Despite hopes that the internet could widen democratic debate, online news usage dropping and fatalism increasing

Is the biggest obstacle to climate action all in your head?

The impact of climate despair may now loom larger than the impact of climate denialBy Mark Harris in Anthropocene magazine

Behavioral scientists used to believe in the “information deficit model”—the idea that people simply didn’t know enough about climate change to take steps to reduce it. Lay out the facts clearly enough, and action to reduce our carbon emissions would inevitably follow.

Those days are long gone.

With the reality of global warming now widely accepted, another obstacle to action is looming larger than climate denial—climate despair. Or as Shannon Osaka put it in the Washington Post recently, climate doomers are replacing climate deniers.

“Climate change is typically viewed as an environmental problem rather than the psychological issue that it represents,” wrote psychologist Susan Kroger as long ago as 2011. Doubting, blame-shifting, catastrophism, and avoidance are all manifestations of our struggle to cope with something as global and all-encompassing as climate change.

Now, the question is whether such mental roadblocks are harming humanity’s ability to fully address the multiple crises it faces, and what, if anything, we can do about it?


• • •

Apocalypse Fatigue Sets In


1.  The good news about bad news is that it can be motivating—up to a point. British researchers have found that eco-horror stories, such as Carbon Brief’s terrifying roundup of the year’s most covered climate research, do increase climate anxiety but also spur people to take action. The bad news about bad news is that there seems to be a dangerous precipice that we might now be teetering over.

“More than 80% of all news and mainstream media play up the issue of doomsday or catastrophe,” says Norwegian psychologist, author and politician Per Espen Stoknes. “From psychological research, we know that if you overdo the threat of catastrophe, you make people feel fear or guilt or a combination. But these two emotions are passive. They make people disconnect and avoid the topic rather than engage with it.”

2.  How your brain is tricking you into doing nothing. The Climate Psychology Alliance (CPA), a group of therapists and mental health practitioners, helpfully unpacks the psychological phenomena that can paralyze you. Humanity has evolved a set of defense mechanisms and coping strategies to stop you worrying about things that seem to be out of your control—known to behavioral scientists as the “dragons of inaction.” These range from avoiding climate news to diversionary activity—assiduously sorting the recycling to “offset” your jet travel, for example. “As Western consumers, a powerful sense of entitlement may help us to shrug off guilt and shame, or a touching faith in progress can mitigate anxiety and induce complacency,” write the CPA.

3.  Fatalism is the new normal. A study of 10,000 young people in 2021 found that more than half reported feeling sad, anxious, angry, powerless, helpless, or guilty about climate change. Nearly half said their feelings about climate change negatively affected their daily life and functioning. And two thirds of Oregonians now believe that climate change is “unstoppable.”

• • •

Climate Stoicism Steps Up


1.  The latest thinking is ancient. In 300 BCE, the Greek school of stoicism believed humanity should live in harmony with nature, take nothing for granted, and accept the possibility of loss and death. “This didn’t mean pushing away distressing emotions,” writes Max Goodman at Columbia University, “But allowing oneself to sit with them and depressurize—resolving to do what one can.” A climate stoic, he says, can get over their apocalyptic dread by being ”both feverishly dedicated to meeting the IPCC’s targets and psychologically prepared to miss them.”

2.  What if the future has no tipping points? Here’s a radical idea from Seaver Wang at a think tank called the Breakthrough Institute. In a recent article he takes the position that “there is no tipping point beyond which Mother Earth wrestles control of the whole climate system away from human beings and proceeds to punish us for our sins.” Humanity now has control over the planet’s thermostat. Perhaps accepting that reality could remove the artificial pressure of hitting deadlines and free us to make our best efforts to reduce the harm of climate change.

3.  The wrong kind of hope and the right kind of doubt. Jennifer Marlon at Yale wanted to put some numbers on which kind of emotions were most effective at spurring climate action. In a survey of 1000 people, she found that, surprisingly, gloom can be nearly as productive as optimism for positive climate engagements, depending on how those emotions are used. Focused constructively, both lead to positive engagements such as donating money or lobbying for climate causes. But if the hopes were just wishful thinking, and doubt turned into fatalism, both actually reduced useful action.


• • •

What to Keep An Eye On


1.  New angles on climate stories. It’s easy to get locked into our own climate narratives. David Wells Wallace shook things up last year with his very personal NYT essay Beyond Catastrophe that walks a tightrope between fear and optimism. Moviegoers are ready for fewer cli-fi disaster movies, says Amanda Shendruck in the Washington Post, while even Greta Thunberg has learned to love nukes.

2.  Advances in brain hacking. The Affective Brain Lab at UCLA brings cognitive neuroscience to bear on human decision making and motivation, using everything from web browsing behavior to neuro-pharmacology. Electrically stimulating certain parts of the brain can even induce more sustainable decision-making (not a policy suggestion).

3.  Generational shifts. There are signs that a more positive attitude is taking root with those suffering most from climate anxiety. A 2021 Pew survey found that 32% of Gen Zers and 28% of Millennials have taken at least one of four actions (donating money, contacting an elected official, volunteering or attending a rally) to help address climate change in the last year. That compared with smaller shares of Gen X (23%) and Baby Boomer and older adults (21%).


