One of the driving emotions of climate activism has been anger and turns out, it’s effective. Anger is the most powerful emotional predictor of climate action, overtaking hope and sadness, suggests a new study published in the journal Global Environmental Change.
Over the past year, several climate protests have been driven by anger. In October 2022, Just Stop Oil protestors threw soup at the Van Gogh painting, Sunflowers, in the National Gallery in London. In February this year, two people glued their hands to the red carpet during Berlin's film festival. Such disruptions have been dismissed as “taking things too far”, but the study indicates that actions driven by anger might actually be productive.
The study, led by three psychologists at the Norwegian Research Center and the University of Bergen's Norway Center for Climate and Energy Transformation, aimed to understand the relationship between anger and climate change engagement in Norway. About 2,000 participants were asked what made them angry about climate change. The most common response was the human actions that caused the crisis. Most people also pointed to responsible agents, especially politicians, according to the research paper, The strength and content of climate anger.
Anger is the emotion usually linked to unfairness and is often a reaction to injustice. More than half of the respondents said they were angry because human actions and/or qualities caused climate change. The findings also showed that this anger leads to better climate change engagement. Some were angry about the rich prioritising money over the consequences of climate change.
More than 30% mentioned specific agents responsible for climate change, including politicians or industry. About 10% of respondents were angry about poor climate communication or mitigation efforts. For 3% of respondents, powerlessness, helplessness or a feeling that it is too late to combat climate change is a cause of anger.
While anger was the strongest emotional predictor of activism and positively associated with policy support, other emotions, such as sadness, guilt, or fear, were more relevant for individual behavioural change, according to the study.
Climate anger, however, is dismissed as an “overreaction”. In 2019, well-known climate activist Greta Thunberg told world leaders at the UN in New York: “This is all wrong. I shouldn't be up here. I should be back in school, on the other side of the ocean. Yet you all come to us young people for hope. How dare you!” It was a speech full of emotion, including anger, which was carefully separated, highlighted and trivialised.
Climate change itself isn't taken seriously, which is why angry activists are often dismissed: In India, the latest round of YouGov-Mint-CPR Millennial Survey, conducted in June 2023 with 10,072 respondents from over 200 cities, found that while half the respondents considered concerns about climate change as ‘real and urgent’, 22% felt these worries were exaggerated. This was at a time when about 150 people died between 15 and 22 June this year, in two hospitals in Ballia and Deoria districts in Uttar Pradesh, during a heat wave. India’s unseasonal heatwaves have been linked to global warming but discussions about climate change remain on the periphery.
Anger emerges when there is an understanding that a particular event causes injustice. “When I began to understand that the climate crisis had to do with the violation of basic human rights, such as the right to health, the right to drinking water, the right to housing, and even to life, that's when it clicked in my mind,” Argentinian climate activist and UNICEF Youth Advocate, Nicole Becker said in an interview at the UN in 2022. “I think I made one of the best decisions of my life, which was to turn that anger into collective action.”
In an earlier interview with Mint Lounge, Minal Pathak, senior scientist at the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), while talking about the death of thousands of emperor penguin chicks due to climate change, said: “If there is extreme heat and we are constantly facing the consequences, why isn’t it making people angry?”