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How worried should we be about climate change?

Sustainability and the climate are complex and difficult topics on several levels. It can be difficult to know when something is sustainable, and problems can often be characterised by conflicting considerations (e.g. environment and climate)

‘Sustainability is difficult to tackle in both dialogue and teaching contexts,’ says Caroline Schaffalitzky, associate professor of philosophy, who explains that one of the reasons for the difficulty is that the topic may seem accessible on the surface, but in reality it is more complex than it appears. 

‘Many values are intertwined in the topic of sustainability, as it is also about how you choose to live your life and perceive your place in the world,’ she says.

Unlike other subjects in school that aim to find answers, there is no clear-cut answer when it comes to sustainability. The challenges cannot be solved simply through formulas and grammatical mnemonics. That is why Caroline Schaffalitzky is particularly interested in how conversations about sustainability and the climate play out as authentic dialogues and do not just become mechanical responses. In particular, she attaches great importance to whether pupils are actually engaged in the topic of sustainability or whether they have been trained to know that it is not good to dump rubbish on roadsides or in the sea. 

Climate anxiety and eco-stress

There is disagreement among researchers about the true extent of climate anxiety and eco-stress. Nevertheless, it is an important topic to address, as by putting the two phenomena into words we can gain greater insight into what it means to be eco-stressed or experience climate anxiety.

The biggest challenge, according to Caroline Schaffalitzky, is not whether classroom teaching contributes to climate anxiety, but rather the lack of genuine interest in climate




Risk of looping effect

The idea behind the looping effect is that other people’s description of a group reinforces the group’s behaviour. If the narrative is that young people have climate anxiety, it reinforces the belief that to be responsible as a young person, you should have climate anxiety. Thus, stories help to reinforce images.

We need to look not only at technological solutions, but also at the mindset and behaviour of the population

Caroline Schaffalitzky, Associate Professor in Philosophy

A recent study across ten OECD countries concludes that almost 60% of the world’s young people are suffering from eco-stress, says Ane Qvortrup, professor of educational sciences. She does not see this scenario in Danish contexts. At the same time, she explains that there is disagreement about what climate anxiety is and how it is measured:

‘When you have high rates of climate anxiety, it can sometimes be because some questionnaires simply ask whether young people are afraid of climate change. This can be described as climate concern. Studies show that such concern can be mitigated by other emotions, such as hope for the future or the belief that something can be done about the changes. It is only if feelings of hope or faith do not co-exist with climate concerns that there is a serious condition, and only then does it make sense to talk about anxiety. I therefore suggest that surveys of young people’s concerns about the climate should include questions about hope for the future and the experience of having action in mind,’ emphasises Ane Qvortrup.

Ane Qvortrup and Caroline Schaffalitzky both argue that a certain level of awareness or concern is a fundamental prerequisite for us to invest the psychological energy required to bring about change.

But ideally, we should not worry too much or too little. It is all about balance.

‘We need to be aware, but it shouldn’t hamper our actions. We need to have hope and faith that things will get better,’ says Ane Qvortrup.

Can we be too worried?

Concern about the future of the climate cannot simply be defined as eco-stress or climate anxiety. Concern can be positive because it can help bring about change.

‘I wouldn’t call concern that contributes to action eco-stress,’ concludes Ane Qvortrup.

Caroline Schaffalitzky agrees with Ane Qvortrup, explaining that worse than climate anxiety and eco-stress is indifference.

‘In our activities, we often see that children and young people are not particularly interested in these issues. It’s not because they are ignorant or selfish, but rather it’s just not a big part of their lives compared to more immediate issues,’ says Caroline Schaffalitzky, explaining that here we can start talking about what is sometimes called inner sustainability.

‘I don’t like the term, but the idea is that to talk about sustainability, we need to look not only at technological solutions, but also at the mindset and behaviour of the population,’ she explains.

‘Indifference and climate scepticism are not productive, but we shouldn’t be fearful either. The degree of concern should always be weighed up along with the other emotions that may mediate these concerns. We should therefore be careful not to see concern as an isolated factor,’ argues Ane Qvortrup.

In an article published with colleagues Torben Spanget Christensen and Jonas Teglbjærg, Ane Qvortrup distinguishes between being climate sceptical, recognising the reality of climate problems and being an activist, pointing out that the middle perspective is the most productive. Just as indifference has negative consequences, activism without a clear idea of action for change is nothing more than empty rhetoric.


Sustainability needs to be incorporated in teaching right from the start. It shouldn’t be an afterthought

Ane Qvortrup, Professor of Educational Science

From awareness, to thought, to action

Although many people are aware of climate change and the challenges it poses, it can be difficult to envisage what actions can contribute to change.

‘Concrete actions often turn out to be individual actions. The individualisation of solutions is in itself a challenge because it contributes to the notion that action is an individual responsibility,’ explains Ane Qvortrup.

It can be a problem if young people believe that the solutions to climate change rest on their shoulders, and Ane Qvortrup expresses concern that we are creating a situation where hope for the future is replaced with uncertainty and a fear of risk.

In this regard, Caroline Schaffalitzky points out that we need to orient ourselves to a collective approach.

