Yale Experts Explain Climate Anxiety

A graphic illustration depicting the Earth as a brain inside a human head
March 13, 2023

Every day, the news delivers fresh images and headlines about climate-related disasters — devasting floods, disappearing lakes, a melting ‘doomsday glacier’—and the halting response of world leaders to act with urgency. It’s no surprise that many Americans are growing increasingly anxious about the perilous state of our planet.

Mental health clinicians are seeing more patients come in with symptoms of climate change anxiety—also referred to as eco-anxiety, eco-grief, or climate doom—and they’re not always sure what to do about it. It’s a trend that’s mirrored in public surveys and internet search data: Google searches for “climate anxiety” soared by 565 percent in 2021, according to the news outlet Grist.

Several Yale researchers are at the forefront of studying the rising tide of climate anxiety and ways to ameliorate it.

Anthony Leiserowitz is the founder and Director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication and a Senior Research Scientist at Yale School of the Environment. Leiserowitz is an expert on public beliefs about climate change and has been surveying Americans on their level of worry about it for more than 20 years, finding a substantial number who now say they are unable to stop fretting about the risks posed by global warming.

Sarah Lowe is a clinical psychologist and Associate Professor in the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences at Yale School of Public Health. Last year, Lowe co-authored a research paper that showed how collective action could be a buffer against climate anxiety for young adults, finding that anxiety about climate change was linked to symptoms of depression only in those who were not engaged in group activities to address global warming.

In this Q&A, Leiserowitz and Lowe discuss what climate anxiety is—and isn’t—and why a little bit of worry can be a good thing.

What is climate anxiety? How do we define it?

LOWE: Climate anxiety is fundamentally distress about climate change and its impacts on the landscape and human existence. That can manifest as intrusive thoughts or feelings of distress about future disasters or the long-term future of human existence and the world, including one’s own descendants. There is a physiological component that would include heart racing and shortness of breath, and a behavioral component: when climate anxiety gets in the way of one’s social relationships or functioning at work or school.

LEISEROWITZ: One thing to point out is that worry is not the same thing as anxiety. Many people are worried about climate change: 64 percent of Americans in our last national study said they were at least somewhat worried about global warming. That’s a good and healthy thing because worry as an emotion is a motivator; if you worry about something, you are motivated to figure out what you can do about it. We actually need more people to be worried about climate change. Where worry becomes a problem is when it becomes overwhelming and debilitating, when it keeps you from living your life. That’s when it’s a serious diagnosis.

How long has this been studied—anxiety or worry about climate change?

LEISEROWITZ: If you’re talking about ‘worry,’ my first study was around 2001. A related term is ‘concern’—how concerned are you about global warming—and surveys on that go back even further. But they are not the same things. Concern is even more broad and is not as active of an emotion as worry is.

LOWE: In the past 20 years, scholars have discussed several different constructs that are related to climate anxiety, including ecological grief (feelings of longing or sadness based on observed changes in one’s ecosystem) and solastalgia (a feeling of nostalgia for one’s home environment and the way things used to be.)

Only recently have scholars begun to thoroughly measure climate anxiety and these other constructs. In 2020, my colleague Susan Clayton published a measure of climate change anxiety that asks respondents to rate themselves on 13 behavioral statements such as, “I have nightmares about climate change” and “My friends say I think about climate change too much.” We used that measure in our paper.

How widespread is climate anxiety in the United States?

LEISEROWITZ: We have identified a small but notable number of Americans who seem to be experiencing things that we would call eco-anxiety. In our latest nationally representative survey, around 10 percent report feeling nervous, anxious, or on edge about global warming at least several days per week. Nine percent reported being unable to stop or control worry about global warming, and 7 percent said they had experienced diminished interest or pleasure in doing things because of global warming. Another 27 percent say they avoid thinking about climate change, but some of those responses are because they believe the issue is a hoax or a waste of time.

LOWE: Climate anxiety is highly correlated with generalized anxiety, so it tends to affect people who are already anxious about other things.

An infographic showing percentages of Americans who said they feel worried about climate change.

Is this phenomenon trending up or down?

LEISEROWITZ: We have not been measuring anxiety for as long, so we don’t really know. Worry, however, has been steadily increasing within the United States over the past two decades. About 27 percent of Americans say they are very worried about climate change. This also is reflected in our Global Warming’s Six Americas research. We’ve been tracking how the size of different groups has been shifting, and people who are “Alarmed” about climate change have almost tripled in size over the past six years. We call them the Alarmed—but that does not mean eco-anxious. In fact, most of them are not eco-anxious. Many of them are alarmed about climate change but don’t know what to do. They are actually quite eager to do something but have never been asked by someone they like and trust. There’s enormous work to be done there by the climate community.

What about Americans who are fatalistic— those who believe it’s already too late to do anything about global warming. Is that number going up or down?

LEISEROWITZ: Very few Americans are fatalistic. Most believe that we can still solve the problem.

Does someone’s anxiety level about climate change depend on their age? Are older people generally less worried about it?

LEISEROWITZ: Yes and no. A lot of people assume that young people care more about climate change, but we find it’s more complicated. If you look at Democrats, for example, young Democrats are basically as worried about climate change as their parents and grandparents. The real difference is among Republicans: young Republicans accept that climate change is happening, that it’s human caused, and are more worried about it and more supportive of action than their parents or their grandparents. Which is not to say they prioritize it. But they don’t deny the problem, as their parents and grandparents often do.

LOWE: We tend to think of college students as generally more anxious than other age groups, and specifically more anxious about climate change. But the levels we saw in our survey sample were actually pretty low. Our students were in the range of ‘rarely anxious’ to ‘sometimes anxious,’ and that to us was a bit surprising given what we’ve heard from students. But it’s also important to note that the whole range of scale scores was represented in the survey results, so we did have some students who reported frequent or extreme anxiety about climate change.

