The interview participants experienced a palette of mostly negative emotions in relation to their concern about climate change. When asked to describe their general feelings about this issue, many interviewees spontaneously spoke about the complexity of what they felt. Emotions related to sadness and anger were the two most frequently recurring themes, along with different shades of fear. These three basic emotions were related to more nuanced feelings of insecurity, hopelessness, confusion, powerlessness, guilt, and isolation, and affected the participants psychologically in a number of ways. On top of negative emotions, positive emotions were occasionally present in interviewees’ accounts. Below, we present the results in detail together with example corresponding quotations. A graphical representation of the negative emotional experience of concern for climate change is presented in figure1.
6.1. I guess sadness is the first that comes to mind
Sadness was an emotion mentioned by many interviewees as the first and strongest one. The participants experienced it mostly in relation to irreversible changes in the natural environment, including the pace of species extinction and habitat depletion, and the violence that humans have been inflicting upon non-human beings. They spoke of sadness stemming from strong feelings of loss related to the degradation of the natural environment but also when speaking about the loss of a certain way of life and possibilities in the future. Some interviewees expressed sadness about the injustice of the impacts of climate change on humans and animals, that climate change first of all impacts those who contributed to it the least.
Most of the participants indicated experiencing strong, at times overwhelming sadness. They spoke of feeling grief, deep sorrow or emotional pain over the natural world that was changing in a rapid and violent manner. In the words of one interviewee:
You know, I don’t think anybody likes to have changes forced upon them. I think there is – if you can change - the world of course, is perpetually changing... But this change has come so fast, and with such ramifications, for everyone, that it just feels threatening, in a way. And really I feel kind of grief stricken that this is actually happening. (15)
Many interviewees reported feeling tearful, mostly when encountering depressing news about climate change or when seeing changes in the environment around them. Several participants had tears in their eyes during the interview when describing their feelings. Many interviewees mentioned feeling at times depressed by the awareness of climate change. For some people lowered mood was related to the thoughts about the irreversibility of the loss in the natural world. Others pointed out strong sadness stemming from the overwhelming scope of climate change and feeling powerless about it.
The interviewees spoke about feeling disappointed by the indifference of people in power and by the lack of concern in the general society. Some participants expressed disappointment about the human species and human nature in general. Disillusionment about the ability of human societies to address climate change was another recurring theme. When speaking about disappointment and disillusionment, the interviewees would often turn into anger. As one interviewee put it:
I am very disappointed in how we and how the government in Norway, especially in Norway because that's where I live, that's the closest but in other countries as well.. How…!? How is it possible to prioritise like this?! [angry voice] And I'm disappointed when I read about how they prioritise money! (14)
6.2. I can really feel rage
The interviewees regularly felt annoyance, irritation, frustration, impatience, anger, disgust, rage, and fury when referring to the perceived lack of engagement in climate action at all levels of social organisation. Many times, when speaking about anger, they emphasised the time scope - that the scientific knowledge has been conclusive for decades about the causes and consequences of climate change, and, in their view, little has been done over the years to mitigate the problem.
Anger was expressed first and foremost towards the people in power. The participants were angry that the people who can change the situation do not work for the common good. The interviewees’ emotions in this regard were very strong, people often spoke about feeling rage, fury and disgust towards politicians, but also towards corporate leaders, for pursuing their interests despite having the knowledge about the consequences of their actions for the environment. One interviewee spoke about their feelings in this regard:
Actually, the anger words are really not strong enough. Except maybe disgust, I am disgusted! But, still, I think the other words sound like I am just a little angry, but I’m really, you know… Raging! And I am gripping actually with how to not… not to let that rage overwhelm my life. (4)
Interviewees’ anger at corporate greed trickled down to anger at the general society. Participants were frustrated at the ignorance of other people, their perceived carelessness, naivety, and short-sightedness. They were irritated that, in their view, other people did not accept the seriousness of the climate issues, could not change their ways of thinking, and limit their consumption, which perpetuated the power of corporations.
