Climate distress is a general term that describes the range of negative emotions and thoughts related to aspects of climate change, and this umbrella term can include other more specific constructs such as eco-anxiety and climate change anxiety. It is well established that experiencing climate events (e.g., drought, fires, heatwaves, hurricanes and atmospheric rivers/floods) is related to negative mental and behavioral health impacts. Past studies have assessed anxiety and other distress symptoms with standardized distress symptom scales after exposure to climate events (Cianconi et al., 2020). However, we can better understand the impact of climate events with longitudinal study designs that measure mental health repeatedly and with scales that more specifically assess the range of psychological and cognitive responses due to climate events or due to climate change in general.
There is an emerging literature showing climate change-related distress is pervasive and exists without directly experiencing an event personally. For example, Hickman et al (2021) polled individuals aged 16-25 across 10 countries (n = 10,000) with individual items, and found that 84% endorsed being at least moderately worried about climate change, 59% reported feeling very to extremely worried, and 75% endorsed “the future is frightening.” Clearly, climate change distress is prevalent, particularly among young adults, and is accompanied by various cognitive and emotional responses.
Scales measure the range of climate distress severity, and experts view it as a normative response to the reality of the environmental crisis. In the extreme, it can manifest as emotional and cognitive responses that interfere with daily functioning. While it is important not to label high climate distress as pathological, as it is reality based, it is nevertheless helpful for scales to characterize and identify thresholds of when climate distress interferes with mental health and daily functioning. So far, normative scores and cut points for severe distress have not been identified for existing scales.
An early measure of psychological response to climate change, “Solastalgia” measured feelings of loss, grief, sadness, and anxiety due to past climate events or the destruction of natural habitats (Albrecht, 2007), which we do not focus on here. The most widely used standardized scale measuring climate distress is the Climate Change Anxiety Scale or CCAS (Clayton & Karazsia, 2020; Coffey et al., 2021). There are several other recent scales, listed below. Given that this is a very new area, we review the eight scales that we are aware of, below. Choice of scale depends in part on whether one wants to assess normative distress or impairment, or both, and if they want to assess the full range of psychological impact (emotional, cognitive, behavioral). Other considerations would include the extent to which a scale has been used and validated cross-culturally and the theoretical underpinning that drove the generation and selection of scale items.The CCAS (13 items) measure has both psychological symptoms and behavioral impairment, for a fuller assessment, and is well validated. The CCDIS (23 items) measures both distress and impairment. The CL-AAQ (7 items) focuses on more maladaptive responses including avoidant emotion regulation and impairment. Other short scales measure constructs focused solely on affective responses, such as worry or anxiety about climate change.
Climate distress is a new and active area of research and we expect more validated measures to emerge. Please let us know of new scales so we can keep this entry updated to be as helpful as possible. So far, climate distress has been measured with these scales, described below.
1. Climate Change Anxiety Scale (CCAS) (Clayton & Karazsia, 2020). This first scale was developed by Clayton and Karazsia (2020) and has been validated across multiple countries including: Germany (Wullenkord et al., 2021), Italy (Innocenti et al., 2021), France (Mouguiama-Daouda et al., 2022), Finland (Niskanen, 2022), Poland (Larionow et al., 2022), China, Japan, India (Tam et al., 2023) and Korea (Jang et al., 2023), including translations in multiple languages (e.g., German, Italian, French, Finnish, Polish, and Korean). This measure of climate change anxiety consists of 13 items with two subscales featured within, the first is cognitive emotional impairment including items addressing: rumination, difficulty concentrating, and emotional distress/crying, whereas the second subscale includes items that address functional impairment: difficulty in engaging in work, household, or academic responsibilities. It has been associated with depressive disorder and generalized anxiety disorder, but there is still unique variance suggesting climate change anxiety is an independent construct from general distress symptoms (Clayton & Karazsia, 2020). In one study using this scale, climate change anxiety increased among the local population after a period of unusually hot weather described as a “heat dome” (Bratu et al., 2022).
