If you had to associate one emotion with engagement with environmental issues, would it be anger, fear or hope? This was the question asked of over 2,000 participants by psychologists from the Norwegian Research Center.
The adults who took part in the survey were asked to answer a series of questions, including how they felt about specific topics such as climate change, and then to rate – on a scale of 0 to 4- the intensity of their emotions such as anger, sadness, fear, guilt and hope.
The results of this study, published in the journal Global Environmental Change, are unequivocal: anger is a powerful driver of activism.
“Climate-related anger is present in Greta Thunberg’s speeches and the acts of Extinction Rebellion, but also in the rise of movements protesting climate policies, such as the Yellow Vests,” the researchers wrote.
In recent years, certain emotions have come under the spotlight with the climate crisis, particularly fear with the concept and term “climate anxiety”. The study pointed out that “some emotions – such as fear and hope – have received considerable attention in relation to climate-change perceptions and engagement, while the effect of climate anger is less well known”.
When asked the specific, open-ended question “what about climate change makes you angry?”, the adults who responded were very clear: the fact that the climate crisis is directly caused by human actions.
In concrete terms, anger could lead individuals to reduce their greenhouse-gas emissions, support climate policies (such as increased taxes on petrol and diesel), and take part in demonstrations against climate change.
The researchers highlighted, however, that the relationship between anger and engagement in the climate fight is not always clear-cut, and may vary depending on the type of engagement in question.
“It is possible that people are motivated to engage in climate activism because they are especially angry. However, it is also possible that they initially engage due to, for example, social reasons and become angrier as they learn more about the issue from other protesters or the protest organisers,” the study noted.
As for other emotions, fear and guilt were the best predictors of political support, while sadness and hope were more associated with a change in individual behaviour.
While the study may interest organisations seeking to mobilise individuals for climate causes, it has several limitations, starting with the fact that it was carried out exclusively on a sample in Norway – a wealthy country and major oil producer – and that it is based on declarative statements by citizens and not on their actions.
“Replicating the study in countries more vulnerable to direct impacts of climate change could yield other responses,” the authors said, adding: “Our findings illustrate the need to avoid simplistic discussions of climate emotions and their motivational potential.”