“I’m hopeful seeing leaders who care come together, and I have a pit in my heart and stomach thinking that humanity probably doesn’t have much longer on this earth,” says Cheyenne Carter. Carter is a 24-year-old West Virginian who closely followed the recent UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) and the political machinations behind the historic $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill recently signed into law.
Carter was raised in Elkins, West Virginia, a mountain town resting on the edge of the Monongahela National Forest, a 900,000-acre tract of public land teeming with beauty and birdsong, one of the most biodiverse areas in the region. “I grew up listening to the choir of insects and frogs,” Carter says, “seeing birds and hundreds, maybe thousands, of butterflies migrating through the wildflowers, and our peach and cherry trees.”
It was the late 1990s, a time when lime-green luna moths with wings that stretched beyond her hand were “a common sight.” They were so resplendent that she had one tattooed on her shoulder, a precious symbol of home she carried wherever she went. But when the 24-year-old recently returned to Elkins and asked the new caretaker of the land if he’d ever seen the moth, he said no. “And then he clarified: ‘Actually I have. A dead one.’”
This loss is representative of greater challenges that ripple through Carter’s hometown and the state she loves. The frog pond behind Carter’s old house has long disappeared. She no longer sees butterflies or hears birds, and the tattoo on her shoulder is now a piercing reminder of what the world is losing. A report from the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources predicts temperatures in West Virginia will rise between 2.5 and 3.1 degrees Celsius over the next 40 to 50 years, far above the mark of 1.5 degrees Celsius over preindustrial levels that climate scientists and policymakers use as a safe threshold for warming.
Despite this, West Virginia senator Joe Manchin forced his colleagues to neuter the climate provisions within the infrastructure package that would have brought American greenhouse gas emissions under control. “Our land and our people have a lot to offer,” Carter says, “but we’ve been pillaged and raped, taken advantage of for a really long time by big corporations and mining companies, and now by the person who is supposed to be taking care of us. He is selling all of us out for coal.”
Although Carter is “bewildered” by these disconnections and the ways in which society continues to work—and vote—against its own self-interest, she has not given up. Her grief and sadness have become catalysts for work at the West Virginia Climate Alliance.
This trajectory is one Swedish psychology researcher Maria Ojala knows well. She has spent decades studying how young people engage over climate change and other environmental issues, and she is the lead author of the new report “Anxiety, Worry, and Grief in a Time of Environmental and Climate Crisis.” Negative emotions, the authors explain, can be “the wellspring of human action.”
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WIRED broke down climate dread in a recent story, but inadequate responses from Congress and the UN Climate Change Conference have put even more people on a downward emotional spiral. That’s why we reached out to Ojala—to understand what it takes to stay engaged and be better prepared for whatever our collective future holds. (Her responses have been edited and condensed for clarity.)
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You've looked at how people react to the climate crisis, and you say different emotions elicit different opportunities for engagement.
Emotions are not all the same. Fear is our immediate response to a direct threat, whereas worry and anxiety are related to the future. We usually take precautions against risks that make us worried or anxious, whereas a feeling of hopelessness can stop us from engaging.
Why does hopelessness stunt engagement?
Hopelessness is when you know there is a threat, but you feel you can’t do anything about it. It can make some people start to feel really bad and get depressed, whereas others might stop caring altogether and say, “I need to live for now and should just focus on myself and my pleasures.”
And then there are other emotional responses like guilt, shame, and anger. It’s important that we recognize emotions of different kinds, as several studies on adults and young people show positive correlations between concerns about climate change and what are known as efficacy beliefs. Those who have negative views of the future might also hold strong beliefs that they can have an impact on the climate problem and, therefore, help create a better future.
So what you're saying is that our fear and anxiety can be beneficial …
Society tells us that in order to be active members of society—good workers and consumers—we should just push them away. But negative emotions break that pattern and can be a reckoning both from a personal and a societal perspective.
