Heightened climate change concerns in adolescents linked to lower life satisfaction and pro-environmental behavior

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New research has found that higher worry about climate change among adolescents is linked to worse subjective well-being, higher climate pessimism, and more pro-environmental behaviors. Problem-focused coping mediated the link between worry and pro-environmental behaviors. The study was published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology.

Climate change refers to long-term alterations in the Earth’s climate patterns, primarily driven by human activities such as the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation. The increase in greenhouse gas emissions, particularly carbon dioxide, leads to a warming of the planet and various associated impacts. These impacts include rising global temperatures, more frequent and severe weather events, disruptions to ecosystems, and shifts in precipitation patterns. While the topic of the reality of human activity-induced climate change has long been a hot topic of public debate, the vast majority of actively publishing climate scientists agree that it is indeed real.

Climate change is a topic frequently discussed in the media. Learning about it, many individuals worldwide experience significant worry about the consequences of climate change, even if they have not personally suffered from its effects. This is particularly true in countries like Sweden, where climate change is a prevalent topic in both media and everyday conversations. The issue especially impacts young people, who possess limited political power, yet are likely to face the progressive adverse effects of climate change in their future. Studies suggest that many young people, recognizing this, feel hopeless and pessimistic about the issue.

Study authors Marlis C. Wullenkord and Maria Ojala wanted to explore the relationship between different types of worry about climate change and indicators of subjective well-being.

“As climate change is becoming more severe, it is increasingly important to understand how people cope with their worries about it,” explained Wullenkord, a postdoctoral researcher in environmental psychology at Lund University. “One understudied and particularly vulnerable group is young people. We wanted to understand how their climate worries changed over time and what strategies they used to address those worries. We were particularly interested in how the specific type of worry was related to their mental health and their pro-environmental behavior.”

The researchers distinguished between worries about oneself and close others (micro worries) and worries about the world and society at large (macro worries). The researchers hypothesized that both types of worries would correlate with lower psychological well-being and higher pro-environmental behaviors. They also suggested that psychological factors, such as coping strategies, might influence this relationship. To explore this, they conducted two surveys.

The first survey, conducted in 2010, involved 321 Swedish high school students. They completed assessments developed by the study authors, which measured climate worry, climate optimism and pessimism, coping strategies, and pro-environmental behavior. Additionally, they were assessed for general affect (using the Child Depression Scale) and life satisfaction (using 7 items from an existing scale).

The second survey, conducted between 2019 and 2020, included 480 Swedish high school students participating in a broader study on adolescents’ experiences with climate change and food choices. They completed the same assessments as in the first survey, focusing on climate worry, climate optimism and pessimism, coping, and pro-environmental behaviors.

The first survey’s results confirmed that individuals with higher levels of worry about climate change tended to report lower life satisfaction and more general negative affect. This association was more pronounced for micro worry than for macro worry. Worry about climate change was also linked to heightened levels of climate pessimism.

Those who engaged in meaning-focused coping (e.g., ‘I have faith in humanity; we can solve all kinds of problems’) showed a weaker correlation between micro worry and climate pessimism. The study authors believe that meaning-focused coping strategies help prevent micro worries about climate change from turning into climate pessimism. Believing in humanity’s problem-solving abilities allows individuals to remain optimistic about future climate-related developments. Participants who expressed higher levels of worry about climate change were also more likely to engage in pro-environmental behaviors.

The second survey corroborated the first’s findings, noting a more pronounced concern for climate worry in the later study.

The findings indicate that “the way in which people cope with their emotions influences their mental health and pro-environmental behavior,” Wullenkord told PsyPost.

The study sheds light on the links between climate change beliefs and subjective well-being. However, it should be noted that both studies were conducted on Swedish high-school students, individuals from a country where the topic of climate change is present and discussed much more than in many other world countries. Results on other demographic groups and individuals from other cultures might not yield equal results.

The paper, “Climate-change worry among two cohorts of late adolescents: Exploring macro and micro worries, coping, and relations to climate engagement, pessimism, and well-being”, was authored by Marlis C. Wullenkord and Maria Ojala.

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