Does climate change keep you up at night? Between thinking about wildfires and ocean acidification and starving polar bears (that video was a tear-jerker, wasn’t it?), climate change certainly does give us a lot to ponder during those long, insomniac nights. In fact, in a new study from the University of Arizona, researchers determined that many people’s mental health is negatively impacted by how they perceive the threat of climate change.
In one of the first studies of its kinds looking at the psychological effects that global climate change is having on humans, the research found that people’s responses range from depression to high stress to almost no anxiety at all. Sabrina Helm, one of the scientists investigating the topic, explains that this range is accounted for on the basis of how concerned or connected people are for/to the environment. The people who are highly concerned about the planet's animals and plants report feeling the most stress.
One interesting aspect of the study, which was published in the journal Global Environmental Change, is how Helm and her colleagues differentiated between three types of environmental concern: egoistic, altruistic, and biospheric. Egoistic is concern about how what's happening in the environment directly impacts the individual; for example, if your house is close to the ocean and getting flooded by rising sea levels. Altruistic concern refers to concern for humanity in general, including future generations. Biospheric concern refers to concern for nature, plants, and animals.
Of the 342 survey participants the scientists asked, the type of concern that an individual felt played into the amount of stress they felt. For example, those who reported high levels of biospheric concern also reported feeling the most stressed about global climate change and were most likely to report signs of depression. Meanwhile, the people whose concerns were more egoistic or altruistic did not report significant stress due to climate change.
"People who worry about animals and nature tend to have a more planetary outlook and think of bigger picture issues," Helm said. "For them, the global phenomenon of climate change very clearly affects these bigger picture environmental things, so they have the most pronounced worry because they already see it everywhere. We already talk about the extinction of species and know it's happening. For people who are predominantly altruistically concerned or egoistically concerned about their own health, or maybe their own financial future, climate change does not hit home yet."
Those are the key words right there – “hit home yet”. If you feel like climate change is already an urgent presence that requires attention and management in your daily life, you are more likely to take action than if you feel like it’s looming in the future. That can explain why people with high levels of biospheric concern were most likely to recycle and participate in other eco-friendly activities.
Helm and colleagues say that understanding people’s different concerns and motivations can help in creating environmental outreach programs that are better attuned to individuals’ needs.
"Climate change has evident physical and mental health effects if you look at certain outcomes, such as the hurricanes we had last year, but we also need to pay very close attention to the mental health of people in everyday life, as we can see this, potentially, as a creeping development," Helm said. "Understanding that there are differences in how people are motivated is very important for finding ways to address this, whether in the form of intervention or prevention."