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Climate concern as a mediator in people’s relationship with the environment

Key message
Climate concern is important in developing climate agency, which allows an increasingly climate-concerned population to support and motivate each other. In the face of a global threat, climate agency supports mental health and well-being and enables us to prepare for necessary changes in the social order. Climate concern taken seriously and shared does not have to lead to apathy.

In 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued a dire warning to humanity about the state of the climate and the failed attempts to prevent anthropogenic climate change. These statements were published at a time when extreme weather events such as heat waves, wildfires and floods were becoming more frequent. Studies of attitudes in various parts of the world (including Estonia) show that people’s willingness to understand climate-related future scenarios and relate these to their own future has increased significantly. It has also become apparent that societies are not decisively dealing with this urgent problem.

People’s willingness to understand climate-related future scenarios and relate these to their own future has increased significantly, even though societies are not decisively dealing with this urgent problem.

It has also become apparent that societies are not decisively dealing with this urgent problem. The words and actions of climate-concerned members of society, including their formation into interest groups, put them increasingly at odds with more passive democratic processes, expressed mainly through voting in elections.

This article aims to offer a multifaceted view of a situation in which some people are acutely aware of the dangers of climate-related changes yet have to look for solutions amid diminishing but still widespread indifference. The article first describes people’s attitudes to climate and some worrying implications for human behaviour. This is followed by an analysis of the experiences of climate-concerned people in Estonia, to find out how greater awareness can have a life-changing effect. We describe a new sociality emerging from climate concerns, which has a stimulating and supporting impact on mental health and well-being.

Our analysis is based on statistical data and on sociological and anthropological research related to climate concerns. We have conducted this type of research since 2019. This data comes from ethnographic fieldwork on social media and real-life participant observations among representatives of climate and environmental movements, as well as from interviews with more than 30 activists. Some of the quotes are from Anna Silvia Seemel’s bachelor’s thesis (Seemel 2021).1 Most of the interviewees are involved in the Fridays for Future and Extinction Rebellion movements and mainly come from the largest Estonian cities.2

Climate concern rather than climate anxiety

Natural disasters caused by climate change can trigger psychological problems that manifest as sadness, anxiety, distress, grief, anger, depression, stress or other emotional states. (Stanley 2021; Cunsolo Willox and Ellis 2018). These feelings have been described using new terms such as ‘solastalgia’3. (Galway et al. 2019) or ‘pretraumatic stress disorder’ (Kaplan 2015). The impact of climate change on our mental health is the subject of climate psychology, a new sub-field of ecopsychology (Climate Psychology Alliance 2020).

Forward-looking emotions related to the global climate crisis, the threat of environmental catastrophe, and the resulting uncertainty have so far been described in Estonia as ‘climate anxiety’ or ‘eco-anxiety’. But anxiety does not necessarily entail a link between a perceived threat and a subjective feeling; it can be interpreted as a subjective negative emotion that is not necessarily related to a real threat. However, climate issues are not a matter of subjective feeling or a mental health disorder but a ‘real-life stressor’ (O’Brien and Elders 2021). The term ‘climate anxiety’ obscures the fact that there is a real and serious problem behind the emotional response. Those concerned about climate change perceive the term ‘anxiety’ as implying powerlessness and weakness and undermining agency and ability. The terms ‘climate grief’, ‘climate fear’ and ‘climate concern’ are considered far more appropriate and empowering.

A review of the vocabulary used is also necessary because of its social implications. One reason climate-conscious people are concerned is the experience that much of society does not take the climate problem seriously enough. Downplaying the concern by labelling climate-conscious citizens as ‘anxious’ does not support them in their search for solutions. Instead, it reduces their ability to overcome concern- and fear-induced apathy or panic and seek like-minded people to find solutions. If society refers to the problem as imaginary rather than real, and there is no understanding of the need for wider action, then climate concern may indeed become an actual mental health problem in an indifferent and judgmental environment. (O’Brien and Elders 2022, Pihkala 2020). On the other hand, wider societal understanding and

1 Seemel, A.-S. 2021. The background and nature of activism in climate active individuals on the example of Estonian environmental organizations’ members. Bachelor’s thesis. Tartu: Estonian University of Life Sciences.
2 This research was financed by the Estonian Research Council (PRG908).
3 Stress caused by environmental changes.

recognition of the problem of climate change and the need to act on its solutions can mitigate risks to mental health, mobilise people to address the problem and build resilience.

‘Climate concern’ is a justified stressful concern about real threats from climate change. The label ‘climate anxiety’ obscures the fact that there is a real and serious problem behind the emotional response.

For these reasons, we use the term ‘climate concern’ throughout the article to refer to a justified stressful concern about real threats from climate change. It aptly points to a reality that causes such feelings.

The particularities of climate change shape the spread and nature of climate concern

Climate change, the cause of climate concern, differs in several ways from other environmental problems affecting mental health. (Pihkala 2020). First, climate change is a global and systemic problem. Unlike air pollution or noise, the changes that come with it are not necessarily perceptible locally. Local weather conditions do not provide a clear understanding of broader climate processes, and even less of the future changes in a particular place. But we still need to mitigate climate change, although actions by any individual society towards changes in the economy, politics or everyday life are insufficient to slow down climate change.

