Climate emotions aren’t all “negative”
A new taxonomy scours the research for all the ways we feel about this crisis
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Sure, a lot of climate emotions are “negative”, but not all
A lot has been said about the growing prevalence of anxiety, grief, dread, hopelessness, helplessness, and other challenging climate emotions. As climate disasters pile up, livelihoods based on the land cease to function, fears about the future take hold, and climate gentrification gains ground, for example, emotive responses to the climate crisis are more palpable than ever. But might we be overemphasizing certain types of climate emotions, while vastly overlooking others, especially ones that have “positive” or motivating undertones?
Leading eco-emotions researcher Panu Pihkala’s recent article Toward a Taxonomy of Climate Emotions is a review of the literature that aims to bring more clarity to what is meant not only by signature responses (like ecological grief and climate anxiety), but what climate emotions deserve more attention. He explains that climate emotions are linked to multiple impacts, ranging from behavioural reactions (like increased pro-environmental action and constructive climate responses), to psychological wellbeing and health (deriving meaning and purpose from one’s distress), as well as moral issues (moral emotions include guilt, grief, shame, and anger). However little is known about the full breadth of eco-emotions that range from “positive” to “negative”, or what we can do with them once we recognize them in our own lives. I found his findings surprising and original, and as someone with a lot of climate emotions, quite useful. It’s helped me think about some of my own emotive responses to the moment in new ways.
(BTW if you’re wondering why I’m putting “positive” and “negative” in quotation marks, this will explain.)
Photo by Tengyart on Unsplash
Before we get into the taxonomy, I wanted to mention that Panu has a new podcast called Climate Change and Happiness, co-hosted with climate-aware therapist Thomas Doherty. Thomas was featured in the recent New York Times article Climate Change Enters the Therapy Room, which is testament to just how mainstream this space is getting. It’s important to highlight the helpful clinical work that article gets into, but we also need to emphasize the vast need for scaled up collective and community mental health responses. A big topic, for another day.
About that name - Climate Change and Happiness - maybe you’re thinking that’s oil and water! But the name gets at their aim with this podcast: to probe what it means to live a good life in the climate crisis. As Panu told me, “This challenge of living a good life, eudaimonia in philosophy, is at heart of “happiness”. We know that the title may sound provocative, and we do wish to be sensitive to justice issues. We discuss lots of dark emotions and injustices in the podcast. But we also want to stay open to the possibilities of joy in the midst of it all.”
So let’s now get into the mind of one of the men behind that new pod, and his (budding) classification of climate emotions.
A Taxonomy of Climate Emotions
Panu Pihkala grouped his findings into the themes you’ll see below, but be sure to read the original article if you’re interested about his methods and rationale for doing it this way. I provide a few examples, taken from the article, of how each cluster of emotions shows up in climate and eco dynamics.
Amazement, Surprise, Disappointment, Confusion
Amazement when people receive information about how truly dire the ecological crisis is
Surprises related to ecological recovery or social progress related to environmental politics
Awe and wonder in people's experiences of environments
Confusion about climate change and the required behavioral response
Shock, Trauma, Feeling Isolated
Shock and trauma about the vastness of the devastation climate change brings
Some shocks remain more manageable, while in other cases they can lead to difficult processes of stronger trauma (self-isolating behaviour, depression and anxiety)
‘Pre-traumatic stress’ in anticipation of harmful environmental changes, and PTSD after disasters
Isolation if one's community does not recognize the validity of difficult climate feelings or climate action
Fear, Worry, Anxiety, Powerlessness, Dread
All linked with feelings of insecurity
There is a difference between constructive (practical) and unconstructive (pathological) worry and anxiety about climate
People who normally are not prone to anxiety still may experience eco-anxiety
Ambivalence, powerlessness and helplessness are especially common features of eco-anxiety, which is logical given that anxiety in general is characterized strongly by feelings of uncontrollability, unpredictability, and uncertainty
Strong climate-related fear and worry borders on terror, and is often called dread and at times horror
Sadness, Grief, Yearning, Solastalgia
There is a lack of psychosocial resources to encounter the many kinds of losses involved with climate change, resulting in complicated grief and sadness
Environmental melancholia refers to a difficult form of mourning where the causes are not necessarily detected by the persons themselves
Solastalgia refers to place-related ecological sadness and longing
Yearning and longing can be directed both toward the past and the future: one may long for something that has gone, but also for something to come in the future