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I mean, if a teacher told young people something like, “Oh, don’t worry about climate change; there are technologies in development,” that would likely increase cynicism. People know that response is too easy; they know the problem is not one with an easy solution. Although people want to quickly move to hope, psychology shows that it is very important to confront hard emotions, name them, and discuss them.
Why is it important to name them?
Talking about emotions with others—putting words to them and asking others what they mean for them—can help us not only deal with the emotions but create shared meaning. One person could experience worry in a totally different way than another, or have a different set of concerns. Someone could, perhaps, worry about their children; others might worry about the importance of biodiversity. By starting to talk about our worries, we grasp the problem, we can better understand what is at stake, and we start to get a sense of control, so it doesn’t turn into a kind of free-floating anxiety that could be very hard to handle. It is the first step to coping with these emotions.
Once we have clarity on our feelings, what's the next step?
The next step is to look at the coping strategies we use, and ask ourselves why are we using them and if there are other way we can cope. Problem-focused coping, for example, is a very good strategy to use for concrete problems that you have more or less total control over. You start to focus on the problem and can get clear on what you can do.
What does that look and sound like in the context of climate change?
You could say to yourself, “So here I am, worried about climate change. What can I control? I can read and learn more about the problem, start to talk with my friends about what we can do, bicycle or take a bus rather than drive,” and also do other things that are focused on addressing the problem.
Then, there is meaning-focused coping. That is considered the most constructive coping strategy from a well-being and engagement perspective. It is more about promoting positive emotions that buffer negative emotions that feel too hard to bear.
Putting a positive spin on the challenges we face?
No, it’s related to switching perspectives between worry and hope, so you can see, “Yeah, this is a really, really serious problem, and I’m really worried,” and also see that it’s good that more and more people are aware of the problem, and media is doing more reporting. Or remembering that this is difficult, but we have faced difficult problems before.
In facing a challenge on the scale of climate change, we need to be active even though we don’t have total control. So it is not enough to just be problem-focused. You can look at what you can do—save energy in the house or stop eating meat or become part of a climate organization—but you also need something more. Meaning-focused coping can help us face our worries, so we can become problem-focused. The best thing to do is combine both coping strategies.
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In your 2012 study on how young people cope with climate change, you say they are “the future decision-making citizens and leaders of society” and must be key players in combating the crisis. Through that engagement, you drew out another component of meaning-based coping, which you describe as “trust and confidence in different sources outside oneself.”
The climate problem cannot be solved at an individual level, so another key part of meaning-focused coping is to have trust in entities outside yourself: institutions, organizations, or persons that are, perhaps, more powerful. For example, there are young climate activists who are distrustful of politicians and maybe older generations but are very trustful of science. It is important to have trust in something or someone outside of ourselves in order to feel hope.
And we must remember others for another reason. The ecological crisis, as we wrote in our recent meta-study, is rooted in social injustices, and the impacts are unequally distributed. Historically, these most sensitive populations have not been well represented in climate change discourse. However, over the past decade there has been growing research focusing explicitly on these groups and the distinct mental health challenges they face. We must fight both mental health challenges and the climate crisis with this awareness and participatory perspective in mind.
So the antidote to despair is to forge deeper connections.
Environmental psychologists like Louise Chawla talk about being out in nature as a way to cope with anxiety related to climate change, because this is about a relationship—with nature, with others, and with ourselves. Relationships are so important for meaning and purpose, to be good to the environment, to help other groups of people, and have a higher purpose that is outside your own self. And being collectively engaged—active together—can be its own source of meaning, even when things are difficult.
Sometimes climate change researchers look upon meaning-focused coping with a little bit of contempt, but from a psychological perspective, it’s very important. We don’t like these negative emotions, but even if it looks really dark, we cannot give up. Because hopelessness is, in a sense, the easy way out.
We can be pessimistic, but we must still force ourselves to be hopeful so we can engage. We must have defiant hope.
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