilton and Kasser’s model, people have three possible reactions to the threat of climate change. Of these three reactions, only denial and partial acceptance do not necessarily lead to anxiety. In their view, climate anxiety does not inevitably spread as a result of anxiety-provoking discourse. Individuals are still able to avoid facing up to reality. This is also the theory supported by Laelia Benoit & al in their article “Ecological awareness, anxiety, and actions among youth and their parents – a qualitative study of newspaper narratives”. Faced with such threats, individuals tend to respond with “childish behaviour”. The desire, albeit unconscious, to repress the feelings of anxiety and anguish generated by the awareness of possible death leads individuals to enact mechanisms that protect their emotions, through the immature reactions typical of a fractious child, which enable them to avoid awareness of the threat.

Individuals exposed to anxiety-provoking discourse may first avoid its psychological consequences by discrediting or ignoring it. For example, the subjects observed by the author often stop reading the press on climate change. This would help to explain the lack of societal dialogue and the climate inaction that has prevailed for decades, despite the publication of scientific literature, the activism of various groups and individuals, and the damaging consequences of climate change for humankind already visible.

“As long as climate change only affects others…”

The lack of a sense of responsibility, the rejection of anxious or negative feelings and the projection of fears or hopes onto others are all responses that can be seen in certain defensive behaviours in the face of danger (Benoit, Martin, Thomas, 2022). Individuals will also tend to protect themselves from the threat of death posed to their existence by the scientific reality of climate change through the somewhat absurd belief that they are ‘special’ (Yalom, 1980), as if death could only happen to others. This begins with a tendency towards heroism (“I cannot suffer from global warming because I will find a solution to save myself”), followed by narcissism and egocentrism (“as long as climate change only affects others, I can deny the reality of this problem because it is not part of my life”).

Individuals will tend to adopt a defeatist attitude too soon (“in any case, it’s already too late for my decisions to change anything at the end of the day”). By completely abandoning the idea that changes in dynamics, and thus in the outcome of the phenomenon, are still possible, they justify their choice to do nothing and accept the inevitability of climate change without having to fight against it. As a result, the existential threat seems limited, as does the threat of death: since there is nothing left to do, we need to attack climate change from the rear, continuing to innovate while polluting, in order to find a survival solution before the planet becomes impossible to live on.

From eco-anxiety to eco-activism

These defensive behaviours are all the more widespread in the case of climate change because the phenomenon is caused by human activity. Since every human being can be held responsible, both for their contribution to climate change and for failing to take action in fighting the phenomenon, individuals drive away their awareness of the threat, as well as their guilt and shame, through this ‘childish behaviour’.

But this same guilt and anxiety are also central to current climate action. It is this fear, this sense of urgency, that made young people so outraged in 2019, as witness Greta Thunberg’s iconic speech at the United Nations: “People are suffering, people are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing, we are at the beginning of a mass extinction and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you? The science has been crystal clear for over forty years. How dare you continue to look away and come here saying that you’re doing enough?”

The search for the “real” culprits

The more climate anxiety spreads, the more people expect us to fight it. Climate anxiety shocks, whether or not it is desperate. If the subjects are anxious, they will always try to free themselves from this anxiety, and if not through psychic protection mechanisms such as “childish behaviour”, the main thing is to find the culprits and potential “saviours”, since the subjects themselves can do nothing about it, or have only limited scope for action.

However, the search for culprits today has only a few possible outcomes, as the levers for action on climate change have been concentrated around the three players that have formed human society for centuries: businesses, governments and civil society (Jamieson, 2010).

To start with, businesses, because their behaviour influences governments: firstly by pushing them to introduce legislation to protect the health of their economies and civil society, and secondly because they provide the consumer goods enjoyed by civil society. Then governments, because they regulate the behaviour of businesses and civil society through legislation, and can thus influence the actions of each and every one of them. Finally, civil society, because its expectations have always partly determined the role and position of governments.

Climate citizenship and dual responsibility

The anxious subject has only these three parties to blame, and these parties are also the ones who can change things effectively. In a context of more popularised alarming scientific discourse on the situation, the spread of climate anxiety thus has a clear effect: an ever-growing section of the population is demanding that governments, businesses and civil society redefine their positions. In other words, climate anxiety has real political power.

This political power is all the more tangible in that the anxiety-provoking aspect of the climate crisis has slowly but surely ushered in the concept of “ecological citizenship”. (Lester & Cottle, 2009).

Awareness of the climate crisis means that individuals are faced with a twofold collective responsibility: that of global warming caused by human activity, and that of responsibility for combating the phenomenon, since everyone can act in an ecological and eco-responsible way at their own level. Guilt for what has been done, and what has not been done, as well as the sense of this responsibility, urges us to act, because everyone is a player, everyone can change things, and everyone has a tacit or explicit say in the great debate concerning the fight for the environment.

It is for this reason that we can speak of ecological citizenship: the desire to assume responsibility for the climate and act like citizens to preserve the environment as a common good has emerged, now that the perception of the climate threat has become clearer and concerns about climate change have grown (Jagers, 2011).

Climate anxiety, transposed to the multi-individual and even the public sphere, thus sometimes has spectacular political effects. This shared and transmitted feeling of anxiety has shaped the way in which the issue is addressed in the public arena today.

The climate debate has become unavoidable in all Western countries, in the same way as other public concerns: the political arena follows the democratic debate, and the democratic debate has been turned towards the climate since climate anxiety began to spread. 

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Climate debate and climate anxiety thus go hand in hand: the facts that opened the debate are anxiety-provoking facts, and ecological rhetoric, for the sake of accuracy, is also necessarily anxiety-provoking.

But since the debate has been opened, and anxiety has become public, shared and now political, the chances that it will become a lever for ecological action are increasing.

At first, climate anxiety seemed to be part of a more global climate of individual and collective inaction in the face of the climate crisis. But under the impetus of civil society, the political world and businesses, the possibility of effective action is being opened up at the same time as hope is returning for the issue. Awareness of the problem, concern about the threat and the hope regained through debate are all crucial if climate anxiety is to become a solution to climate inaction, and perhaps, to global warming.

Soez Jarrousse

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Amandine Médard

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Rodolphe DesbordesProfessor of Economics, RISE² Research Centre, SKEMA Business School - University Côte d'Azur, France

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Frédéric MunierProfessor of Geopolitics, SKEMA Business School

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