PORTLAND, Ore. — Last year, KGW put out a survey on climate change and mental health, with questions on what type of feelings our warming climate conjures and how those feelings are impacting how our viewers make important decisions.
The results are in and the roughly 70 responses show that many people are worried, anxious and depressed about the state of our environment. The angst runs deep enough for some people that it’s affecting major life decisions, like whether to start a family.
Yanni Ma, a professor at Oregon State University who specializes in environmental communication, said the results were striking.
“I'm a little bit surprised that I see that more people are concerned or worried about climate change, and it's actually impacting how they think about whether or not they are going to have a child in the future,” Ma said. “If they feel hopeless, if they think there is no future, they are less likely to have a child in the future.”
To be clear, this was not a scientific poll. KGW put the survey out for any of our viewers to tell us how climate change is affecting their mental health and how they make important decisions in their lives.
Roughly 70 people responded with about 55% being over the age of 45. Roughly 60% identified as female and 83% identified as white.
But even though the responses didn’t come from a representative sample of the state or country, the results are still valuable.
To establish a bit of a baseline, we asked:
“How important is the issue of global warming to you personally?”
After several years of devastating wildfires and record-breaking heat waves, it was unsuprising that more than 62% said that climate change was “extremely important” to them. On the other end of the spectrum, just 2.7% said climate change was “not at all” important to them.
Hover your mouse over each interactive chart to see the percentages. On a mobile app? Tap on the different sections of the charts to see the percentages.
Knowing that the issue is important to our viewers, we wanted to know how much angst climate change was causing. We asked:
“How worried are you about global warming?”
More than 55% said they were “extremely worried,” and another nearly 30% said they were “very worried.” That’s close to 86%, almost 9 out of 10 people, who said they were either extremely or very worried about climate change.
And they have good reason to be. Despite all that Oregon has done to combat climate change — rebates on electric vehicles, incentives for heat pumps, laws meant to cap carbon dioxide emissions — the state is still well behind where it needs to be to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.
A report from the Oregon Global Warming Commission found that, in 2021, the state was nearly 20% off the emissions reduction goal it set for the previous year.
Responses to the previous questions made it clear that our viewers care a great deal about climate change and it’s something that worries them, but how does that worry manifest?
We asked: “Over the last 2 weeks, how often have you been bothered by feeling down, depressed, or hopeless because of global warming?”
Almost 45% said “not at all,” but another 40% said this kind of mental strain was happening several days out of every two weeks. Another 11% said it was happening more than half the time. About 7% said they flet like this nearly every day.
And these feelings are having profound impacts on people’s behavior.
We asked: “If this applies to your life, does climate change affect your decision to have children?”
This question wasn’t quite as relevant to some of our older respondents, evidenced by the more than 26% who didn’t respond. Of those who did, though, 36% said no and roughly 30% said yes.
That means that, of those who the question applied to, nearly half said climate change had made them think twice about one of the most important decisions a person can make in their life.
We wanted to know more about how climate change was affecting how people were making those decisions, so we asked people to respond, in their own words, and we heard from folks on both sides of the issue.
“I chose to not have kids partly because what world will be left for them?” one person wrote. “I couldn't in good conscience create life in this environment.”
“The future will still need people in it, working to better humanity,” said another. “I'm just remorseful of the struggle and watching things fall apart while we raise our daughter.”
“My spouse and I did talk about climate change when we discussed whether or not we wanted to have kids,” a third person said. “Ultimately, we decided that climate change isn't enough to deter us from having children, and now we have two.”
These levels of climate anxiety would be bad in any state, but they’re of particular concern in Oregon. The state has consistently ranked among the worst for mental health, according to Mental Health America, both in prevalence of mental illness and in access to care.
That doesn’t mean that there’s nothing to be done, though.
Ma did some correlation analysis of the responses and she found that talking with others, especially friends and family, not only can be therapeutic, but can also increase the likelihood of convincing others to get involved.
Talking with friends or family is much more likely to be persuasive than hearing about the issue from news outlets, Ma said.
“So we do suggest if you and your friends or family members can talk more about climate change, it may impact other people's opinion on it and further, more people will likely engage in this issue,” she said.
Beyond that, advocacy can provide some relief to climate anxiety, Ma said, and getting out into nature can help, too. After all, what better way to ease anxiety about the environment than to get enjoy the beauty of it.
There are also a number of websites and 24-hour hotlines, available 24 hours a day to anyone who needs help.