As we approach the 2030 deadline to halve greenhouse gas emissions – to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees Celcius – environmental anxiety has been rising around the world. Slowly rising, just like the temperatures.
The Peoples’ Climate Vote illustrates that across 50 countries, “64% of people said that [anthropogenic] climate change was an emergency.” Even though the eco-related alarm is a widespread phenomenon, surveys into climate change anxiety have focused mostly on Western contexts. But, first, what exactly is this distress, and why should we care about it?
Variously called climate anxiety, climate change anxiety, or eco-anxiety more broadly, fears for the ecological future can range from moderate worry to an all-encompassing dread of an impending apocalypse. In a 2017 report, the American Psychological Association first defined “eco-anxiety” as: “a chronic fear of environmental doom.”
It may impact the world’s youth worst of all, who have their futures, and those of their potential children and grandchildren, to worry about. In separate research, 59% of young people in 10 countries were found to be “very or extremely worried and 84% were at least moderately worried” about climate change.
Along with ongoing dread and fear, other mental health concerns are associated with, or exacerbated by, the climate crisis. These issues include the following:
- Complicated grief
- Substance use
- Resigned fatalism
Naturally, climate change impacts mental health via extreme weather events (like floods, storms, droughts, fires, and heatwaves), accompanied by associated disruptions to the social and environmental determinants of health. The UN writes that these determinants involve vital, life-sustaining resources such as “clean air, safe drinking water, sufficient food and secure shelter.” They’re influenced not only by extreme events but by the crisis’ long-term repercussions (such as melting ice caps and rising sea levels, and so on).
Furthermore, the mere thought of (ongoing/impending) ecological disaster on a global scale is enough to raise the anxieties of those not directly impacted by the climate crisis’ worst consequences.
As stated in this article: “consciousness of climate change is both necessary and sufficient for climate change anxiety to occur. Consequently, a person may experience climate change anxiety even if their health or livelihood has not yet been directly negatively affected” by it.
It could be said that while peoples’ anxieties are sometimes irrational, a lot of their eco-anxiety isn’t. Anthropogenic climate change represents a very real threat, and it’s unsurprising that many individuals, especially those prone to mental health conditions, worry about it. Other issues are how amorphous and diffuse the threat is, and how powerless people may feel to fight it.
Focusing on eco-anxiety beyond the West
Investigations, including those using empirical measures, into this climate change anxiety have increased in recent years. But, as is the case with a lot of psych research, efforts have mostly focused on WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich, and Democratic) countries.
Such regions only represent “a narrow subset of human populations.” And countries outside the West tend to be more at risk of the effects of extreme weather events, with many being disproportionately hit considering their lower emissions.
To fill in this literature gap, a 2023 article from the Journal of Environmental Psychology focuses on climate anxiety in China, India, and Japan, along with the United States. These four are the largest contributors to global greenhouse emissions (with Russia). They’re also falling behind on their commitments to the Paris Agreement, but that’s the case for virtually all countries.
Although China, India, Japan, and the US are all superpower/emerging superpower countries, highly developed Japan and the US are “far less vulnerable to the impacts of climate risks and have a higher level of readiness to adapt to such impacts.” India, in particular, falls behind in terms of these factors.
While the authors did not examine eco-anxiety in Africa, low-lying island nations, or Southeast Asia – vulnerable regions where extreme environmental effects are already being felt – their wider focus beyond the West provides new, much-needed insights. They mention that, previously, only two analyses (this analysis and this one) centred on eco-anxiety in non-WEIRD countries, both among Filipino youth.
The Climate Change Anxiety Scale and study results
To rate the 4,000 participants’ levels of environmental anxiety, the authors used the 13-item Climate Change Anxiety Scale (CCAS), created only back in 2020. It has two subscales, one for cognitive impairment (8 items) and the other for functional impairment (5 items).
Questions include ones like:
- I find myself crying because of climate change.
- I write down my thoughts about climate change and analyse them.
- Thinking about climate change makes it difficult for me to sleep.
- I go away by myself and think about why I feel this way about climate change.
- My concerns about climate change interfere with my ability to get work or school assignments done.
The researchers also asked respondents about their personal beliefs regarding whether climate change was happening or not, how much they thought climate change would harm them personally, how many climate scientists believed in climate change, etc.
Results showed that climate anxiety was higher in participants from China and India than in Japan or the US. This may relate to the previously mentioned point that the latter countries are less vulnerable and more ready to respond to the fallout of ecological disasters.
Also, across the four regions, there was an association between respondents’ climate anxiety and their climate action engagement. But this was illustrated “more so for sustainable diet and climate activism than resource conservation and support for climate policy.” It could be that individuals with the highest eco-anxiety were more focused on what they could do personally to fight their fears, rather than preoccupied with theoretical policies.
Related to this, those undertaking more climate action also had worse cognitive-emotional impairment (like excessive worry) than functional impairment. Perhaps participants with impaired functioning were too depressed to engage in climate measures.
Interestingly, the results indicated that although climate anxiety was higher in Indian and American youth, it was actually worse for older people in China. In Japan, however, there was no correlation between age and environmental anxiety. Regarding gender differences, men in China and the US were found to be a bit more likely to experience this anxiety. Lastly, the study found no real relationship between ecological fears measured by the CCAS and either income or education levels.
Monique Moate is a writer, editor, wife, cat mum, and night owl who enjoys writing about a wide range of topics. She cares about mental health awareness and destigmatisation and enjoys travelling around East and Southeast Asia.