A longitudinal study published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology found that climate concern was associated with a small increase in psychological distress, but not life satisfaction one year later.
Many headlines have warned of the potential impacts of global warming, ranging from an inevitable societal collapse, to the end of human civilization. Such publications have prompted some individuals to seek therapy, as well as provoked public concern in the form of large-scale global climate strikes. Thus, it could be that general climate concern can affect psychological wellbeing, independent of whether individuals experience climate change first-hand.
Some measures of climate distress or worry have been associated with psychological distress. Climate anxiety, which is related to climate concern, has previously been linked to emotional and cognitive dysfunction.
If climate concern is to be understood as an anticipation of future effects of climate change, then individuals thinking more about their future ought to be more affected. Thoughts about future events weaken as people age, thus, anticipatory awareness of climate risks could be more pronounced for younger (vs. older) adults.
Sarah E. McBride and colleagues used data from the New Zealand Attitudes and Values Survey, a national longitudinal probability panel survey. The current study utilized data from Time 9 (2017) and Time 10 (2019), for a total of 14,049 participants from ages 18-98.
Participants rated their agreement with the statement “I am deeply concerned about climate change” as a measure of climate concern. They also completed two measures of psychological wellbeing, with items relating to symptoms of depression, anxiety, and life satisfaction. Gender and socioeconomic status – demographic markers with established links to environmental concern – were included as covariates.
The researchers found that while climate concern was associated with a small residual increase in psychological distress one year later, there was no longitudinal association between climate concern and life satisfaction. This effect remained when accounting for gender and socioeconomic status. There was also no evidence that younger (vs. older) adults’ psychological wellbeing is impacted by climate concern to a greater extent.
However, younger participants exhibited slightly higher levels of climate concern on average. It could be the case that higher future orientation in younger adults generates greater climate concern, which in turn may contribute to – but not magnify – negative effects on psychological wellbeing.
The authors note potential limitations. All participants were above the age of 18; studying younger populations would be important in determining moderating effects of age. As well, the sample reflects a largely Western view of climate change, with over 83% of participants identifying as European New Zealanders. Thus, these findings may not extend to Non-Western nations with greater climate risk.
The study, “Longitudinal relations between climate change concern and psychological wellbeing”, was authored by Sarah E. McBride, Matthew D. Hammond, Chris G. Sibley, and Taciano L. Milfont.