An Open Letter to Greta Thunberg
Psychology can teach us how to harness panic and fear for meaningful action.
Posted Nov 04, 2019
I write to you in your seventeenth year. I am writing you because this was the year you saw people ridicule you, a solitary figure calling the world to attention with School Strike for Climate; because you know that the last four years were the hottest on record; because you have seen the effects of climate change everywhere; and because you now know that you are not alone—you saw more than 4 million people in more than 161 countries follow your lead to strike for climate.
How Dare You!
And you have seen other teens telling of their own concerns and acting, with one in four participating in a walkout, attending a rally, or writing to a public official about their views of global warming. As one student put it: “Greta may have been the spark, but we are the wildfire.”
And you know, as do other young people, that you should not have to do this. As you courageously told world leaders at the United Nations last month: “How dare you! You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words.”
When I Say Climate Change, What Comes to Mind?
I can only speak for myself, not for my generation; but, then, you have taught us that one person can have a big impact.
I, too, am outraged at the burdens that today’s young people are shouldering as you come of age. At a recent discussion of the climate crisis with college students, my colleague, Dr. Louise Chowla, asked the students a simple question: “When I say climate change, what two words come to mind?” The students’ answers were sobering: “fear,” “threat, “death,” "overwhelmed," "destruction," “losing paradise.”
But, Ms. Thunberg, you tell me we should panic, feel fear, and not rely on hope. I, too, feel this at times but I think psychology can teach us how to harness these feelings to create meaningful action.
From Fear and Panic to Constructive Hope
When we met with college students, Dr. Chowla outlined psychology’s approach to coping, specifically the work of Dr. Richard Lazarus and Dr. Susan Folkman. Their transactional model of coping suggests that coping is a two-step process: primary and secondary appraisal. In primary appraisal we assess whether there is a threat to something we value. If the situation is perceived as a threat or exceeds our resources for responding, we experience negative emotions. Climate change is clearly one such threat.
These emotions trigger a secondary appraisal process in three main ways: emotion-focused, problem-focused, and meaning-focused. In emotion-focused coping, we try to escape the negative emotions with strategies such as denial or distancing ourselves from the situation, rather than trying to solve the problem. In contrast, in problem-focused coping, we act, confronting the problem directly. In meaning-focused coping, we reappraise the challenge—finding meaning in the struggle, promoting hope, and, possibly, engaging in problem-focused coping as well.
So what does this have to do with you, Ms. Thunberg, and climate change? A lot.
Dr. Maria Ojala has studied how young people cope with climate change. She has found that meaning-focused coping is associated with constructive hope, a belief in the value of taking action, despite an awareness of the risks and uncertainty. You, Ms. Thunberg, embody constructive hope.
You Cannot Do It Alone
But you cannot do it alone. The best advocates on climate change issues are family members and friends. Especially for adolescents and young adults, parents and friends can have a big influence. Dr. Ojala finds that adults are essential in helping young adults to cope with climate issues.
What can the adults do? First and foremost, we must listen openly to your feelings without being silent or dismissive. Clearly, your parents have been supportive of you and your efforts. This is important, since Dr. Ojala found that the more that adults were dismissive or silent, the more adolescents were likely to use emotion-focused coping.
Beyond that, we can model climate action with and for you, joining young adults in the collective climate action that is needed. For example, in the upcoming election season, we can pledge to vote only for candidates who prioritize climate action.
Finally, we can facilitate your own actions, helping others of your age realize that they, too, can make a difference in meeting the challenge of the climate crisis. For example, Schools 4 Climate Action provides student councils with sample petitions to present to school boards, asking the school board to act in two ways: promoting sustainable practices in the district and writing state and federal elected officials to seek their climate action. (Schools 4 Climate Action also provide sample board motions.)
In the end, Ms. Thunberg, you and your own version of constructive hope have taught me that one person can make an amazing difference. You remind me of the words of Anne Frank, who confronted another global challenge: “How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.”
Chowla, L. (2019). Coping with climate change and building constructive hope. Panel on Intergenerational approaches for promoting climate awareness and action, Pennsylvania State University Honors College, September 24.
Lazarus, R.S. & Folkman, S. (1984). Stress, appraisal, and coping. New York: Springer
Folkman, S. (2008). The case for positive emotions in the stress process. Anxiety, Stress & Coping: An International Journal, 21(1), 3-14
Ojala, M. (2016). Young people and global climate change. In N. Ansell, N. Klocker & T. Skelton (Eds.), Change and threat: Geographies of children and young people 8 (pp. 1–19). Singapore: Springer Science+Business Media.
Ojala, M. (2017). Hope and anticipation in education for a sustainable future. Futures, 94, 76–84.
Ojala, M. & Bengtsson, H. (2019). Young peoples’ coping strategies concerning climate change: relations to perceived communication with parents and friends and proenvironmental Behavior. Environment and behavior, 51(8), 907-935. doi: 10.1177/0013916518763894