Another recurring theme was the feelings of irritation at family and friends. Many interviewees were annoyed about their close ones’ everyday behaviours that they considered environmentally unfriendly and unnecessary. It was difficult for them to ignore these behaviours in the people that were close to them because they had higher expectations from them than from the general society. This anger would occasionally put a strain on the relationships with their relatives and friends leading to arguments, tensions and, sometimes, cutting the bonds.
Many younger interviewees (generation Z and millennials) were angry at older generations for depriving them of having an optimistic view about the future. They were also angry at older generations for talking down, minimising the threat of climate change, and ridiculing the urgency of the need to implement radical solutions. Some young people felt anger upon concluding that older generations are to blame for the environmental crisis.
Virtually every participant spoke about experiencing frustration in the context of climate change. Their frustration was related to the feelings of powerlessness that one person can only do so little to change the situation, as well as to the complexity of the climate crisis that makes it difficult to understand where to effectively direct one’s energy. People also expressed frustration over being trapped in the socio-economic system that is incompatible with the natural environment and for being a part of the self-centred culture that runs around destructive consumption patterns.
6.3. And my fear, I think, it’s like terror sometimes
When it comes to the experience of fear, most of the time, the participants spoke about general apprehension about the future of the world under the unfolding climate change. At the same time, many interviewees mentioned experiencing, from time to time, strong, disturbing feelings of fear upon seeing media or scientific accounts about climate change or noticing changes in the natural environment around them. Many participants described feeling prolonged anxiety and uneasiness after realising the seriousness of the climate crisis and their own vulnerability. These temporary strong feelings of fear were amplified by the awareness that the success of actions to mitigate climate change is under time pressure while the policies around the issue are, in their view, insufficient and progressing with too slow a pace. As one gen Z interviewee said:
I have been quite good at not getting scared before, but in the recent months I get more scared. I don’t exactly know why, but maybe because time goes by and nothing is happening. Maybe it just takes a toll on you, after some time. So, yeah, when I think about it now, I feel unrest and scared (10)
Fear about one’s own future under the unfolding climate change was a prevalent topic in the accounts of gen Z and millennials. The recurring themes in this context were the uncertainty about the future, feelings of insecurity and lack of control. Younger participants were distrustful about the narrative of progress and they were confused about the validity of the rules guiding social organisation. One interviewee expressed it that way:
All the choices I make about my future and the way I live my life is based in, like, the future is very unstable. And everything we know is in a way in question, like everything we know about how to build your life, do things etc. but also about what I want in my life. There is no point in trying to build a career or build… not necessarily no point, but like a different kind of approach to building a career, building a life. Like climbing the ladder of success is difficult if you know that the rules can change at any point. (21)
Many participants, independently of their age, referred to feeling hopeless about the future which in most cases was related to the belief that human civilisation was heading towards a catastrophe. Terms such as societal collapse, total disaster, serious breakdown, population crash, the end of time were mentioned by the majority of the interviewees when asked about how they see the future, along with statements such as: It’s like getting a diagnosis of a terminal cancer (16), We know it’s gonna collapse (21), It's too late to turn back, the [doomsday] clock is 2 minutes to 12 (25). One interviewee described their feelings this way:
When I think about the climate situation, it’s just like... it’s so sad that we reached this stage that’s just slipping off a cliff, or running off a cliff, yeah, and it makes me question the human goodness that I anyhow think I see in myself or in others. But then this whole situation is just kind of... it’s easier to… to... to slip into [sighs heavily] maybe despair and… losing kind of… trust in human nature or human beings. (19)
6.4. It’s just like, always in the back of my mind
Many interviewees mentioned that their worry and hopelessness in the context of climate change was taking away from their enjoyment of life at times. For some it was difficult to dismiss worrisome thoughts. Many participants spoke about subtle long-lasting effects of climate change concern on their mood throughout the day on a regular basis. Their worry about climate change made them feel grumpy, negative, and blue. As one interviewee explained: I don’t think about it every hour of every day, but it’s just like, always in the back of my mind. And when something comes up that’s related to that, it just kind of resurfaces. (11).
