Anger About Climate Change Is Actually Productive, Says Research


Sep 1, 2023


Image Credit: Getty/Hitesh Sonar For the swaddle

Anger has emerged as the most potent predictor of climate activism, outweighing hope by seven times. The research behind this revelation was recently published in the journal Global Environmental Change. Led by climate psychologists, the study sought to understand how individuals’ feelings about environmental destruction, influence mental well-being and conduct — a complex and evolving area of research.

In pursuance of a better understanding of the relationship between emotions and climate activism, the researchers recruited a set of 2,000 adults, delving into their emotions linked to the climate crisis, and studying their impact on everyday actions. The results suggested that while emotions like fear and guilt were better predictors of garnering more policy-based support, sadness, fear, and hope were indicative of stronger behavioral changes. Anger, by far, was the strongest motivator, though; turns out, for every two steps along the anger scale anyone took, they moved one step ahead on the activism scale. 

Yet, for years, emotional responses have been looked down upon — especially in a world where stoicism serves as celebration of rationality and masculity. Politicians, of course, have taken advantage of this rhetoric to discredit young climate activists: some termed them as “increas[ing] teachers’ workloads and wast[ing] lesson time;” others refused to respond to their apparent, “my way or the highway” line of thinking.

“[T]he view that emotions aren’t part of rationality is false… Emotions can be rational in the sense of being an appropriate response to a situation,” Quan Nguyen, a moral philosopher, wrote in The Conversation. In the context of deliberate deception by fossil fuel companies and government inaction, anger is, indeed, a justifiable response to climate change.

As Nguyen explains, “Imagine you find out that a meteor will kill millions of people across the world, displace hundreds of millions more, and make life for the remainder of humanity much worse. The world’s governments neither put a defence system in place, nor do they evacuate the people threatened. Fear from the meteor, and anger at the inaction of governments, would be a rational response as they are an appropriate reaction to danger. And if you don’t feel fear and anger, you’re not appropriately responding to a dangerous situation… As you’ve probably guessed, the meteor is climate change.”

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Indeed, anger can create change by spurring action. It is emotion that drives one to make change, resulting in the courts of countries like Germany and the Netherlands to direct the countries’ governments to step up in their fights against climate change and protect present and future citizens’ rights to life and well-being.

But this is exactly why authorities are keen to dismiss activists. “Rather than climate anxiety, we should be calling it politician anxiety or people anxiety, because it’s the people in power who are failing to do the right thing whilst lying to us, or doing the opposite, that is causing the terror,” Caroline Hickman, a climate psychologist at the University of Bath, told The Guardian. “I realized eight years ago … that the narratives I was hearing around climate change were the same as the narratives I’d heard around child abuse. The very people who are supposed to protect you are the people who are hurting you. And not only are they hurting you, they’re telling you that they love you and they’re doing it for your own good.”

That truly is a jarring observation.

But isn’t it unfair to live in an almost-perpetual state of acrimony? Indeed. As Emma Marris, writer of The Atlantic’s climate newsletter, noted, though, “The paradox of working toward a just, truly sustainable society is that you have to do it in an unjust, toxic one that makes both the fight and just living needlessly hard.”

According to the new study, though, only half of the particiapnts were found to be angry about climate change. The researchers — alongside climate activists worldwide — are hoping for more.


Written By Devrupa Rakshit

Devrupa Rakshit is an Associate Editor at The Swaddle. She is a lawyer by education, a poet by accident, a painter by shaukh, and autistic by birth. You can find her on Instagram @devruparakshit.


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