Research Summary

Hope and climate change: the importance of hope for environmental engagement among young people

Hope Is Important for Engaging Young People in Environmental Issues

Environmental Education Research

Although many young people think that global climate change is a serious problem that needs to be addressed, studies have also found that feelings of hopelessness, pessimism, and helplessness are common. Few studies have explored how hope, or the lack thereof, relates to engagement concerning environmental problems. This article explores whether a sense of hope among young people is positively related to pro-environmental behaviors, or whether it is simply a sign of illusory optimism.

The author defined hope as a cognitive and emotional experience that occurs when a positive goal is felt as being within reach. Specifically, the study investigated three sources of “constructive” hope concerning the environment, as opposed to hope based on denial of the seriousness of climate change. The first is positive re-appraisal, where a person is able to describe their worries about environmental problems, and then think about them in a different, positive, way. An example of this would be pointing out that awareness of climate change has increased during recent years. The second source of hope arises from trust in sources outside oneself, specifically trust in technology and trust in environmental organizations. The third concerns trust in one’s own ability to influence environmental problems, the belief that laypeople’s actions can make a difference.

Two questionnaires were designed to explore whether an aggregate measure of constructive hope concerning climate change—based on positive re-appraisal, trust in sources outside oneself, and trust in one’s own ability to influence environmental problems—has a significant relationship to pro-environmental behavior, specifically household energy conservation. The questionnaires aimed to control for hope based on denial, as well as for factors already known to influence pro-environmental behavior, including values, social influence, knowledge, and gender. One of the questionnaires was conducted with a group of Swedish teenagers still living with their parents (n = 723), and the other with a group of Swedish young adults who had moved from their childhood homes (n = 381).

The results showed that among both the teenagers and young adult samples, those who had a high degree of constructive hope were significantly more likely to also be engaged in household energy conservation behaviors. The results also revealed that hope based on denial of climate change had the opposite effect, indicating that it is critical to distinguish between constructive and denial-based hope.

One of the limitations of the study is that the design didn’t allow for a directional, causal relationship to be drawn between hope and environmental behavior. It is possible that hope can cause pro-environmental behavior, and it is also possible that pro-environmental behavior can be a source of hope. An interesting and useful direction in future studies might be to explore the causal relationship. In addition, the author notes that future studies should include additional items for measuring facets of hope based on denial of the seriousness of climate change, as reasons for this viewpoint are complex and were not fully explored in this study. Finally, future studies could explore the relationship among hope and more collective and political forms of environmental engagement, compared with individual energy conservation behaviors.

The Bottom Line

Constructive hope about climate change arises when a person understands the seriousness of climate change and concurrently feels there are positive goals within reach for addressing the issue. Young people who have constructive hope about climate change are significantly more likely to engage in positive environmental behaviors, compared with young people who lack hope and those who have hope based on denial of climate change. For educators, three ways to encourage constructive hope are identified: The first is to co-create with students a story that focuses on positive aspects of the climate change situation. The second is to encourage trust in others, such as politicians, environmental groups, and technology—although not in an unrealistic way. The point here is to avoid extreme cynicism. The third is to promote students’ trust in their ability to make a difference by highlighting the power of collective action and encouraging the development of students’ capacity to take action.