However, at times, these effects on mood were stronger and many participants spoke about falling into a small depression or having a breakdown” In their view, it usually happened in reaction to particularly negative information about climate change, as well as upon personal realisation of (taking in emotionally) the severity of the climate crisis and one’s powerlessness. Such “breakdowns” were characterised by prolonged lowered mood (from several hours to several days), tearfulness, and hopelessness.
Although sadness and hopelessness were prevailing themes when it comes to participants’ mood, feelings of stress and tension were also mentioned. Some interviewees spoke that sometimes they could feel the tension and anxiety around climate change in the body. They experienced tension in the muscles, increased heartbeat, headaches, as well as tiredness, especially upon new negative information about climate change. Some people found it difficult to control their negative thoughts around this issue which disturbed their concentration. One interviewee described their ruminative thoughts in these words:
When I read about the insects, that their extinction rate is high, or like – it’s going faster than predicted before - it disturbed my concentration. On some days, really. And I was more afraid. More anxiety, more hopelessness, more impatience about people around me. And, yeah, that was – so it was purely in my head, all the time, it came back to me all the time: ‘oh, it’s hopeless, this is scary, oh, it’s hopeless, scary’. (12)
Some participants felt regularly overwhelmed by hopelessness which influenced their motivation to engage in everyday activities. The words of one interviewee illustrate well what other participants said: It's like numbness… You think, or you read about climate change, and then suddenly – you had some plans, to go… and suddenly, you feel like, nah, this is worthless. (12).
6.5 I really, really want to have kids, but I don’t feel like it’s safe
Many times, fear and hopelessness were expressed in the context of having children. The issue of having children was never brought up by the interviewer: it was our interlocutors, who would each time start this topic. Most gen Z and millennials confessed that they had serious doubts about starting a family and having children. Some were confused whether it is ethical to have a child due to its environmental impact, while most young interviewees viewed having children as something irresponsible because of the challenges that the future generations are bound to face under the unfolding climate change. One interviewee described it that way:
I am thinking about my future in terms of having kids, and all of that. I don’t know if I really dare to do that, and if that’s kind to have kids in this kind of world. That is something I was thinking about lately, and that’s a really big and scary thought, because I really, really want to have kids, but I don’t feel like it’s safe. (10)
Likewise, interviewees from the older generations held strong emotions about having children. They felt uneasy when somebody from their social milieu, including family, was speaking about having children or grandchildren. Several older interviewees were child-free, and they referred to their concern about climate change as a reason for that. At the same time, several interviewees who already had children questioned the responsibility of their decision about having a child on the grounds of looming climate change. Grandparents felt strong worry and sadness about the future of younger generations, in the words of one interviewee: I can get tearful because I am thinking about the future of my children and grandchildren, and I am thinking: oh, God, what a miserable world they are going to live in. (16).
6.6. I always relate everything to the climate, to the environment
A prevalent theme in how the interviewees spoke about their worry was in terms of a prism or lens of climate change through which they viewed the world, e.g. It’s like everything else is irrelevant (7), Climate change is somehow very much in the forefront in my mind, it puts a damper on it (24), I always relate everything to the climate, to the environment (13). Climate change was considered during decision making regarding education, occupation, place to live, and planning for the future as well as regarding how to go about everyday life. It made the participants strictly evaluate their own and other people’s choices in terms of their environmental impact.
A recurring theme in this context was a strong personal responsibility for climate action which led to engagement in pro-environmental behaviours at different levels. In fact, the majority of the participants were involved in long-term, effort-demanding, high-impact behaviours relevant for the climate (e.g. eating a plant-based diet, radically reducing or resigning from flying, radically reducing driving, investing in climate relevant technologies at home, radically cutting on consumption of goods). The interviewees’ strived to behave in line with their standards, goals, and rules related to a low environmental impact lifestyle. For most participants their pro-environmental goals were central to how they lived their lives. The accounts of many interviewees echoed the words of one millennial participant: It governs to a large degree how I choose to live my life (2).
