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Climate Stress

Climate distress is a general term that describes the range of negative emotions and thoughts related to aspects of climate change, including other utilized terms such as eco-anxiety and climate change anxiety. It is well established that experiencing climate events (e.g., drought, fires, hurricanes, heatwaves) is related to negative mental health and behavioral health impacts, and many studies assess anxiety symptoms after an event with standardized scales.  In addition to mental health impacts of directly experiencing events, there is an emerging body of literature demonstrating that perceptions of climate change, even without directly experiencing an event, creates climate change anxiety (e.g., Clayton & Karazsia, 2020; Coffey et al., 2021). For example, Hickman et al (2021) polled young adults across 10 countries (n = 10,000) with individual items, and found that 84% endorsed being at least moderately worried about climate change, with 59% reporting feeling very to extremely worried and 75% endorsing “the future is frightening.”  Clearly, climate distress is prevalent and is accompanied by various cognitive and emotional aspects. Here we are focusing on climate distress scales that may or may not be in response to direct exposures but that include cognitive, emotional, and maladaptive responses to climate change. 

There is a range of climate distress severity, but in general it is thought to be a normative response to the reality of the environmental crisis. In the extreme, it can manifest as maladaptive emotional and cognitive responses that interfere with daily functioning.  There are also measures of a related phenomena, “Solastalgia.” This measures feelings of loss, grief, sadness, and anxiety due to past climate events and changes (Albrecht, 2007) which we do not focus on here. Climate distress is a new and active area of research and we expect more 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 four scales in studies we are aware of, described below.  

  1. Climate Change Anxiety Scale (Clayton & Karazsia, 2020). This first scale was developed by Clayton and Karazsia (2020) and has been validated across multiple countries (e.g., Wullenkord et al., 2021). 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 a unique construct (Clayton & Karazsia, 2020). 

     

  2. The Hogg Eco-Anxiety scale (Hogg et al., 2021) is the second published scale, which uses 13 items to measure anxiety in response to the climate crisis. This scale assesses feelings about climate change over the past two weeks and is designed to measure persistent climate anxiety.  Authors suggest that it can measure either generalized climate anxiety over time, or be administered immediately after a climate related event and in follow up assessments (e.g., 6 months later), but is not appropriate for assessing traumatic acute response to current weather or climate related events.
     

  3. Maladaptive Climate Distress AAQ (C-AAQ).  A third measure adapted 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), to be in response to climate change specifically.  It thus measures more maladaptive responses to climate change, including anxiety and experiential avoidance. 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 avoidance and  greater climate anxiety, and lower climate change related emotion regulation. In one study, the level of climate distress measure increased after exposure to a season of local wildfires, but not in those with high levels of trait mindfulness. C-AAQ was associated with generalized anxiety  (Guan et al., in-prep).

     

  4. 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.

 

Authored by Katie E. Alegria, PhD, and Elissa Epel, PhD. (Reviewers pending).

Climate Chage Anxiety Scale
The Hogg Eco Anxiety Scale
Maladaptive Climate Distress
Screener for Climate Distress
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