Motivation and emotion/Book/2022/Climate change helplessness

Climate change helplessness:
How does learned helplessness impact motivation to engage in behaviours to limit climate change?


Figure 1. Natural disasters are increasing

Climate change is an increasingly alarming issue that is likely to be detrimental to the future of the human race (Dessler, 2021). Climate change will result in an increase in natural disasters globally (see Figure 1). As the adverse effects increase, society will experience ecological grief, which can seriously harm an individual's mental health (Cunsolo & Ellis, 2018). An individual may be motivated towards pro-environmental behaviour, however this may be affected by their learned helplessness (Seligman, 1972). This involves an individual feeling as though a task is too large to change and feels a sense of helplessness, so doesn't engage in the behaviour (Seligman, 1972). This can be specifically applied to climate change helplessness; those who attempt to engage in pro-environmental behaviour usually take a problem-focused coping approach, such as joining groups that align with their beliefs (Abrams & Hogg, 1990).

The United Nations have created a plan to work towards pro-environmental behaviour, the Paris Climate Accord 2015, which will work towards a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions (Nadeau et al. 2022). This accord was agreed upon by 196 nations that want to work towards a reduction in global temperature (Nadeau et al. 2022). There are several ways that an individual can engage in climate change, including energy and water reduction, which will also reduce households costs (Dharmesti et al., 2020).

Education about climate change can help students to understand the impact of the effects and why change must happen (Rousell & Cutter-Mackenzie-Knowles, 2020). Recycling behaviours can ensure a reduction in landfill which is detrimental to the environment (Thomas & Sharp, 2013). There are several theories that underlie both pro-environmental behaviour and learned helplessness. The main theories discussed that underlie pro-environmental behaviour include extrinsic motivation and social identity theory (Grønhøj & Thøgersen, 2017; Hogg, 2016). Extrinsic motivation refers to an individual's self-interest, in this case, it may be the cost-benefit of engaging in said[awkward expression?] behaviour (Grønhøj & Thøgersen, 2017). Social identity theory refers to how an individual identifies in terms of their beliefs, values and norms (Hogg, 2016).

Case study;
Case study -- Motivation towards pro-environmental behaviour

Fiola has always cared about the environment and animals. She attempts to engage in pro-environmental behaviour by limiting her electricity and water use, buying eco-friendly products, and is vegetarian. However, she has recently seen a lot of negative news about the environment. This has impacted her motivation and made her feel helplessness. She does not see the point in engaging in these behaviours if it doesn't significantly improve the environment. What can she do to stay motivated?

Focus questions:

  • What is climate change?
  • What is climate change helplessness?
  • What motivates pro-environmental behaviour?
  • What theories underlie climate change helplessness and pro-environmental behaviour?

What is climate change?Edit

Figure 1. Teaching about climate change can benefit the environment.

Climate change involves the rise in temperature of the Earth, specifically the Earth's atmosphere which has been increasing since industrialisation (Dessler, 2021). This rise will result in negative impacts on the environment and world such as flooding, heat stress, food shortages, drought, and increased exposure to diseases (Caney, 2018). Although climate change a prevalent problem, humankind has made minimal efforts to slow down the effects. If humans continue to deny the evidence as they have been over the past quarter damage, the effects will be detrimental and irreversible (Dunlap & McCright, 2015).

Ecological griefEdit

Ecological grief describes a serious concern for the destruction of the environment can be detrimental to an individuals[grammar?] mental health (Cunsolo & Ellis, 2018)[Rewrite to improve clarity]. There are also significant health risks for children born today such as food insecurity, malnutrition, infectious diseases, air pollution and exposure to extreme weather events (heatwaves, flooding, wildfires and hurricanes) (Cunsolo, et al. 2020). Climate change weather events, while becoming increasingly prominent in the world, have been linked to strong emotions such as sadness, distress, despair, anger, fear, helplessness, hopelessness, and stress (Cunsolo & Ellis, 2018). Consideration of the long-term impact of climate change on the environment is becoming increasingly noticed (Comtesse et al. 2021).

What is learned helplessness?Edit

A well-known example of learned helplessness was conducted by Seligman (1972) involving dogs that were trapped in a box, receiving an electrical shock. One dog that was able to escape the box and avoid the shock would do so as oppose[grammar?] to a dog that cannot escape and learnt to quietly tolerate the electoral[spelling?] shock (Seligman, 1972). Although today this study may not be deemed ethical, it has become a representation of learned helplessness, explaining the behaviour of this theory. However, there are variables that cannot be controlled in learned helplessness. These variables include motivation, cognition and emotion. While investigating the dogs it was found that their motivation potentially diminish when the shock was delivered, their cognition was affected after many shocks and they experienced a greater emotional disruption when exposed to uncontrollable aversive events (Maier & Seligman, 1976).