Another aspect of the problem is that it is still developing and lies mainly in the future. This can increase fear, as even the best models cannot fully predict the future. The fate of human societies in such a situation is also unpredictable. In Estonia, where there is relatively little direct experience of climate change, climate concerns are primarily mediated by the media and political decision-makers. People experience it as a concern, abstracted from fragments of information, about the loss of hope for the future and the imminent arrival of dire consequences.

In this way, climate concern depends on whether and how public discussions address scientific and abstract problems and translate them into everyday language. More broadly, it also depends on the extent to which science is understood and trusted as a coherent reflection of reality, and the ability of science to create adequate models of the future. The similarity of the messages from different branches of science also plays a role (e.g. both climatologists and biologists can see the consequences of climate change), as do the quality and scope of the translation of abstract scientific messages into everyday language, and the level of scientific education of the population. Unlike specific, locally measurable parameters of environmental pollution, climate change – which is global, future-related and abstract – requires an explanation that enables the whole society to begin to understand the problem. This includes those on whom the solution to the problem depends (especially in terms of their production and consumption practices) but who are shielded from societal expectations and demands for change.

Most climate-conscious citizens are critical of the existing economic system and social structures because these are seen as the main sources of the climate problem. .

Most climate-conscious citizens are critical of the existing economic system and social structures because these are seen as the main sources of the climate problem.

They do not regard economic growth as a positive trend; they are aware that it leads to increased climate risks and depleted natural resources. Their climate concern is triggered by the experience that social institutions are most likely unable to manage and prevent the climate problem, as they cannot function outside the capitalist economic system and growth ideology. Because of this, they see climate change as a ‘super-wicked’ problem (Gillighan and Vanderbergh 2020), it must be solved in a limited time frame, it cannot be centrally controlled, its potential solvers are also the cause of the problem, and the solution is held back by irrationally continuing policy choices (Levin et al. 2012). PThe super-wickedness of the problem also lies in its entanglement with many other problems, and understanding this leads one to seriously doubt that the existing economic system can cope with the problems it has caused, offering merely greenwashing and ‘technofixes’ as solutions.3.

As a result, climate-concerned people change their economic behaviour, focusing on consumption and lifestyle, which from this point of view is the only conceivable course of action both on the economic and personal level. Striving to prevent the consequences of climate change means new choices and new plans for the future. This behaviour can be seen both as adaptive and as offering mental balance, because it resolves the dissonance between conventional participation in the climate-destroying economy on the one hand and climate concern on the other.

The level of climate concern in Estonian society is low but rising

The level of climate concern varies by country and depends on the local circumstances: the climate sensitivity of the region, the threats that are publicly discussed, the socioeconomic situation, environmental attitudes and perceptions of human impact on the environment, and the views of opinion leaders. (Plüschke-Altof et al. 2020). Like everywhere in the world, climate concerns are on the rise in Estonia. An environmental awareness survey of the Estonian population (Turu-uuringute AS 2020) indicates that while only 10% of the population considered climate change a serious problem in 2016, by 2020 this figure had increased to 18%. A similar situation is confirmed by a recent European Investment Bank survey (EIB 2022) according to which 19% of people in Estonia considered climate change a serious problem.

The results of the European Social Survey (2016) indicate that concern among Estonian people is lower than the European average (see Figure 5.1.1). At first glance, the situation could be associated with Estonia’s climatic region, which is less affected by extreme weather conditions.

3Ingl Technological fixes – attempts to use non-existent or as yet inadequately implemented or upscaled technologies to resolve problems (e.g. climate problems).

climatic region, which is less affected by extreme weather conditions. Figure 5.1.1 shows, however, that Estonia’s level of concern is not in the same group with the climatically similar Nordic countries but is rather closer to that of the other former Eastern Bloc countries.

Figure 5.1.1. Average level of climate concern in Estonia and selected regions, on a scale of 1–5

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Source: graph by the authors, based on ESS data from 2016

According to a European Investment Bank survey (EIB 2020), (EIB 2020) there are many more men (20% in Estonia; 10% in Europe) than women (12% in Estonia; 7% in Europe) who do not admit that climate change is real. Estonian men and women also differ in terms of their levels of doubt about the anthropogenic nature of climate change (29% of men and 16% of women doubt it) and the extent to which their behaviour can influence climate change (55% of Estonian men and 31% of women do not believe that they can make an impact). On average, a higher percentage of people in Estonia (42%) than in Europe on average (31%) do not believe that their behaviour can affect climate change to any significant extent or at all.

Only 10% of the Estonian population think that climate change affects their daily life, while 17% do not think that even their children’s lives could be affected by climate change. However, the percentage of all those who think that climate change affects their everyday life at least somewhat is considerably higher: 72%. In this respect, Estonians are clearly in the same group with the other climatically similar Northern European countries and share the belief that their location protects them against extreme climate events.

An Estonian environmental awareness survey (Turu-uuringute AS 2020) describes the main perceived threats caused by climate change and the respondents’ assessment of the state’s capacity to handle these threats (Figure 5.1.2). Over time, the threats have begun to be recognised as more important, while the percentage of people who doubt the state’s ability to cope with extreme climate events has also risen. Those worried about the state’s ability to respond are more often older people, Estonian-speakers, residents of small towns and settlements, and residents of central and southern Estonia.

Figure 5.1.2. The main perceived climate threats and assessment of the state’s ability to cope with extreme climate events (%)