NEWS

Why People Struggle to Stay Motivated in the Fight Against Climate Change

man in a red parka on a boat in the arctic

Anton Petrus / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • A large study learned that 75% of participants found the future frightening and over 50% felt powerless or helpless due to climate change.
  • In general, fighting a long-term, expansive issue such as climate change can be incredibly difficult to do without feeling overwhelmed.
  • People may take no action against climate change due to the sacrifices required or an inability to see immediate progress.

Can we be happy, motivated, or useful while on a seemingly burning planet? Is there any way to energetically take effective action to stop—or at the very least strongly delay—the destruction while simultaneously being overwhelmed by it?

For many people, taking action against climate change feels like an almost unbearable task, facing them too late and with too few options of attack. 

This overwhelming feeling is all the more present for those who’ve inherited an overly polluted and depleted planet. A December 2021 study looked at the climate anxiety of 10,000 people aged 16 to 25 across ten geographically varied countries. Researchers found that 59% of people were very or extremely worried and 84% were moderately worried. Additionally, 75% find the future frightening, and 45% say climate change poorly impacts their daily life and functioning.

It’s worth noting that climate inaction is far different from climate denial. The latter “is the complete lack of acceptance that climate change is a manmade problem. Climate inaction is the delaying of the action we know we need to take,” says Saba Harouni Lurie, a licensed therapist and founder of Take Root Therapy. Climate inaction is an issue itself but an understandable and solvable one.

Jaclyn Gulotta, PhD

Fear of the unknown and fear of not having control may contribute to people who feel stuck. Taking small steps in a way that makes them feel they are in control of their own actions may make them feel less stressed and less fearful.

— Jaclyn Gulotta, PhD

“Individuals may become anxious when thinking about a specific situation that may feel overwhelming when they do not know where to start,” says Dr. Jaclyn Gulotta, a licensed mental health counselor and psychologist. “This may make people avoid taking steps to fight climate change altogether.” Over 50% of people reported feeling powerless or helpless in the previously mentioned study.

Barriers To Motivation

It’s clear that people are bothered by climate change but also frozen when determining what to do about it. A myriad of factors can lead to this. 

For starters, taking action against climate change often means making specific lifestyle changes. “There is the issue of personal gain versus collective gain,” says Eleni Polychroniadou, a climate activist and founder of Climate Four, a platform to help individuals take meaningful climate action. “Solving climate change requires personal sacrifice, yet the outcomes are felt on a collective level. That doesn’t sit well with human beings because we are designed to take care of ourselves and our personal survival over the global good.” 

Then there is the fact that humans cannot often maintain outrage. Polychroniadou points to the COVID-19 pandemic as a clear example. While people felt incredible fear and followed strict precautions at the beginning, over time, many individuals became more numb to the constant danger and deaths, while also lowering their guard.

It shines a light on the difference between approaches to short and long-term adaptation and solutions. “We like that instant gratification, tangible results and clear wins, most of which are quite difficult to find in the sustainability realm,” explains Polychroniadou. Doing things like recycling or biking to work fail to show immediate progress. 

Eleni Polychroniadou, a climate activist and founder of Climate Four

We like that instant gratification, tangible results and clear wins, most of which are quite difficult to find in the sustainability realm.

— Eleni Polychroniadou, a climate activist and founder of Climate Four

At the same time, sustaining the fear can also lead to a sense of being frozen. “We have to put our existential blinders on in order to keep from being consumed by fears of death and global catastrophe,” says Lurie. “If we embrace it wholly, how do we move forward? The threat is so immense, that sustaining our fear would be impossible as it would make it impossible to access other feelings and to engage with the world."

Another aspect comes from the idea that a person must act perfectly or why bother trying. In reality, each action makes a difference and living a completely sustainable life is impossible for most people. Instead, Lurie and Gulotta recommend starting with small steps to fight climate change, such as:

  • Read articles about the causes and impact of climate change
  • Speak with other concerned individuals
  • Donate to impactful organizations
  • Look at the environmental impact of companies you support
  • Join climate-focused community groups or non-profits

“Fear of the unknown and fear of not having control may contribute to people who feel stuck,” says Gulotta. “Taking small steps in a way that makes them feel they are in control of their own actions may make them feel less stressed and less fearful.” 

What This Means For You

Never underestimate the impact you can have to fight climate change. "For many years, we have been told that as individuals we need to stop flying, stop eating meat and recycle," says Polychroniadou.

"While these actions are important on an individual level, people have much more power than those actions. Every person is part of the broader ecosystem and society. From the job they hold to their community to their power as a voter and as a buyer of goods and services, individuals are at the core of climate action."

Was this page helpful?
1 Source
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Hickman C, Marks E, Pihkala P, et al. Climate anxiety in children and young people and their beliefs about government responses to climate change: A global surveyThe Lancet Planetary Health. 2021;5(12):e863-e873. doi:10.1016/s2542-5196(21)00278-3