Strong Anxiety, Depression, Despair
Strong anxiety can manifest as a feeling that the person just can't take it: a fearful feeling that one may collapse
In stronger depression, there may be intense feelings of worthlessness, which link this with guilt and shame, and powerful despair
People may numb themselves if they feel that they are not able to withstand difficult emotions, and this can be made worse by feelings of powerlessness
Therapists have observed feelings of meaninglessness in some of their clients who feel climate anxiety, testifying to the manifestations of eco-anxiety as deep existential anxiety
Guilt, Shame, Feeling Inadequate, Regret
The array of climate guilt and shame can seemingly range from temporary feelings of embarrassment to long-term feelings of complicated guilt and shame
“Species shame” is ecological shame felt simply because one belongs to the human race which one deems to be shamefully destructive toward the more-than-human world
Even without stronger feelings of guilt or shame, people can feel inadequate because the demands posed by the climate crisis are so vast
Feeling Betrayed, Disillusion, Disgust
Some young people feel betrayed because of climate inaction by the decision-makers and partly by earlier generations
Those who suffer from place-related environmental damage often display feelings of being betrayed
Disgust may provoke pro-environmental behavior: for example, people disgusted by plastic pollution in water and in animal bodies can be sparked into action and policy support for reduction of plastic waste
Disgust may also drive people away from anything that reminds them of the issue
Some people are morally disgusted by the injustices of climate change
Anger, Rage, Frustration
Many report climate anger and moral outrage, rooted in understandings of injustice and corruption
People may also feel rage and fury because of narcissistic reasons, and as a psychological or psychosocial defense against felt threats to self and/or group identity
There seems to be a strong need for further differentiation between various forms of climate anger and rage
Hostility, Contempt, Feeling Discontent, Aversion
People have feelings of contempt toward others who do not share one's opinions on climate politics
People can be “fed up” or bored about climate matters
Envy, Jealousy, Admiration
People may feel climate envy because they desire something that others have in relation to the climate crisis, such as better possibilities to adapt, more resources, or more social acceptance
There is vicious envy, combined with hostility, toward something valuable that others have in relation to the ecological crisis
There is also emulative envy and admiration, which spark development of self and one's behavior: think of a neighbor who sees solar panels on the other neighbor's roof and wants to be no less clever
Motivation, Urge to Act, Determination
Many people not only feel general motivation to do something good related to environmental issues, but they feel an urge to compensate for earlier transgressions caused by themselves or groups they associate themselves with
Feeling the urge to act and determination is discussed in many studies
Pleasure, Joy, Pride
Pro-environmental behavior or removal of environmental threats can engender pleasure and “good feelings”
“Self-praising emotions (pride)” and “Other-praising emotions (Elevation, Admiration, Awe, Being Moved, Gratitude, Love) are part of climate engagement
Some scholars argue that eco-pride is more motivating than eco-guilt, while others point out that in certain situations guilt also has its positive possibilities
It is common to feel both guilt and pleasure in relation to one's environmental behavior and attitudes
Hope, Optimism, Empowerment
There is a strong need to better understand what “hope” means for various people
For some people, hope equates to wishful thinking, while for others, hope refers to “radical hope” or “gritty hope,” which is not tied up with optimism
There is a difference between “constructive hope” and “hope based in denial”
Some activists report feelings of being inspired and enthusiastic even if also despairing
Belonging, Togetherness, Connection
Feelings of belonging, togetherness, and connection between people are common in activism and these emotions can also be felt with the more-than-human world
Reports of feeling “positively overwhelmed by the idea that together they can make a difference.”
Love, Empathy, Caring, Compassion
People feel strongly caring toward their in-group and their valued connections, but it is possible to cultivate compassion and empathy also to out-groups and the whole more-than-human world
Love and kindness is the aim and foundation of many ecophilosophies and ecopsychologies
“Climate compassion” can be practiced by caring for others and places affected by the climate crisis
Caring is the foundation of numerous other climate emotions, such as climate grief, climate guilt, climate anger, and climate anxiety (i.e. eco-anxiety may arise from a feeling that something needs to be done, based on caring)
After reading his review, I asked Panu, “How are you hoping this taxonomy will advance our understanding of what the climate crisis is doing to people, emotionally? And what can we do – as individuals - once we become more aware of our climate emotions and how they work?”
