75% of young people across 10 countries experience feelings associated with climate anxiety. What’s worse? Their brains encourage them to seek it out.
A new study in Nature Human Behavior found that each added negative word in a headline increases the consumption rate of that article by 2.3%. Simultaneously, several of the countries included in the former mentioned study, like the United States, Australia, and Finland, have some of the largest per capita ecological footprints in the world. There exists a dire disconnect between the fear climate anxiety incites and the action necessary to quell this fear. Given that psychological studies show intense climate anxiety can result in feelings of helplessness and disengagement, climate communicators have to draw a difficult line between paralyzing fear and a push in the right direction toward addressing climate change.
The key to— to use the motivating element of this mindset to act effectively — requires solutions journalism. Communicators can use fear-provoking headlines to get people’s attention, but follow with relevant solutions in order to suppress anxiety and lay out a sustainable future.
Climate news coverage is ubiquitous in this country, and much of global society. It is impossible to avoid the headlines warning against an apocalyptic haze, deadly natural disasters, or yet another extinct species.
As it turns out, this doom-and-gloom journalism actually draws a lot of clicks. A 2010 Public Understanding of Science study suggests coverage of climate change including elements of emotion — whether through fear, guilt, hope, etc. — catch people’s attention. The amplification of the issues associated with climate change is objectively a good thing. More apocalyptic headlines leads to more emotional responses which leads to more awareness.
But this type of media coverage is arguably the cause of the contemporary phenomenon of climate anxiety. Without the news, we would not get the bounty of information on climate events that we do, and thus would have to rely more on personal experiences. A 2021 International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health study found that climate media exposure and climate anxiety are positively correlated at a figure of 0.364, where a 0.01 correlation is significant.
Some may argue this correlation is a good thing. A 2022 Journal of Environmental Psychology study further finds that increased feelings of climate anxiety, as a result of exposure to climate news, are positively correlated with increased pro-environmental behaviors. In that sense, it seems as though the media is on the right track in that their ceaseless delivery of doomsday stories may lead us to act on those issues that give us climate anxiety.
Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. In most cases, the media overshoots the mark in terms of getting people on board with the whole ‘belief in climate change thing’ by manipulating fear-provoking stories to grab people’s attention. This overdone formula is causing extreme climate anxiety that has the contradictory effect of people failing to act, instead disengaging due to paralyzing fear, hopelessness, guilt, or other intense negative emotions.