‘The focus on the individual has a great impact on young people’s relationship with sustainability and climate change, which contributes to a lack of understanding in the relationship between collective and individual responsibility. We cannot simply reduce sustainability to a question of individual responsibility and behaviour,’ she argues, adding:

‘Part of the problem is a thought like: “It doesn’t matter if I buy a diesel car.” If we all think like that, we overlook the fact that there is a difference between what is collectively rational and what is individually rational.’

We must therefore become better at engaging in authentic dialogues on sustainability and climate change that focus more on collective rather than individual responsibility for actions and behaviour. 

The importance of complexity and school

There is no other institution that is as in touch with society and that can help bring about change as school.

‘We need to rethink school subjects so that sustainability becomes an aspect of class teaching, as well as being addressed through cross-curricular programmes. Today, we think of sustainability as something that complements other subjects at the end of the textbook or on special theme days instead of making it an integral part of the teaching,’ says Ane Qvortrup.

By thinking of sustainability as being independent of the subject factor, students fail to understand that creating sustainable development requires us to change the way we generally think and act. The reason that sustainability is also addressed through interdisciplinary programmes is so that they become aware of the complexity of sustainability issues and, for example, do not see the electric car as unequivocally sustainable. They must not overlook production conditions and CO2 costs or forget that the most sustainable choice in certain situations may be to drive a diesel or petrol car until they can no longer do so.

‘Another challenge is that we talk a great deal about ecological sustainability but forget about social and economic sustainability,’ emphasises Ane Qvortrup.

A good example of how social and economic sustainability can come under pressure is in the public debate on vegetarianism and veganism.

‘In some cases, we forget about the issue of inequality,’ says Ane Qvortrup, using the issue of the vegan diet as an example: ‘If we all started eating vegan, we would create huge inequality, as not everyone has the resources to do so. There are not enough financial resources for all families to live a vegan lifestyle.’

Caroline Schaffalitzky agrees, explaining how we can quickly trivialise the issues.

‘If you live in a family that can’t afford to live sustainably, it can be shameful. And it shouldn’t be the case that you can’t be part of the conversation just because your parent is a farmer,’ she argues.

Therefore, school is an extremely important place, as this is where we establish how we talk about sustainability.

Drawing a comparison with the Covid-19 pandemic, Caroline Schaffalitzky further elaborates on how biotechnical solutions are sometimes the least of the problems:

‘Instead, the big problem actually seems to be people’s behaviour,’ she says, explaining: ‘Practical and technological knowledge is one thing. People’s self-image another.’

Both Caroline Schaffalitzky and Ane Qvortrup assert that people underestimate how difficult it is to get people to both regulate their behaviour and also have a dialogue about sustainability in a productive way.

‘People think that we can deal with sustainability in the same way that we can with other subjects. So there’s a need to understand that this is a completely new topic and it therefore needs to be taught in a more integrated way,’ argues Caroline Schaffalitzky.
Ane Qvortrup agrees:

‘Sustainability needs to be incorporated in teaching right from the start. It shouldn’t be an afterthought.’

Both researchers agree that we cannot talk about sustainability without mentioning the need for interdisciplinarity. 

‘We need to incorporate acceptability, values and worldviews when developing technological solutions,’ says Caroline Schaffalitzky, who is supported by Ane Qvortrup:

‘I am convinced that literature, for example, can help to create a vision of the future. We have tended to reduce sustainability to individual subjects, such as in the fields of technology and science. But it is important that the humanities do not just deal with ethics while the others take care of the content. We need to think in an interdisciplinary way, and in this context literature, for example, can help to create visions, ideas and hope that can help in the development of technological solutions.’

However, the conclusion is that we should not trivialise the existence of young people who have higher than average levels of climate anxiety.

‘We have always had vulnerable young people, and we will always have them,’ says Ane Qvortrup, adding: ‘But I don’t think that’s the general picture we see.’

We must therefore create a space and a language for talking about sustainability and climate issues. For through dialogue and openness, we can connect hope, knowledge and ideas. 

While both too little and too much concern can have negative consequences, it is important that as a population – young and old alike – we have an awareness of climate issues.

‘Only when it becomes natural to include sustainability in everything we do can we act accordingly,’ concludes Caroline Schaffalitzky.

Meet the researcher: Caroline Schaffalitzky

Caroline Schaffalitzky is head of Filosofi i Skolen (Philosophy in School) and associate professor and head of studies in Philosophy. She is particularly interested in research ethics, philosophy of science and philosophical dialogue, which is an exploratory form of conversation. This is particularly suitable for conversations about sustainability and the didactic challenges these conversations can entail.

Meet the researcher: Ane Qvortrup

Ane Qvortrup is Head of the Center for Gymnasieforskning (Centre for Upper Secondary School Research) and professor of educational science. She has a special interest in professional competence in education and in recent years has been working with sustainability in schools. She has focused on how schools can best teach sustainability, as well as looking at student well-being and the issues of climate anxiety and eco-stress. This is in order to bring about productive conditions for having conversations about sustainability and the climate.

Last Updated 15.05.2023