The idea of this taxonomy is not focused on control. It is useful to have names for various emotions, because that helps us to both notice them and to channel them more constructively. Naturally, many kinds of methods are needed in that channeling. Climate emotions can’t be simply ruled by knowing their names. We need embodied skills, social support, and also intuition.
That being said, the very fact of noticing emotions such as envy, yearning, or togetherness helps us to orient ourselves in the world. We need to be able to encounter reality, including some very real emotions which we would rather not see. By noticing emotions, we can also both as individuals and collectives work towards shaping them. For example, we can admit that as humans we do feel envy or jealousy, also related to climate issues. But then we can learn to see that these emotions can also have a constructive dimension. As emotion scholar Tim Lomas points out, empathetic and admiring forms of envy can spark us into pursuing valuable goals. The crucial point is that we don’t try to bring others down, which would be vicious envy, and that is a real possibility among the social tensions of the climate crisis, too.
I personally hope that the initial taxonomy of climate emotions could help people to be more empathetic both towards themselves and towards others. It’s difficult to live amidst the growing climate chaos, as so many people have testified on the pages of Gen Dread. One aspect of this is the “trance of unworthiness”, as Tara Brach puts it, and that is something I see and feel a lot among people who care for climate matters. Sure, we need to develop collectively into more ethical ways of living, but individuals often take on too many burdens – something that for example Sarah J Ray has often spoken about. Her emphasis on “pleasure activism”, applying adrienne maree brown, links with the many positive climate emotions I also discuss in the taxonomy. Many of those have also received way too little attention.”
Thanks for that important reminder, Panu!
I wanted to share the videos of two recent climate psych events I partook in that might be up your alley.
This was a fun one. NRDC’s Rewrite the Future presented a panel at the Sundance Film Festival of Hollywood storytellers alongside myself to discuss how to represent climate emotions in entertainment to better reflect our lived responses to the crisis. Featuring panelists Scott Z. Burns (Extrapolations, An Inconvenient Truth), Naren Shankar (The Expanse) and me. Moderated by actor and climate activist Zazie Beetz (Atlanta).
This one inspired me. KQED Climate Reporter Laura Klivans leads a workshop about how we can get involved in climate action, no matter how busy our lives. Featuring Violet Wulf-Saena of Climate Resilient Communities, Priya Shukla of Ocean and Climate PhD Fellow at UC Davis, et moi. My talk focused on ‘internal activism’ (as climate-aware therapist Caroline Hickman calls it), as opposed to the more recognizable ‘external’ kind.
Celebrities are elevating climate and mental health - Cate Blanchett to host a climate podcast that addresses her own eco-anxiety.
Climate One did a wonderful job of covering the difficult topic of whether or not we should have kids in the climate emergency (featuring the voices of some Gen Dread readers!) on their recently re-released episode that you can listen to here.
Speaking of podcasts, have you filled out our very short survey about what kind of climate emotions podcasts you’d like to see in the world? Thanks to those who already have. This is our last collection round. With appreciation from the Climate Mental Health Network and Gen Dread. We’ll get this information into the hands of creators. Results are quite interesting so far.
A call out from the University of Bath: PARTICIPANTS WANTED FOR ONLINE CLIMATE RESEARCH!
“We want to understand more about how people aged 16+ think, feel, and respond to climate change and environmental damage. Whether or not these issues cause you distress, we would still like to hear from you.
To find out more and take part in our online survey please follow this link. Participants will have the option of entering a prize raffle at the end of the survey for a chance of winning a £50 online voucher for one of the following sustainable brands: Etsy, The kind store, Veo, LUSH, The little market.”
Lastly, for those who shared their stories of difficult climate conversations in order to explore how to handle them via guidance from a climate psychologist who works on communicating the crisis, I have not forgotten about you! I’m working on this for one of the next editions.
That’s all for this edition
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Really important article. I spread it around! Thank you.
Thank you for sharing this taxonomy. In my work on ecodistress/development and mothers in the perinatal period, belonging and rage are the most often reported. This helps connect those experiences.