2. Climate Change Distress and Impairment Scale (CCDIS) (Hepp et al., 2022; pre-print). This measure has two subscales to distinguishes explicitly between climate change distress (spanning anger, anxiety, and sadness) and climate change-related impairment, with the aim of distinguishing between non-pathological levels of climate anxiety (and other emotions) and instances where further diagnostic attention and potential psychological support/treatment might be required. In four studies (N = 1699), Hepp et al. (2022) developed and validated both an English and German version of the scale, which contains 15 distress items and 8 impairment items.
Single Dimension Scales:
3. The Hogg Eco-Anxiety scale (Hogg et al., 2021) is another published scale, which uses 13 items to measure anxiety in response to environmental problems and the climate crisis. This scale assesses feelings about climate change over the past two weeks and is designed to measure persistent eco-anxiety. Authors suggest that it can measure either eco-anxiety that is generally experienced over time or be administered after a climate related event and in follow up assessments (e.g., 6 months later), but is not appropriate for assessing immediate responses to current weather or climate related events.
4. Climate Distress Scale (Reser et al., 2012). This scale was developed to monitor climate change related risk perceptions, understandings and responses in Australia and the UK. The scale contains 7 items such as “At times I find myself thinking about and worrying about what the world will really be like for future generations because of climate change”. The items are intended to probe subclinical (adaptive) levels of distress at the prospect and implications of global climate change. Each item is rated on 6-point Likert scale, from 1 (strongly disagree) to 6 (strongly agree) and summed to create a total score.
5. Climate Change Worry Scale. The scale was developed by Stewart (2021) to assess proximal worry about climate change rather than social or global impacts. The scale is a 10-item self-report measure designed to assess the level of troubling, disturbing thoughts that people experience about climate change. While conceptually and phenomenologically different from anxiety, worry is associated with tension, nervousness, irritability, and difficulties in remaining calm, and represents a negative affective state, which can nevertheless be adaptive. When excessive, maladaptive worrying can impact negatively on wellbeing and normal psychological and social functioning. Worry (in particular when excessive) may be a constituent core process of both anxiety and depression. A version in Italian has also been developed (Innocenti et al. 2022).
6. Rigid Climate Distress AAQ (C-AAQ). This is an adaptation of a validated and commonly used measure of psychological flexibility focusing on experiential avoidance of negative emotions and thoughts, the Acceptance and Action Questionnaire (Bond et al., 2011). It measures more maladaptive emotion regulation to climate change, including experiential avoidance and interference/impairment. There are a total of seven items on a 5-point scale ranging from never (0) to very often (4) with higher scores indicating greater climate anxiety, avoidance, and less effective climate change related emotion regulation. In one study, the level of climate distress increased after exposure to a season of local wildfires, but not in those with high levels of trait mindfulness or conservative political ideology. C-AAQ was moderately associated with generalized anxiety symptoms (Guan et al., in-prep).
Single Dimension scales measuring only Emotions/Symptom
7. Climate Change- Emotions
Before any of the above validated measures were available, Searle & Gow (2009) explored the psychological impact of climate change in the general Australian population. They designed a measure of “climate change distress” composed of 12 items. Respondents rate how they feel in the moment when they think about climate change. The items are “Thinking about climate change now makes me feel – concerned, tense, worried, anxious, depressed, hopeless, powerless, sad, helpless, stressed, angry, scared”, and each is rated from 0 (does not apply to me at all) to 3 (applies to me very much or most of the time) and summed to produce a total score for climate change distress. This measure might be useful to measure the level of emotional granularity one feels and can provide descriptive information about different affective responses to climate change. In this case, it is not clear if there is any adaptive benefit or risk to having more types of negative emotions about climate.
8. Screener for Climate Distress (sum of GAD-2 and PHQ-2 screeners adapted for climate). A fourth measure has been used but not published yet. It was created by adapting items from the anxiety screener GAD-2 (Kroenke et al., 2007) and depression screener PHQ-2 (Kroenke et al., 2003). The items are specifically in the context of global warming and are combined to create one 4-item measure of climate change distress. The individual and averaged scores were strongly associated with the functional impairment subscale on the Clayton & Karazsia (2020) measure, offering some criterion validity.
Author and Reviewers: Prepared by Katie E. Alegria, PhD. Reviewed by Susan Clayton, PhD, Ans Vercammen, PhD, and Teaghan Hogg. Version Date: November 2023.