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Researcher María Pastor-Valero: ‘Eco-anxiety is a logical response to a real problem’

The professor at Spain’s Miguel Hernández University has studied the psychological consequences of global warming in university students and young people from vulnerable backgrounds

Pablo Linde
María Pastor-Valero, a researcher at the Miguel Hernández University of Elche, at the headquarters of the Congress of the Spanish Epidemiology Society.
María Pastor-Valero, a researcher at the Miguel Hernández University of Elche, at the headquarters of the Congress of the Spanish Epidemiology Society.

Eco-anxiety, a new term that is gaining traction as the planet warms up and people become increasingly worried about it, is not a disease. Medically speaking, it is not recognized, and the issue has not been studied much. But that doesn’t mean that eco-anxiety doesn’t exist. The American Psychological Association describes it as “the chronic fear of environmental cataclysm that comes from observing the seemingly irrevocable impact of climate change and the associated concern for one’s future and that of future generations.” All signs point to the fact that this feeling continues to grow.

María Pastor-Valero, a researcher at the Miguel Hernández University of Elche (Spain), has been investigating the subject for several years. At the congress of the Spanish Society of Epidemiology, which was held this month in Porto (and to which the organizers invited EL PAÍS), the professor presented a study that sheds additional light on the subject.

Along with her collaborators, she studied how climate change was perceived by three groups of young people in Brazil: one from a vulnerable population living in the periphery (favelas), two upper-middle class university students, and a group of black women community leaders in the city of São Paulo; the research was funded with a cooperation grant from her university and the regional government of Valencia. The results make it clear that, while it is a common concern, the ways in which those who suffer the brunt of global warming’s effects see climate change is very different from those who see it from a more theoretical perspective.

Question: Why did you start studying eco-anxiety?

Answer. It started with the initiative of a sixth-year medical student, who was very concerned about this topic and wanted to do her final thesis on eco-anxiety and its impact on health. I found it very interesting; I started to investigate, and I proposed that she carry out a systematic review as her dissertation. Her work was published last year in the Journal of Environmental Psychology; it evaluated 12 studies, as few studies had been conducted to investigate the relationship between eco-anxiety and its potential impact on health.

Q. What were the conclusions of that initial work?

A. The studies conducted so far suggest that eco-anxiety primarily affects adolescent populations, young people, and women [more]than men. Moreover, the most vulnerable populations in the poorest countries suffer and will suffer the greatest impacts of climate change with the least ability to respond. It is logical to think that they would also have the highest levels of eco-anxiety, although there is no data on the prevalence so far. In these studies, [eco-anxiety] was associated with emotions such as sadness, grief, anger, despair, frustration and guilt. Another finding was that involvement in pro-environmental activities, especially group activities, can reduce eco-anxiety’s effects on health. However, a high level of chronic eco-anxiety in the absence of adaptive responses could lead to mental disorders such as depression and anxiety.

Q. Why is eco-anxiety not considered to be a disease in its own right?

A. Eco-anxiety is not a clinical pathological diagnosis. It is actually a logical response to a real problem, which is becoming more common and more intense. We have recently seen the impact of climate change on thermal stress in the Mediterranean basin; I would be concerned if we did not care about that. I think for many people, eco-anxiety can become a driver toward environmental activism. However, for others, when sustained over time, it can lead to illness and alter people’s ability to function in their day-to-day lives.

Q. Is this a growing problem?

A. Yes. While there is not much research, we can say that eco-anxiety is increasing a lot in young people. A study that interviewed over 10,000 young people between the ages of 16 and 25 from 10 different countries showed that 75% were terrified about the impact of climate change.

Q. If it doesn’t become pathological, can a little bit of eco-anxiety be a positive thing?

A. It’s like being alert to a danger. A certain alertness is important for mobilizing you to action. So, it would be a positive thing if it motivates you to do something to protect the environment around you.

Q. What has the study in Brazil found?

A. Young university students and vulnerable people share knowledge and concern about climate change. However, university students tend to talk about the issue in the abstract — it is not a direct experience — while vulnerable people tell their personal stories of how climate change has affected their lives. For example, young people living in favelas told of their direct experiences of the impact of climate change, how their houses came crashing down during torrential rain or how they had lost family members in floods. Young university students spoke more intellectually about what they had learned in school and on social media; they could even provide a history of global warming from the Industrial Revolution until now.

Q. What is the best way to deal with eco-anxiety?

A. Studies on environmental awareness tend to focus on university students, who are often involved in environmental activism. However, our study on people from favelas found that they do not agree with the recommendations of environmental organizations, which they feel do not take their reality into account. Although the vulnerable have very environmentally conscious behaviors, such as recycling, they believe that they [should] not be asked to do more, because they live in poverty. Both university students and favela residents are critical of governments, which they believe emphasize individual responsibility, but not that of large companies, which are the ones primarily responsible for climate change. They say that businesses profit from actions that cause climate change and [students and favela residents] are the ones who suffer from it.

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