In the rapidly evolving field of climate change emotion research, a new study from Université Catholique de Louvain emphasizes the importance of “eco-anger” over other emotions like “eco-anxiety” as the primary driver behind pro-environmental actions.
For years, the emotional responses to climate change have been an area of focus for researchers. However, past studies have primarily adopted a cross-sectional approach, providing snapshots rather than dynamic insights into how eco-emotions evolve over time. The recent study, currently under peer review, titled “It is time to focus on eco-anger rather eco-anxiety: A temporal network approach to the emotional experience of climate change,” chose a different route.
This research, led by experts Alexandre Heeren and Alba Contreras, employed temporal network analysis to map out how climate change-related emotions, like eco-anxiety, eco-anger, and eco-sadness, interact with general emotions and pro-environmental behaviors.
“Perhaps the most striking result was the observation of eco-anger as the only eco-emotion predicting pro-environmental behaviors. In other words, experiencing eco-anger positively predicts, on average, behaving in an eco-friendly manner the subsequent day,” the researchers write. “And that observation should not come as a surprise. It echoes previous cross-sectional studies reporting that only eco-anger remained significantly associated with pro-environmental behavior when controlling for eco-emotions.
While some psychologists and other researchers have studied the rising anxiety related to climate change, this paper delves into understanding how the global climate crisis might influence other emotions, specifically anger. Recognizing these affective changes is crucial both for their impact on the mental health and well-being of those navigating this crisis and for how these emotions will shape responses to the situation.
The team from UCLouvain in Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium, set out to explore the relationships among “eco-emotions” (emotions directly linked to the climate crisis), general emotions (responses to daily life events), and pro-environmental behaviors (actions taken to counteract the effects of climate change).
Eco-emotions, Eco-anxiety, and Eco-anger
“As people become increasingly aware of the current and future hazards associated with climate change, alarming rates of anxiety feelings about climate change have been reported worldwide, highlighting it as a potential threat to mental health,” the authors write.
“In two general population samples from the U.S., about a quarter of the respondents reported levels of anxiety about climate change that resulted in functional impairments in their daily lives… Likewise, in a recent international study in European and African countries… one in five participants reported that climate change anxiety significantly impaired their ability to function in daily life…This phenomenon is known as eco-anxiety (also known as climate anxiety.”
Research indicates that eco-anxiety isn’t directly linked to experiencing the tangible effects of climate change, like wildfires or droughts. Instead, it’s a pervasive anxiety surrounding the issue associated with adverse mental health outcomes. The UCLouvain team wondered whether eco-anxiety might be an adaptive reaction to a genuine threat that spurs pro-environmental actions.
Moreover, eco-anxiety isn’t the sole psychological response to climate change identified by studies. There are signs that people may experience additional emotions because of climate change, collectively known as eco-emotions, in this growing research field. Contreras and colleagues highlight the scarcity of empirical data on these emotional responses and advocate for more in-depth research.
The team was also curious about potential distinctions between general emotions and eco-emotions, asking, “Could someone experience eco-anger without feeling anger in general? Or might someone feel eco-anxiety without simultaneously feeling general anxiety?”
To address these questions, they devised a “Temporal network model,” aiming to connect emotions to ecological disasters and analyze the interaction between general emotions and eco-emotions.
The Interplay of Eco-emotions and Environmental Behaviors
The researchers conducted a study and used detailed survey data to create three types of networks: 1) a temporal network to track how variables change over time, 2) a contemporaneous network to analyze relationships between variables occurring simultaneously, and 3) a between-subjects network model to study the average interrelation of variables over time. This approach is commonly used in temporal network analyses and provides a comprehensive understanding of the variables from various perspectives.
The study involved 104 Belgian participants, with 102 fully completing the daily survey. Before the survey, researchers collected demographic information and assessed general emotional (e.g., anxiety, depression) and eco-emotional statuses. They also gauged pro-environmental inclination through the “Environmental Identity Scale (EIS), an 11-item instrument with prompts like ‘Acting responsibly for the planet – with a sustainable lifestyle – aligns with my moral values,’ graded on a 7-point Likert scale.”
Every evening at 7 p.m., participants received a reminder to fill out their daily diary, which comprised questions about feelings related to climate change and general emotions.
Analysis revealed that eco-emotions were interconnected and correlated with their general counterparts. However, over time, the relationship between an eco-emotion and its generic counterpart weakened, implying that eco-emotions aren’t directly temporally linked to general emotions and constitute a distinct phenomenon. Furthermore, one type of eco-emotion predicted the occurrence of other eco-emotions in subsequent days. In other words, if someone felt eco-anger, it was predictable for that participant to experience eco-anxiety and eco-sadness over the next few days.
“Your anger… Is a gift![?]” – Zach de la Rocha
Regarding behavioral shifts, only eco-anger was associated with an uptick in pro-environmental intentions and actions. In essence, experiencing eco-anger one day typically leads to environmentally friendly activities the next.
This aligns with previous studies showing that, when accounting for other eco-emotions, only eco-anger significantly correlates with pro-environmental behavior.
Studies not related to the environment have found that anger can negatively affect both mental and physical health. While there is evidence that links anger to various mental health conditions, it is unclear whether anger causes or is caused by these issues. Additionally, anger can also lead to problems with blood pressure. However, it is important to note that anger can manifest differently in each individual, and research suggests that some forms of anger expression can actually promote positive behavior toward others.
“A crucial next step will be to assess the long-term adaptive and maladaptive impacts of eco-anger,” the researchers write. “Moreover, in the temporal network model, our unexpected observation that pro-environmental behavior also predicts eco-anger raises concerns about the potentially harmful consequences of excessive engagement in pro-environmental behavior over time. This is consistent with a small but growing empirical literature that points to the potential side effects of overcommitment in causes where expected changes do not readily occur.”
This raises the question: Can we harness eco-anger to promote more environmentally friendly actions, and if so, what are the risks of “eco-burnout”? The researchers underscore the importance of grasping the dynamics of these emotions, not only to understand the emotional repercussions of the global climate crisis but also to decipher the myriad reactions (or absence thereof) to it.
Contreras, A., Blanchard, A., Daouda, C. M., & Heeren, A. (2023). It is time to focus on eco-anger rather eco-anxiety: A temporal network approach to the emotional experience of climate change. (In Press) (Link)