How do race and income level impact levels of climate anxiety? Can a long-term problem like climate change seem less urgent to someone who is food insecure, struggling to make ends meet, facing discrimination, or facing other more immediate hardships?

LEISEROWITZ: I would say we generally find that’s not true because in many cases those are the people who are most directly affected by the impacts of climate change. If you don’t have the money for an air conditioner, and yet you live in a place where the temperature just went over 110 degrees, you know you’re more vulnerable. Of people who have heard of climate change—though we’ve found that on a global scale there are still about 2 billion people who have never heard of climate change—people in developing countries tend to be much more worried than people in the developed world. If you can go from your air-conditioned house to your air-conditioned car to your air-conditioned office, that 110-degree heat wave can seem like just an inconvenience.

Is climate anxiety a pop culture trend, a clinical disorder that needs treatment, or something in between?

LOWE: I think we are looking at people feeling worried about a real threat to human existence. Anecdotally, I have heard from clinicians who have clients presenting in their offices talking about their anxieties related to climate change, and clinicians not really being sure what to do about it. It’s not something that’s in the person’s head. A lot of what cognitive behavioral therapists do is have people document the thoughts that accompany their worries and ask them to dismantle them and say, Is this realistic? For climate change I don’t think it would be appropriate for clinicians to challenge those thoughts. I think when people are anxious about realistic threats, a mindfulness and acceptance approach can be helpful. Not acceptance that you shouldn’t do anything about climate change but rather to recognize that someone is feeling anxious about climate change and to help them harness that anxiety for something good.

Dr. Lowe, your research suggests that collective action may act as a buffer against climate anxiety. Why is that?

LOWE: Engaging in collective action can have a multitude of benefits including social connectedness with people who share similar goals and values. We know from a large body of literature that social support is one of the strongest predictors of mental well-being. We also thought that individuals who engaged in collective action—particularly if they saw those actions as having an impact—could have a stronger sense of self-efficacy and hope for the future. On the other hand, there’s some research that people who engage in activism can be at risk for burnout. Theoretically if someone was engaging with all these actions and not seeing changes at a larger level, that might contribute to a sense of hopelessness. What we found in our research is just statistical, so I think more work needs to be done on the processes by which collective action could prevent climate anxiety from turning into feelings of hopelessness and despair.

Are all types of collective action equal? Or do some actions alleviate climate anxiety more than others?

LOWE: That’s a really good question and definitely ripe for future research. I think theoretically there is a difference between, for example, showing up at a single protest with a couple of friends versus being engaged in a longer-term effort where you’re working with other people, establishing relationships, and you can see the fruits of your hard work in terms of policy changes. I would imagine that sustained engagement in a cause could be beneficial. At the same time, individuals should exercise self-awareness to know whether they are burned out and to try to engage with those feelings.

Your research also found that individual actions—such as recycling or turning off the lights—don’t lessen climate anxiety to the same degree as collective actions. What explains that?

LOWE: Individual actions are things that are done in isolation, rather than with other people. And some of the individual actions we included in our survey such as turning the lights off—if you look at their carbon-impact rating—can be seen as a drop in the bucket that’s not going to make much difference.

What are individual ways to manage climate change anxiety? Can simply turning off the news help?

LOWE: I am a mass trauma researcher and I can say that people who consume more media related to major disasters or mass shootings tend to have more severe psychiatric symptoms, whether they are survivors or not. So I think having a smart media diet is important. I would never tell anyone you shouldn’t read about climate change at all. But I think there’s a difference between getting the facts and reading the key articles versus reading the same story over and over, or looking at devasting images and things like that. Stay aware but put limits on your consumption, and just be aware if you are doom scrolling.

LEISEROWITZ: Often the kinds of things that are recommended are to go for a walk, get some exercise, eat better, meditate, talk to your friends—all these things make us more resilient as human beings. But taking action on climate change is really one of the most powerful ways to combat hopelessness and helplessness. Go do something—not as an individual, but as part of a group.

What gives you hope with regard to this topic? Can we expect that a better understanding of climate anxiety will lead to increased wellbeing over all?

LOWE: The first thing that gives me hope is reading the responses of participants in our survey.  These were college students and they struck me as so knowledgeable about climate change and engaged in so many actions that I didn’t think about. The second is that in the public health and psychology worlds, there are a lot more students, early career scholars, and even more senior scholars who are interested in this. At conferences I go to, there are now panels about climate change anxiety. Just the increasing acknowledgement that this is a problem—and we want to understand it and think about what we can do about it—does give me hope.

LEISEROWITZ: My own personal way is our national radio program, Yale Climate Connections, where we produce short stories that feature the voices of people who are rolling up their sleeves and taking action—from every walk of life. They are not just technologists and environmentalists, they are moms, dads, lawyers, doctors, nurses, mayors, they are Republicans and Democrats, they’re kids, they’re people of faith, all of whom give me tremendous hope. We live in a media ecosystem that is geared to tell us about how bad things are, and rarely to tell us about all the incredible things people are doing. There are millions of people around the world taking climate action every single day and most of us aren’t aware of it. We’ve been incredibly privileged to share some of those stories. I know that our efforts to lift up and amplify these voices gives people hope and motivates many to follow the example of people taking action.

What is Yale doing?

From groundbreaking faculty research to student wellness programs, Yale is confronting climate anxiety with information, inspiration, support, and collective action. Yale students have a long history of organizing around pressing concerns related to climate change and sustainability, building skills that enable them to broaden their impact as global citizens while channeling eco-anxiety into action. Alumni networks continue to nurture collective action through programs like the Yale Day of Service, as Yalies come together to give back to their communities. Read more about “Resources for Coping with Climate Anxiety.”