Such high standards about behaving in a climate-compatible way oftentimes were accompanied by strong and long-lasting feelings of guilt. Most of the time these feelings stemmed from small-impact everyday behaviours. The interviewees spoke about feeling strong guilt about, e.g. not having a chance to sort garbage properly, using a car when there was a possibility to walk or cycle, being forced to or succumbing to social pressures to purchase something new (e.g. clothes or equipment) or purchasing products wrapped in plastic. In this setting, some participants spoke about guilt affecting their eating behaviours and appetite. As one interviewee put it: I’d rather not feel guilt and be a little bit hungry than feel guilt and eat something that has a large footprint (1). Many participants linked guilt about their actions in the context of climate change to the feelings of anxiety and tension.
Another recurring theme in terms of guilt was blaming oneself for not doing enough in the context of climate change, both in the past and in the present. Many participants felt an urge and obligation to use their time to learn about climate change, participate in collective action and to work out solutions for the climate. As a result, they often felt guilt for using their time to do something else, including paid work or worrying about other matters. In this context, many participants spoke about feeling, on a regular basis, the need to temporarily cut off information and, in turn, reduce their concern about climate change to protect themselves from bad emotions. Nevertheless, such a strategy aimed to reduce the tension often led to the feelings of guilt and restlessness.
Feeling guilt about one’s privilege was a frequently recurring theme. The participants felt guilt for living in Norway where, on one hand, they felt sheltered from the consequences of climate change, while, on the other hand, they were inevitably part of a society that has a large impact on the environment. Many people felt ashamed on behalf of Norway - Because we are so rich, because we have the knowledge and the opportunity to do a lot, and we don’t [act]! (12). Feeling ashamed, in some interviewees, was a global feeling which they referred to being a human - they felt ashamed for all the damage the human race has incurred on the natural world, as well as guilty for that their mere existence was related to having a carbon footprint. Some viewed the threat that climate change could lead to the extinction of human species as a punishment for people’s irresponsibility, ignorance, and greed, and they expressed the opinion that the human species deserves to die out so that the natural environment can recover.
6.7. I can’t really do anything to change this situation
Many participants felt guilt for not having the courage to radically change their lifestyle so that they could break free from the destructive system. At the same time, many were aware that their guilt was unproportionable to what individual behaviours meant in the context of mitigating climate change. They were aware about green washing and dead ends of green capitalism. The experience of paralysing powerlessness about being trapped in the consumer society where individual actions felt small and meaningless when compared to the levels of environmental impact ingrained in the functioning of the system was a common theme in the interviews. Another one was confusion about what an individual can and should do to commit meaningfully to mitigating climate change.
In that sense, powerlessness was one the most frequently recurring themes. The interviewees were aware of the need of a profound sociotechnical transformation to limit the consequences of climate change. Their powerlessness in the face of the inaction of the people in power led to strong anger and frustration but also to anxiety and hopelessness. They felt paralysed at times because of the scale and complexity of the climate problem. One person described it that way:
I don’t really feel that I know where to begin. With a lot of political issues there are some concrete things that I feel I could do, and I feel like I can see the powerful works solving the problem. Whereas here, it’s so all-encompassing that it’s difficult to see. Even if you fix one problem, it doesn’t really fix the big problem. (5)
Many interviewees felt powerless and hopeless to the point that they decided to embrace the idea that mitigation efforts are ultimately going to fail. Upon accepting it, they felt less anxious and restless about that topic. Nevertheless, such grim conclusions did not discourage them from engaging in pro-environmental behaviour.
6.8. I feel lonely, because I am alone in this situation
In many cases, strong emotions the participants experienced in relation to climate change made them feel isolated from the general society. In their experience, most other people have not understood and, in consequence, have not taken in emotionally the severity of climate change. On one hand their isolation led to anger and annoyance towards the general society, on the other - to loneliness and stress stemming from it.
