Katariina Salmela-Aro: ‘Climate anxiety is like a silver lining, it’s a driving force to do something’

Katariina Salmela-Aro is Academy Professor in the Department of Education and Supervisor for Doctoral Programme in Cognition, Learning, Instruction and Communication at the University of Helsinki, Finland.

I view the concepts of climate anxiety and eco-anxiety as interchangeable. Are we talking about the same thing?

Katariina Salmela-Aro profileKatariina Salmela-Aro: I would say that they are quite similar. The concepts are a bit unclear because it is still an emerging field. We tried to focus more on climate change–related issues, but it is difficult to know what young people are thinking about more broadly and if they are only thinking about climate change–related issues.

Is climate anxiety always a negative condition?

Katariina Salmela-Aro: No, I don’t see it only as a negative issue. I think one of the key points that we found in Finland, for example, was that young people who had negative feelings related to climate anxiety also had very strong feelings in terms of pro-environmental behaviour and activism. In that way, climate anxiety is also positive. It is like a silver lining; it’s a driving force to do something.

When we look at the results in Finland, we see that climate anxiety is not strongly linked to mental health, which I also think is positive. We were studying different emotions related to climate change: not only anxiousness, but also hope and sadness and so on. I think it is important not to narrow it down to only one emotion, but to look at feelings more broadly.

And in Europe, what’s the general situation?

Katariina Salmela-Aro: Even though I was talking about Finland, we could see that European countries follow pretty much the same pattern. Anxiety is high in Europe and it mostly does not correlate with mental health issues, but instead it correlates with pro-environmental behaviour. That means that young people are able to turn [emotions] into action. It is a positive sign for the future that young people want to make real behavioural changes – something that will last and that we all need to do. They are ready to make that change.

Are there differences between how children and teenagers feel about climate change?

Katariina Salmela-Aro: In the second decade of life (from the age of 10), we don’t see such a strong sense of worry or anxiety. However, from the age of 15, we can really see that when young people start thinking about their values and building their identity, they think more about climate change. Moreover, I would say that both high school students and university students don’t differ so much [in terms of negative feelings of worry and anxiety].

I can understand that it’s a really worrying issue for young people. Nevertheless, it helps if they can do something. It’s really positive that we have a younger generation who are taking action and taking this seriously and that they really know that we can’t wait, that we have to do something.

That’s why I think that we should give more of a voice to young people and empower them. At the same time, we, as adults, can’t put too much on their shoulders.

If adults put too much pressure on young people’s shoulders, that will also produce more anxiety, right?

Katariina Salmela-Aro: Yes. I think it’s really important that young people see that we, as adults, take [climate change] seriously and that we are not expecting them to take responsibility for changing all these things. Some young people take it very seriously. They feel that if they don’t take action right now, there will be no future. This can be really worrying and can contribute to mental health issues.

Is it possible to distinguish the anxiety caused by climate change from the anxiety caused by all the other changes that happen in teenagers around 15 years old?

Katariina Salmela-Aro: We have to be really careful. That’s why I’m also doing a lot of longitudinal studies for different cohorts. We followed 3 000 young people from the age of 13 until the age of 19 [in Finland], collecting data every year and publishing it in the Journal of Educational Psychology. We found that mental health issues, such as depression, are really increasing.

However, we do see different groups of young people. Even though mental health issues are currently increasing and this subgroup [of young people] that really worries about climate change is also getting larger, [the same worry] doesn’t seem to drive mental health problems. Nevertheless, we have to be careful, as longitudinal studies do not always provide sufficient evidence and we may have to do some experimental studies to be able to speak about causality.

In your opinion, out of the 32 countries covered by the study, which one provided the most surprising results?

Katariina Salmela-Aro: The results were quite interesting in Finland. We found a strong correlation between climate change anxiety and pro-environmental behaviour and environmental activism. It also correlated with the country’s economic situation. So, in countries like Finland, it may be easier to act, while in those with a weaker economic background, it may be more difficult.

We also found that those countries with more extreme weather events were not the countries where young people were more worried [about climate change]. One of our hypotheses was that if they saw it on their own land [they would act], but that was not the case. Of course, this was limited to 32 countries and these results might be different with a wider sample of countries.

Do you think the feelings are more negative (for example, less hopeful) when the media just presents the problem rather than when solutions are also brought in?

Katariina Salmela-Aro: At the moment, I think that the media doesn’t really show many solutions, although I think some are starting to emerge. It would definitely help young people if the media was more solution-oriented, as this would give young people the means to do something. The media should change its approach and young people’s age should be taken into account. It may be helpful to show what young people could be doing according to their age.

Are young people as vulnerable to climate change misinformation as adults or are they shielded somehow?

Katariina Salmela-Aro: I think it is very difficult for them, as it is also sometimes difficult for adults. Even adults can be influenced by incorrect information. What we really need now is for the scientific community to be working on this topic. We need to hear science-based solutions because some of the things that young people or older people think are really important may not be. We are working towards this kind of intervention from the scientists, so that we hear the solution from them, rather than [doing things that] don’t help so much. For example, on some occasions, taking a boat rather than flying may be worse for the climate.

What do you think about the demonstrations by the young people who threw food at art pieces to raise awareness about climate change? Do they fit into the climate anxiety group? Is this working to relieve their feelings?

Katariina Salmela-Aro: I can see that the aim was probably ‘positive’ in terms of trying to have an impact on climate change, but you cannot use any kind of means. This kind of activism can easily be seen in a negative light by society. This doesn’t help the young people, on the contrary, it can have a negative impact. I can understand that young people have really strong feelings, but it still doesn’t allow them to do whatever [they want]. I don’t think that it is a proper way to take action. One of the issues is helping those young people gain resilience, so that they can regulate their negative emotions (which is also an important life skill); negotiate with people; and find new ways of influencing others (that don’t involve art museum demonstrations). These social and emotional skills are really important in terms of climate change actions.

And what would you say about Fridays for Future, or Friday strikes for climate, started by Greta Thunberg?

Katariina Salmela-Aro: I think that this initiative works better than demonstrations at art museums. You might reach a stage where you have to grab people’s attention, but I would be careful of how to get this attention because using any kind of means won’t be the solution. It could work against these young people.

Greta Thunberg and other young people feel like they almost have to fight against adults to wake them up to climate change. Have you noticed the students in your research or young people at large fighting inside their own homes against their parents to make them aware of climate change?

Katariina Salmela-Aro: In Finland, not really. I would say that adults are quite aware of this issue. People are really starting to understand the problem, but unfortunately politicians do not always share this sense of urgency. I would say that all generations are taking this issue quite seriously at the moment. The landscape has changed and maybe we could argue that young people have had their voices heard. It is important that young people take this action and that they are at the forefront of this issue.

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