Connections Between Climate Change Concerns, Mental Health, and Pro-Environmental Actions

Concerns about the impact of climate change on animals and nature results in more effective coping to reduce hopelessness about climate change and promotes pro-environmental behaviors

Shannon Peters
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A new study, led by Sabrina Helm, associate professor at the University of Arizona, explores psychological adaptation to climate change. The study, published in Global Environmental Change, measured perceived ecological stress and corresponding distress, coping strategies, and pro-environmental behaviors (e.g., recycling, conserving water). Results suggest that people who experience “biospheric concerns,” or concerns about the effects of climate change on animals and nature, have the highest rates of ecological stress and are most likely to engage in pro-environmental behaviors.

“For [people who worry about animals and nature], the global phenomenon of climate change very clearly affects these bigger picture environmental things, so they have the most pronounced worry because they already see it everywhere. We already talk about the extinction of species and know it’s happening. For people who are predominantly altruistically concerned or egoistically concerned about their own health, or maybe their own financial future, climate change does not hit home yet,” said Helm in a press release.

Image credit: NASA

The American Psychological Association recently published a guide on mental health and climate change. Becoming aware of the global environmental threats of climate change can lead to stress, anxiety, and depression. This is sometimes referred to as eco-anxiety, “a severe and debilitating worry related to a changing and uncertain natural environment,” write the researchers.  They note, “Climate change is a chronic environmental stressor because it is both a global and an ongoing threat.”

Climate change can have three types of psychological impacts. First, climate change results in increased natural disasters and extreme weather, which has been shown to impact mental wellness. Second, vulnerable populations often have more limited access to social, economic, and environmental resources that promote mental health. And lastly, eco-anxiety “may create emotional distress and anxiety about the future, leaving many individuals feeling scared, sad, depressed, numb, helpless and hopeless, frustrated or angry,” write the researchers.

The researchers draw from two decision making theories: Value-Belief-Norm theory and social-cognitive theory. Based on these theories, the authors suggest that people’s concerns about environmental issues “are determined by the value that they place on themselves (egoistic value), other people (social-altruistic value), or plants and animals (biospheric values).” Therefore, individuals could have similar levels of concern about an environmental issue, but different bases for that fear. For example, concerns about air pollution could be driven by that fact that air pollution could damage one’s lung health (egoistic), is unhealthy for children (social-altruistic), or is detrimental to forests (biospheric).

People experiencing eco-anxiety or perceived ecological stress may respond in a variety of ways, such as avoidance of the issue, developing depression, or taking action to reduce human’s contributions to climate change. These behaviors, aimed at reducing someone’s feelings of hopelessness or helplessness related to climate change issues, are known as ecological coping.

The authors consider depressive symptoms “as a maladaptive response to ecological stress and coping adaptation processes, as this form of psychological distress is likely to lead to increased intra- and inter-personal challenges for the individual, and will not result in long-term societal-level changes to mitigate the negative impacts of climate change.”

The researchers sought to better understand links between environmental concerns and psychological adaptation to climate change. They also investigated “how climate change related stress and coping may lead to active engagement in pro-environmental behaviors.” As part of a larger study on climate change, the researchers collected quantitative data via an online survey from 342 parents with children aged 3-10 years old. Participants were 61% female and 82% White, with an average age of 34.

The results indicate that biospheric environmental concern (i.e., concern for plants, nature, and the planet as a whole) is associated with higher perceived ecological stress and more ecological coping. Neither egoistic or altruistic-social concern was correlated with perceived ecological stress; however, altruistic-social concern was correlated with more ecological coping. Perceived environmental stress was significantly associated with depression. Individuals who engaged in more ecological coping also engaged in more pro-environmental behaviors, and this effect was strongest for individuals endorsing biospheric concerns.

The authors summarize, “individuals with strong biospheric concerns are most likely to take action against climate change threats and to adopt PEB [pro-environmental behaviors], whereas individuals who are more egoistically-motivated are least likely to exhibit such behaviors.”

The researchers provide some suggestions for changes to policy and environmental campaigns. For example, the findings suggest that heightening anxiety is not only unnecessary but counterproductive to facilitating pro-environmental behaviors. Therefore, representations of climate change in the media that increase anxiety may lead individuals to engage in avoidance behaviors and are ineffective at promoting pro-environmental behaviors.  The researchers also warn:

“Current public policy approaches mostly (if inadvertently) target biospheric concern, while neglecting other types of environment concern (i.e., egoistic concern). Approaches that primarily focus on concern for all life on the planet, while failing to affect motivations based on egoistic or altruistic concerns, increase the risks associated with delaying climate change adaptation, exacerbating the potential for large-scale negative mental health effects in our society.”

The researchers also note that many minor behavioral changes (e.g., turning heat down, shorter showers) may give people the illusion that they are doing more for the environment than they actually are.

“These strategies may convince people that they are ‘doing something’, but the psychological benefits derived from such actions that have minimal or nonexistent effect on the climate problem may also distract people from engaging in necessary but inconvenient political and lifestyle changes,” write the researchers.

The authors also highlight that solutions to climate change issues are often discussed in terms of private action or “green consumerism,” which can “reduce the motivation of public-policy makers and governmental leaders to adopt bolder policies with more immediate and broad impact.”

Last week, NASA scientists reported that 2017 was the second warmest year on record. Therefore, the present study by Helm and colleagues is very timely. More research and policy changes aimed at reducing human’s contributions to climate change and responding to eco-anxiety are greatly needed.