Most of the interviewees felt that they could not share what they felt about climate change with other people, except some of their colleagues involved in collective climate action. Some experienced negative reactions when they brought the topic of climate change up - they felt ridiculed, ostracised, or not taken seriously. Many participants felt that they had to consciously put on a positive mask and conceal their worry to be accepted by others as they did not want to put a strain on their relationship with other people or be seen as a party pooper, moralist, mood killer, or pain in the ass (interviewees’ own words). Others, especially older interviewees, adopted a more confronting strategy - they kept asking difficult questions, commenting on people’s choices, signalling their disagreement through e.g. wearing worn out clothes, which excluded them from some social circles. In such cases, they were proud of cutting off bonds with people who did not share their concern and values.
Many interviewees felt lonely and stressed about being a minority that, in their view, fully grasped and emotionally took in the available knowledge about climate change, and therefore have a greater responsibility to act against it. Apart from powerlessness in this regard, they felt isolated and betrayed in their struggle - abandoned by other people and by the authorities. It shook their trust in society and its institutions. In fact, many interviewees were so distrustful and sceptical that they strived to keep away from a “profoundly sick society”. Many others were balancing between feeling guilt about participating in the society which would inevitably be linked to making choices that were against their values, and behaving in line with their concern, which pushed them yet further away from other people and amplified their frustration and powerlessness.
6.9. “That makes me hopeful. And tearful”
Although the interviewees gave us predominantly rich accounts of their negative emotional experience of climate change, many spoke about occasionally having some positive emotions in this context. A recurring theme was feeling strong positive emotions about the empowering effects of collective climate action, both in terms of reading or watching media accounts about it and upon one’s own participation in collective action, e.g. I also feel very positive when I read about the regenerative cooperative that is working out. So, it’s interesting, it’s as if small things can almost balance out all the negativity and environmental news. (7). Working out solutions and being among people who shared interviewees’ values and concern were mentioned as bringing a sense of excitement and happiness: It feels good”, it gives empowerment, absolutely (12), I was filled with, you know, gratitude that I found other people that felt this issue is as serious as it is. And it was a lot of energy (16). Some participants held an opinion that taking part in collective climate action helped them reduce their worry.
Another recurring topic was an expanded appreciation of nature; finding consolation in it, e.g. Being in nature and especially [hearing the] sounds like… the wind in the trees or hearing insects or birds, this kind of helped me to… to find a kind of… something that can contain and embrace these challenging emotions (19). The anticipation of loss in the natural environment made the participants more sensitive to its qualities: I also sometimes feel grateful for the moment right now and everything that is still working (17). Some interviewees spoke about discovering another level of connectedness to nature: I am spending time to try to develop communion with nature, seeing nature as alive (4), Before that [becoming worried about climate change] I walked around with fly bibs. Now I take the fly into a glass and release it outside. (24), I am starting to have a slightly different connection with nature than before. (...) Having a growing, kind of, desire to see nature run wild. (5).
The notion of hope was a recurring theme. However, similarly to other positive emotions mentioned by the participants of the study, hope was framed in the context of inevitable, overwhelming changes. Interviewees spoke about the struggle of finding the space for hope and optimism while remaining constantly aware of possible scenarios for the future under climate change:
I think I am hopeful, as well. And seeing the resilience of nature, life, seeing how nature can spring back and take over the area that has been destroyed, gives me a lot of hope. So, you know, even if – despite what we destroyed and continue to destroy, if something happens to stop that, whether that would be the crash of the human population, or we shape up, the world can recover. I believe that both animals and plants are so adaptable, a lot more adaptable than us, that nature will survive and thrive with or without us. (11)
At the same time, some people mentioned their highly conflicting emotions regarding hope. Sometimes giving it up was a relief. Some perceived hope as a concept that only obscured an honest public discussion about the inevitably gloomy future.
 The identification number of the interview is indicated in the parentheses after each quotation.