Image: ©Anthropocene Magazine

Overview and key findings of the 2023 Digital News Report

14th June 2023 Reuters Institute

Summary of some of the most important findings from our 2023 research:

  • Our data show how the various shocks of the last few years, including the war in Ukraine and the Coronavirus pandemic, have accelerated structural shifts towards more digital, mobile, and platform-dominated media environments, with further implications for the business models and formats of journalism.
  • Across markets, only around a fifth of respondents (22%) now say they prefer to start their news journeys with a website or app – that’s down 10 percentage points since 2018. Publishers in a few smaller Northern European markets have managed to buck this trend, but younger groups everywhere are showing a weaker connection with news brands’ own websites and apps than previous cohorts – preferring to access news via side-door routes such as social media, search, or mobile aggregators.
  • Facebook remains one of the most-used social networks overall, but its influence on journalism is declining as it shifts its focus away from news. It also faces new challenges from established networks such as YouTube and vibrant youth-focused networks such as TikTok. The Chinese-owned social network reaches 44% of 18–24s across markets and 20% for news. It is growing fastest in parts of Asia-Pacific, Africa, and Latin America.
  • When it comes to news, audiences say they pay more attention to celebrities, influencers, and social media personalities than journalists in networks like TikTok, Instagram, and Snapchat. This contrasts sharply with Facebook and Twitter, where news media and journalists are still central to the conversation.
  • Much of the public is sceptical of the algorithms used to select what they see via search engines, social media, and other platforms. Less than a third (30%) say that having stories selected for me on the basis of previous consumption is a good way to get news, 6 percentage points lower than when we last asked the question in 2016. Despite this, on average, users still slightly prefer news selected this way to that chosen by editors or journalists (27%), suggesting that worries about algorithms are part of a wider concern about news and how it is selected.
  • Despite hopes that the internet could widen democratic debate, we find fewer people are now participating in online news than in the recent past. Aggregated across markets, only around a fifth (22%) are now active participators, with around half (47%) not participating in news at all. In the UK and United States, the proportion of active participators have fallen by more than 10 percentage points since 2016. Across countries we find that this group tends to be male, better educated, and more partisan in their political views.
  • Trust in the news has fallen, across markets, by a further 2 percentage points in the last year, reversing – in many countries – the gains made at the height of the Coronavirus pandemic. On average, four in ten of our total sample (40%) say they trust most news most of the time. Finland remains the country with the highest levels of overall trust (69%), while Greece (19%) has the lowest after a year characterised by heated arguments about press freedom and the independence of the media.
  • Public media brands are amongst those with the highest levels of trust in many Northern European countries, but reach has been declining with younger audiences. This is important because we find that those that use these services most frequently are more likely to see them as important personally and for society. These findings suggest that maintaining the breadth of public service reach remains critical for future legitimacy and especially with younger groups.
  • Consumption of traditional media, such as TV and print, continues to fall in most markets, with online and social consumption not making up the gap. Our data show that online consumers are accessing news less frequently than in the past and are also becoming less interested. Despite the political and economic threats facing many people, fewer than half (48%) of our aggregate sample now say they are very or extremely interested in news, down from 63% in 2017.
  • Meanwhile, the proportion of news consumers who say they avoid news, often or sometimes, remains close to all-time highs at 36% across markets. We find that this group splits between (a) those who are trying to periodically avoid all sources of news and (b) those that are trying to specifically restrict their news usage at particular times or for certain topics. News avoiders are more likely to say they are interested in positive or solutions-based journalism and less interested in the big stories of the day.
  • With household budgets under pressure and a significant part of the public satisfied with the news they can access for free, there are signs that the growth in online news payment may be levelling off. Across a basket of 20 richer countries, 17% paid for any online news – the same figure as last year. Norway (39%) has the highest proportion of those paying, with Japan (9%) and the United Kingdom (9%) amongst the lowest. Amongst those cancelling their subscription in the last year, the cost of living or the high price was cited most often as a reason. In the United States, Germany, and the United Kingdom, about half of non-subscribers say that nothingcould persuade them to pay for online news, with lack of interest or perceived value remaining fundamental obstacles.
  • As in previous years, we find that a large proportion of digital subscriptions go to just a few upmarket national brands – reinforcing the winner takes most dynamics that are often associated with digital media. But in a number of countries, including the United States, we are now seeing the majority of those paying taking out more than one subscription. This reflects the increased supply of discounted offers as well as the introduction of all-accessbundles in some markets.
  • Across countries the majority of online users say they still prefer to read the news rather than watch or listen to it. Text provides more speed and control in accessing information, but in a few countries, such as the Philippines and Thailand, respondents now say they prefer video to text. Video news consumption has been growing steadily across markets, with most video content now accessed via third-party platforms such as YouTube and Facebook.
  • News podcasting continues to resonate with educated and younger audiences but remains a minority activity overall. Around a third (34%) access a podcast monthly, with 12% accessing a show relating to news and current affairs. Our research finds that deep dive podcasts, inspired by The Daily from the New York Times, along with extended chat shows, such as The Joe Rogan Experience, are the most widely consumed across markets. We also identify the growing popularity of video-led or hybrid news podcasts.
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