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Anger, sadness, guilt, hope: on the complex emotions of climate change
It's perfectly normal to cycle through a range of emotions when it comes to climate change.
There have been various debates lately about what emotions are most effective in driving climate action.
A recent discussion was sparked by a new study that suggested that anger is most likely to inspire protests.1 That seems intuitive. Yet sadness, fear, guilt, and hope were more likely to predict behaviour change.
I’ve dug into the research on this before, and haven’t found a particularly convincing catch-all answer for what emotion is the one that drives change. The reality is that people and emotions are complex. As the psychologist Caroline Hickman noted in coverage of the study above: “We’re nowhere near having a comprehensive understanding. If anybody presents this material confidently as certainties or pretends they’re an expert, ignore them. Run away.”
We also don’t even really know what ‘effective change’ looks like.
Is it taking to the streets in protest? Is it changing our behaviours and investments? Is it committing to a career in solar power, batteries, or environmental law? And how do these actions translate into reductions in greenhouse gas emissions? As the researchers Dana Fischer and Sohana Nasrin conclude: the data is limited.2
I often get tagged in these discussions because I’ve written previously about my transition from helplessness to cautious optimism that we can tackle it – and build a better world – if we get a move on. I have argued that this feeling of hope has been essential to making me more effective in taking action and engaging with these problems. And I think it can be effective for others too.
Unfortunately, this message is often misconstrued as me saying: “Relax guys, it’s all going to be fine”. Or that I’m invalidating peoples’ feelings of anxiety and concern. There is the assumption that those who advocate for ‘hope’ or a forceful optimism that things can improve are not burdened with the negative emotions that others carry.
That’s far from reality. And it’s not really how emotions work. We might try to pin down the emotion or driver that will get people to act on climate change. But in doing so, we assume that emotions are singular. You’re either angry or sad. You’re angry or hopeful. If you’re worried you can’t also be hopeful.
But most people feel a whole range of things – often at the same time.
The one constant emotion I feel is deep concern. I am always worried and concerned about the future we will create – and pass on to future generations – if we don’t step up to the challenge. That is now a bedrock of my emotional state and has been for most of my life. It would be disingenuous of me to pretend that it does not affect my mental health.
There are then a range of additional emotions that I cycle through. I feel angry and betrayed that leaders are not moving fast enough. I feel sad when I write about raging wildfires and heatwaves. I feel guilty writing about the large inequalities in emissions, and the cruel distribution of climate impacts.
Those emotions were there a decade ago, and they remain. But what has changed is that hope is now also in the mix. 10 years ago, my emotions stopped at the above: I was angry, sad, guilty, and constantly anxious. And with no hope that things could change, I felt paralysed and helpless to channel these emotions into positive action.
The hope I feel today is not an ‘airy-fairy’ hope. I like to think I’m a relatively pragmatic person. I try to focus on solutions and stay away from ideology. I’m skeptical of most results. It’s hard to get me very hyped about much. No, the reason I have some optimism that things can get better is from the evidence in the data.
10 years ago there were not many reasons to be hopeful that we could tackle climate change. Low-carbon technologies were expensive. Countries were moving incredibly slowly. Investments were pitiful. There was little hope of rich countries doing much, let alone middle-income countries.
Since then, things have changed dramatically. Solar, wind, and electric vehicles are taking off. Their prices have plummeted. They’re not only being scaled in rich countries but in middle-income countries too. Leaders have stepped up their commitments.
Now, this is not happening anywhere near fast enough. The path we’re currently on is a scary one. But if things can change in a decade, without much concentrated effort from policymakers, governments, and industry, then think of what can be done if we commit to changing things.
When I say that I think hope is a useful emotion for driving change, I am not saying that this is enough on its own. It’s not. Hope on its own is practically useless. Most of us need concern, anger, and sadness as a ‘call to action’. That’s what got me involved in climate change as a kid. Those feelings are valid and completely appropriate for the situation we’re in. They are a key driver for urgent action.
But, for me, these emotions were not enough. It was only when I paired them with a feeling of agency and stubborn optimism, that I could see a path forward. And that I might be able to play some small role in it.
Maybe that perspective is not useful for you. It won’t be for everyone. That’s fine. But I share it because I know from emails, messages, and people that I speak to that it has made a difference to them. For some, it has caused a dramatic turnaround.
Some take-homes then:
Researchers do not know what emotion is ‘most effective’ in driving climate action. Good studies on this are lacking.
It’s probably not a single emotion. And it’s probably not the same combination for everyone.
Feelings of concern, anger, sadness, and guilt are completely valid and appropriate for the state we’re in. In many people, these are probably essential for initiating climate action (that is certainly the case for me).
I have found that pairing these emotions with hope or a sense of agency that things can change, has been vital for spurring me to engage with these problems. Anger and worry on their own were insufficient. This perspective probably won’t resonate with everyone (that’s fine).
I am worried, anxious, angry, and sad about climate change and the state of the planet. But what gets me out of bed in the morning to work on this day after day is the hope that there is something we can do about it.
Gregersen, T., Andersen, G., & Tvinnereim, E. (2023). The strength and content of climate anger. Global Environmental Change, 82, 102738.
Fisher, D. R., & Nasrin, S. (2021). Climate activism and its effects. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change, 12(1), e683.