Climate change helplessnessEdit

Learned helplessness moderates the associations between concern for the environment and pro-environmental behaviour (Landry, et al. 2018). On the other hand, the opposite of helplessness, hope, predicts taking on a problem-focused coping approach such as discussing climate change and engaging in behaviours that are pro-environmental (Geiger et al. 2021). Additionally, having an interest in the environment may motivate an individual to join a group that aligns with their social identity (Abrams & Hogg, 1990). Individuals that[grammar?] engage in pro-environmental behaviour may become less motivated through learned helplessness, if they feel as though the issue is too large for them to handle individually.

Although environmental concern is a real issue in society, many concerned individuals do not engage in pro-environmental behaviour (Landry, et al. 2018). A study by Inglehart (1995) found that only 65% of people who expressed environmental concern also reported willingness to engage in said behaviour, although that is likely to have changed since. Recent research suggests ethnic minorities may be disconnected from concern and environmental engagement highlighting the difference between socially and economically disadvantaged groups (Pearson et al. 2017). Another barrier/enabler of environmental action is self-efficacy, ones{{gr{{ belief in their ability to perform a behaviour (Landry, et al. 2018).

Case study
Case study -- Motivation towards pro-environmental behaviour

To stay motivated towards pro-environmental behaviour, Fiola has been researching social identity theory. She has read that she can join a group that aligns with her values and talk with like-minded individuals. She has decided to join her university environmental group which aligns with her social identity. This group participates in events such as gardening on the weekend and petitioning for change. She knows that although her impact is small, but in a group it allows her impact to feel larger. She is attempting to avoid negative news and will continue to advocate for the environment.

Ways to engage in pro-environmental behaviourEdit

[Provide more detail]

Energy and water reductionEdit

Figure 2. Protesting can inspire change

The main energy and water reduction behaviours that individuals tend to engage in are in their home; these include turning off lights, power points and heaters, taking shorter showers, using water tanks, and shortened use of gardening water (Dharmesti et al. 2020). An individual may be "green-nudged" towards saving energy by choosing the desired choice which is made easier by the company providing it (Grilli & Curtis, 2021). A study by (Dharmesti et al. 2020) shows that individuals attempt to engage in pro-environmental behaviour, such as energy conservation and water saving, not only in their own homes but also in hotels.

Eating vegetarian/veganEdit

A major contributor to climate change is greenhouse gas emissions from beef and dairy cattle productions (Crosson, 2011). There are many reasons why an individual may choose to go vegetarian/ vegan including a healthier lifestyle, animal protection or to protect the environment (Milyavskaya, 2022). Although being vegetarian/vegan is becoming more popular, those who choose to engage in the dieting choice receive prejudice for going against the norm (Nagelmann, 2020). Protesting about these issues can help those who care for the environment express the issues they are concerned about (see Figure 2).

Educating othersEdit

A study by Rousell and Cutter-Mackenzie-Knowles (2020) found that young peoples[grammar?] understanding of climate change is generally limited, influenced by media, and that students[grammar?] education on climate change does not significantly affect their attitudes or behaviours. A new form of climate change education is needed in order to properly motivate young people towards pro-environmental behaviour (see Figure 1) (Rousell & Cutter-Mackenzie-Knowles, 2020). This should involve the scientific, social, ethical, and political complications of climate change (Rousell & Cutter-Mackenzie-Knowles, 2020). Research has shown that environmental and recycling behaviour is very complex and diverse (Rousell & Cutter-Mackenzie-Knowles, 2020).


Individuals that[grammar?] recycle versus those that don't recycle can be sorted by their demographics, economic status, their environmental attitudes, beliefs, values, influence of their social circle, social norms, and their access to facilities and services that allow them to participate in recycling (Thomas & Sharp, 2013). Environmental psychologists try to look at environmental concerns and how this motivates individuals towards recycling behaviours and concerns (Miafodzyeva & Brandt, 2013).

