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An understudied emotion packs a surprisingly large climate action punch

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An understudied emotion packs a surprisingly large climate action punch

Of five emotions (anger, sadness, guilt, fear, and hope), researchers found that climate anger has the strongest links to climate activism
August 22, 2023

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Emotions around climate change—grief, fear, hope, guilt, anger, and so on—are becoming a more frequent topic of conversation among the public, as well as a focus of interest among researchers. Of these various emotions, anger has received relatively little research attention until now.

Anger can be a destructive force, inspiring vengeance and punishment, but it can also be a force for good—inspiring people to work together to overcome and redress injustices. Does that hold in the case of climate change?

To find out more about climate anger and its effects, researchers analyzed data from 2,046 people in Norway collected as part of an ongoing survey of Norwegian public opinion. Survey participants were asked to what degree they experience anger, sadness, guilt, fear, and hope related to climate change.

Of the participants, 960 or about 48% reported feeling anger, the researchers report in the journal Global Environmental Change. Anger was among the least common climate emotions; only guilt scored lower.

Those who reported feeling anger were also asked to write a sentence or two in response to the question: “What is it about climate change that makes you angry?” The researchers then read through the 832 responses to this question and sorted them into different categories.

 

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Most of the responses reflected anger about the causes of climate change, rather than its consequences, the researchers found. Nearly 60% of responses mentioned anger about human actions (or lack thereof) contributing to climate change.

More than one-quarter mentioned being angry about human qualities. “We were a bit surprised about the number of people referring to ‘human qualities’ when asked about their reason to be angry,” says study team member Thea Gregersen, a climate change researcher at the Norwegian Research Centre in Bergen. It’s a stark finding that reflects “quite negative assessments of humankind—that people are uncaring, egoistic, selfish, and deny responsibility,” she says.

Politicians and greed—prioritizing money over the environment—were also common targets of people’s ire.

Still, about 10% of people who reported climate anger were angry not about climate change itself but rather about what they perceived as overblown attention to the issue and measures to stop climate change—what the researchers call ‘contrarian anger.’

“Our findings illustrate that the causes and consequences of climate emotions can be complex and that we need to avoid simplistic discussions of their motivating potential,” Gregersen says.

The researchers also wanted to know how climate emotions relate to climate action. So all survey respondents were also asked whether they would support an increase in the gasoline tax, whether they try to limit their own emissions day to day, and whether they are likely to participate in a climate protest in the next year.

Of the five emotions, climate anger has the strongest links to climate activism, the researchers found. People who reported climate anger were also more likely to support climate policy than others, but not more likely to take individual action to fight climate change. (Other emotions like sadness and fear were more strongly related to individual actions.)

However, people who reported being angry specifically about human qualities or actions causing climate change were more likely than others to undertake all three forms of climate engagement.

People who mentioned being angry about human qualities, human actions, or the prioritization of money related to climate change were also more likely to endorse the idea that it’s a moral duty to take action against climate change.

“The main takeaway is that climate anger relates to climate change engagement, but that the effect depends both on the type of engagement in question and what people are angry about,” says Gregersen.

In the study, people who reported being angry were also likely to feel fearful, guilty, and especially sad about climate change. Future studies should look at the combination of emotions surrounding climate change, Gregersen says, as well as explore how climate anger and other emotions differ in different countries.

Source: Gregersen T. et al.  “The strength and content of climate anger.” Global Environmental Change 2023.

Image: Based on Adobe Stock.

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