 

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Helm, S. V., Pollitt, A., Barnett, M. A., Curran, M. A., & Craig, Z. R. (2018). Differentiating environmental concern in the context of psychological adaption to climate change. Global Environmental Change48, 158-167. doi: 10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2017.11.012 (Link)

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Shannon Peters
MIA Research News Team: Shannon Peters is a doctoral student at the University of Massachusetts Boston and has a master’s degree in mental health counseling. She is particularly interested in exploring the impacts of medicalization and pathologizing the experiences of individuals who have been affected by trauma. She is engaged in research on the effects of institutional corruption and financial conflicts of interest on research and practice.

8 COMMENTS

  1. Climate change is one of my primary areas of expertise. Climate change is inextricably religious; it is the very End Times process itself.

    People who are concerned about and interested in climate change know nothing, and will not be properly prepared, if they do not know the word of god. This is not opinion or belief. I am discussing spirit science, religious science, supernatural science. Keep in mind that knowledge is a synonymous term.

    Let’s start with what is most commonly known as depression. Religiously, the more accurate word is sorrows:

    Matthew 24:3-8 King James Version (KJV)
    3 And as he sat upon the mount of Olives, the disciples came unto him privately, saying, Tell us, when shall these things be? and what shall be the sign of thy coming, and of the end of the world?

    4 And Jesus answered and said unto them, Take heed that no man deceive you.

    5 For many shall come in my name, saying, I am Christ; and shall deceive many.

    6 And ye shall hear of wars and rumours of wars: see that ye be not troubled: for all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet.

    7 For nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom: and there shall be famines, and pestilences, and earthquakes, in divers places.

    8 All these are the beginning of sorrows.

    The most obvious, direct evidence of climate change is in reference made to earthquakes. In 2018, this is old news for those of us who pay attention (often called watchers, watchmen). Earthquakes have not only happened in divers places, fulfilling prophecy, but they have increased in frequency many thousands of times over.

    Scripture reveals the full account of climate change. The End Times process is called Revelation, Apocalypse, the Return of Christ, Judgment, and Destruction. Destruction is precisely what is happening, has been happening for years, and will continue to happen until all life is exterminated and the planet is a ball of fire. It’s seriously grim. However, scripture is loaded with instruction for how to endure this process (and yes, there is salvation in Christ).

    Isaiah 24 depicts the destruction of the world AND the earth (these are two different but inseparable things). The entire passage is too long to post so I will provide the link. And keep in mind that while Isaiah 24 is spectacular and precise, there is much, much more to the End Times story to know. Of course, read the whole of Revelation (especially Rev 8).

    Isaiah 24 New Living Translation (NLT)
    Destruction of the Earth
    https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Isaiah+24&version=NLT

    • Shannon:

      As an individual who has survived psychiatric “treatment” I greatly appreciate your articles and advocacy for patients. This is an excellent website with many outstanding contributors and has been beneficial for me as I heal from the damage caused by psychiatric medication.

      Regarding climate change, I care very much for the natural world. It is not possible for me to go out into nature and not see the effects, such as dying trees everywhere. For years I assumed these effects were due to global warming. Recently I became aware of Geo-engineering, the global use of chemtrails to “cool the earth” and how the weather is being manipulated, not in the favor of humanity. The aerosols being sprayed on us each and every day contain Aluminum, Barium, and Strontium, as well as biologicals and nano-particulates. Heavy metals are extremely neurotoxic, and I would love to see the issue of this spraying of humanity without our consent covered by anyone brave enough to do so on Mad in America.

      The implications for our mental health are astronomical….

  2. You should know that there is a space wherein people REJOICE! at the fulfillment of the word of god, and the judgment is celebratory (though it would seem counterintuitive to those misaligned during The End).

    As for the future, the book of Revelation reveals the justice of God in all its glory during the end times. When the saints watch the destruction of the earth, their song will be of God’s righteous judgment upon the inhabitants for their ultimate sin of rejecting Him (Revelation 11:16-18; 15:3-4; 16:7; 19:1-4). And as 2 Peter 3:13 says, we are promised that someday, when Christ physically reigns on earth, God’s righteous justice will finally be on full display.
    https://www.gotquestions.org/God-of-justice.html

    Have you ever watched a movie where all the best victories happen in The End? 🙂

  3. “More research and policy changes aimed at reducing human’s contributions to climate change and responding to eco-anxiety are greatly needed.”

    No. There is no stopping what is happening. The End is The End. This path we are on, there is no turning back. Everybody dies, and the planet does too. The universe itself also comes undone during The End (which has begun but is in the early phase) and will ultimately be consumed by fire. See 2 Peter 3:10

    Take note of the celestial alignments in recent years: cardinal grand cross, series of blood moons and supermoon. After alignments, those celestial clocks start to come undone. When that happens, the sun and moon no longer rise and set in their appointed stations. Other great terrors and horrors fill the sky as the galaxy is ripped apart. Celestial chaos as it impacts life on earth is summarized here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bQSIMnwqaIc

    Re: anxiety (anxiety is a tax on desire)

    Peace is in alignment with Christ. It is not found in alignment with government or its agencies. It is not found in wealth or underground safety houses (a most dangerous place!). Peace is not found in gated communities (read Zephaniah 1:14-17 to find out what happens to gated communities). Peace is found ONLY in Christ. You must truly love him. You must read scripture. You must believe his word and live by it.