Theories related to pro-environmental behaviour and learned helplessnessEdit

[Provide more detail]

Extrinsic motivationEdit

When looking at behaviours that limit climate change, Verplanken and Whitmarsh (2021) stated that behaviours that limit climate change are usually habitual rather than intentional. Human consumption and waste in regards to food, energy and transportation is estimated to make up for 60% of greenhouse gas emissions (Ivanova et al., 2016). A significant motivator for individuals displaying behaviours that limit climate change is extrinsic motivation (Grønhøj & Thøgersen, 2017). An example of an extrinsic motivator is self interest, such as engaging in pro-environmental for the cost-benefit pay off. Financial compensation when buying eco-friendly products was found to be more of a motivator than verbal encouragement (Lanzini & Thøgersen, 2014). The three main behaviours that individuals engaged in for the cost-benefit, according to Steinhorst et al. (2015), are a reduction in beef consumption, heating temperature, and car use. Individuals that[grammar?] are motivated towards reducing these behaviours will impact the environment and this will naturally lead to a reduction in CO² emissions (Filipovic et al., 2006).

Social identity theoryEdit

Social identity theory refers to correlated cognitive processes and social beliefs in regards to intergroup relations and group processes (Hogg, 2016). Individuals acting in a collective and encouraging pro-environmental behaviour can influence other members of the group (Jans, 2021). Individuals may be more inclined towards behaviours that aligns with their social identity [grammar?] this could include organisations, local communities, online groups, academic associations, and more (Hogg, 2016). Social identity includes ones[grammar?] values, goals, and norms which will align with that of the group (Abrams & Hogg, 1990)

Positive psychologyEdit

The main underlying theory behind Seligman's (1972) learned helplessness is positive psychology. When considering positive psychology, Seligman showed that learned helplessness and hopelessness including other negative thoughts can lead towards clinical depression (Fredrickson, 2003). Seligman continued to look into positive psychology, discovering that positive psychology can influence individuals to think that life is worth living (Fredrickson, 2003). Studies have also shown that learned helplessness increases with age, and the accumulation of failed experiences (Dykens, 2006). Optimism has been shown to be linked to higher levels of subjective well-being, positive mood, good morale, problem solving, success in many domains, popularity, good physical health, reduced suicidal ideation and freedom from trauma (Peterson & Steen, 2002). Individuals are protected in some degree in the way that they believe they are responsible for the good things that happen to them (Peterson & Steen, 2002). The most common forms of learned helplessness involve depression, academic , athletic, and vocational failure, worker burnout, unemployment, noise pollution, chronic pain, aging, mental retardation, epilepsy, and passivity among ethnic minorities (Peterson & Steen, 2002). Moreover, an individual can combat learned helplessness with positive psychology to protect their mental health and achieve their goals.


The nature world is diminishing and human society needs to accelerate the rate at which we attempt to mend our mistakes. It will take a global effort from governments, companies, and households to ensure the safety of future generations (Tompkins & Amundsen, 2008). Society is experiencing mass ecological grief and environmental anxiety when considering the natural disasters that will occur from climate change which can be detrimental to societies[grammar?] mental health (Cunsolo & Ellis, 2018).

Climate change helplessness undermines engagement in pro-environmental behaviour. However, the theories that underpin these issues can counteract its effects and encourage people to fight climate change by being extrinsically motivated, joining groups that align with ones[grammar?] social identity, and focusing on positive psychology to protect ones[grammar?] mental health (Grønhøj & Thøgersen, 2017; Hogg, 2016; Fredrickson, 2003). An individual may be extrinsically motivated to look into the cost-benefit of saving electricity and water for their own self-interest; if all households in the world worked towards this, CO² emissions would rapidly decline (Grønhøj & Thøgersen, 2017). This benefits the individual and allows them to save money, while consequently working towards helping the climate (Grønhøj & Thøgersen, 2017).

The next theory that slows the effects of climate change helplessness is social identity theory. Individuals are able to seek out groups that may align with their social identity and work with them to advocate for the environment, protest, and work towards saving the planet (Hogg, 2016). Additionally, a protective factor to climate change helplessness is positive psychology, focusing on optimism can lead to extensive positive outcomes (Peterson & Steen, 2002). Learned helplessness causes many negative effects so combating this with positive psychology can motivate an individual towards pro-environmental behaviour (Fredrickson, 2003). Moreover, it will take an extreme global effort to save our planet that is dying from human caused climate change, however the fate of humanity and future generations depends on us.

See alsoEdit


Abrams, D., and Hogg, M. A. (1990). An introduction to the social identity approach. Social identity theory: Constructive and critical advances, 1(9).

Albright, M. K. (2003). United Nations. Foreign Policy, 16-24.

