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Anger is the most powerful emotion for driving climate action

A recent study, which asked over 2,000 Norwegian adults how they felt about the climate crisis, found the link to activism was seven times stronger for anger than it is for hope.

If, during the last few years, you’ve experienced an overwhelming sense of anger regarding the current state of our planet, know that – by all means – you are not alone.

According to a survey conducted by peer-reviewed journal The Lancet in 2021, 50 per cent of us feel this strong emotion towards the climate crisis.

And, faced with rising reports of eco-anxiety, psychologists across the globe have been racing to understand how people’s feelings about the destruction of nature affect their mental health.

‘Our research shows that more than 70 per cent of 500 people in 52 countries not only feel like the issue is contributing negatively to their mental health, but that it’s also making them feel powerless,’ says Clover Hogan, an environmentalist whose non-profit organisation Force of Nature educates on how we can turn this frustration into agency.

Angry about the climate crisis? Research shows that could be a good thing. | Fix

Since 2019, they’ve been raising awareness about the power of utilising rage to drive genuine, transformative change in this sphere and, now, thanks to a recent study, there’s concrete data to validate their messaging.

Asking over 2,000 adults how they felt about the ecological emergency, the researchers in Norway (a rich oil-exporting country) uncovered that anger is by far the most powerful emotional predictor of whether somebody is motivated to participate in activism – seven times stronger than hope, in fact.

The effects were significantly smaller for other actions, but fear and guilt were the best predictors of policy support, while sadness and fear were the best predictors of behavioural adjustments.

Interestingly, most of the responses reflected anger towards the causes of climate change – rather than its looming consequences – with almost 60 per cent of participants citing human actions (or lack thereof) as the reason behind their frustration.

Does the Climate Crisis Inspire Anger? - YES! Magazine

‘We were a bit surprised about the number of people referring to ‘human qualities’ when asked about their reason to be angry,’ says lead-author Thea Gregersen.

‘This stark finding indicates quite negative assessments of humankind – that people are uncaring, egoistic, selfish, and deny responsibility.’

Politicians and greed – specifically the prioritisation of money over the environment – were also common targets of people’s ire and the factors more likely to endorse the idea that it’s a moral duty to protest against the climate crisis.

‘The main takeaway is that climate anger relates to climate change engagement, but that the effect depends both on the type of engagement in question and what people are angry about,’ continues Gregersen.

Why I'm Staying Angry About Climate Change - The Atlantic

As she explains, for every two steps a person took along the anger scale, they moved one step along the activism scale.

The link between emotion and action was weaker for questions about limiting emissions in everyday life and supporting a tax on petrol and diesel, however.

‘Rather than climate anxiety, we should be calling it politician anxiety or people anxiety, because it’s the people in power who are failing to do the right thing whilst lying to us, or doing the opposite, that is causing the terror,’ says Caroline Hickman, who led The Lancet’s 2021 survey.

‘It’s in the name that activism is an ‘active’ behaviour, and anger can spur action.’