Australian Government. (2015). National climate resilience and adaptation strategy.

Baker, I., Peterson, A., Brown, G., & McAlpine, C. (2012). Local government response to the impacts of climate change: An evaluation of local climate adaptation plans. Landscape and urban planning, 107(2), 127-136.

Caney, S. (2018). Climate change.

Comtesse, H., Ertl, V., Hengst, S. M., Rosner, R., & Smid, G. E. (2021). Ecological grief as a response to environmental change: a mental health risk or functional response?. International journal of environmental research and public health, 18(2), 734.

Crosson, P., Shalloo, L., O’brien, D., Lanigan, G. J., Foley, P. A., Boland, T. M., & Kenny, D. A. (2011). A review of whole farm systems models of greenhouse gas emissions from beef and dairy cattle production systems. Animal Feed Science and Technology, 166, 29-45.

Cunsolo, A., and Ellis, N. R. (2018). Ecological grief as a mental health response to climate change-related loss. Nature Climate Change, 8(4), 275-281.

Cunsolo, A., Harper, S. L., Minor, K., Hayes, K., Williams, K. G., & Howard, C. (2020). Ecological grief and anxiety: the start of a healthy response to climate change?. The Lancet Planetary Health, 4(7), e261-e263., A. E. (2021). Introduction to modern climate change. Cambridge University Press. DOI:

Dharmesti, M., Merrilees, B., & Winata, L. (2020). “I’m mindfully green”: Examining the determinants of guest pro-environmental behaviors (PEB) in hotels. Journal of Hospitality Marketing & Management, 29(7), 830-847.

Dunlap, R. E., & McCright, A. M. (2015). Challenging climate change. Climate change and society: Sociological perspectives, 300.

Elrick-Barr, C. E., Smith, T. F., Preston, B. L., Thomsen, D. C., & Baum, S. (2016). How are coastal households responding to climate change?. Environmental Science & Policy, 63, 177-186.

Filipovic, D., Kosutic, S., Gospodaric, Z., Zimmer, R., & Banaj, D. (2006). The possibilities of fuel savings and the reduction of CO2 emissions in the soil tillage in Croatia. Agriculture, ecosystems & environment, 115(1-4), 290-294.

Geiger, N., Swim, J. K., Gasper, K., Fraser, J., & Flinner, K. (2021). How do I feel when I think about taking action? Hope and boredom, not anxiety and helplessness, predict intentions to take climate action. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 76, 101649.

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Hogg, M. A. (2016). Social identity theory. In Understanding peace and conflict through social identity theory (pp. 3-17). Springer, Cham. 319-29869-6_1

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Lanzini, P., and Thøgersen, J. (2014). Behavioural spillover in the environmental domain: an intervention study. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 40, 381-390.

Maier, S. F., & Seligman, M. E. (1976). Learned helplessness: theory and evidence. Journal of experimental psychology: general, 105(1), 3.

Miafodzyeva, S., & Brandt, N. (2013). Recycling behaviour among householders: Synthesizing determinants via a meta-analysis. Waste and Biomass Valorization, 4(2), 221-235.

Milyavskaya, M. (2022). Going Vegan Or Vegetarian: Motivations & Influences. file:///C:/Users/Jack/Downloads/Longl%20Veg%202%20-%20Motivations%20&%20Influences%20(1).pdf

Nadeau, K. C., Agache, I., Jutel, M., Annesi Maesano, I., Akdis, M., Sampath, V., ... & Akdis, C. A. (2022). Climate change: A call to action for the united nations. Allergy, 77(4), 1087-1090.

Nagelmann, S. R. (2020). What vegans do to us: a quantitative study assessing the effects of different reasons for a vegan diet on other people’s self-concept (Master's thesis, University of Twente).

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Rousell, D., and Cutter-Mackenzie-Knowles, A. (2020). A systematic review of climate change education: Giving children and young people a ‘voice’and a ‘hand’in redressing climate change. Children's Geographies, 18(2), 191-208.

Seligman, M. E. (1972). Learned helplessness. Annual review of medicine, 23(1), 407-412.

Steinhorst, J., Klöckner, C. A., & Matthies, E. (2015). Saving electricity–For the money or the environment? Risks of limiting pro-environmental spillover when using monetary framing. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 43, 125-135.

Tompkins, E. L., & Amundsen, H. (2008). Perceptions of the effectiveness of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in advancing national action on climate change. Environmental Science & Policy, 11(1), 1-13.

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