Researchers Find That Better Sharing of New “Eco-Innovations” Can Combat Rising Climate Despair

Allison Carter
photo of solar panels glimmering under a setting sun

Climate despair is emerging as a psychosocial threat. But UVA researchers have found a potential source of hope that is underutilized.

Ben Converse UVA updated headshot
Benjamin Converse, associate professor of public policy and psychology at the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy and principal investigator, found that by learning about “eco-innovations” feelings of climate despair can be somewhat lessened.

Climate despair describes a state of hopelessness about the climate crisis. These feelings of despair can be crippling, causing people to feel an overwhelming sense of futility and give up on battling climate change at all.

But a team of interdisciplinary researchers, supported by UVA’s Environmental Institute, recently discovered a way to address climate despair, potentially opening new paths to encourage action.

Benjamin Converse, associate professor of public policy and psychology at the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy and principal investigator, found that by learning about “eco-innovations” feelings of climate despair can be somewhat lessened. By emphasizing success stories, these eco-innovations can contribute to inspirational narratives that go beyond doom-and-gloom, potentially mobilizing people to take positive steps to combat climate change.

Alongside Chris Neale, postdoctoral research fellow at UVA; Maura Austin, postdoctoral research associate at UVA; and Jenny Roe, professor of design and director of the Center for Design & Health in the School of Architecture, Converse designed a series of experiments to test whether learning about eco-innovations can decrease climate despair. The paper was published in Climatic Change.

Converse shared his research and the impact of the findings.

Q: How do you see climate despair affecting people today?

A: Climate despair reflects the view that things are overwhelming and our responses are futile. People who feel this way are very concerned about climate change, but their beliefs and emotions tell them that they might as well give up because their actions won’t make it any better.

Research over the last 15 years shows that this is a growing problem and a dangerous one. It’s bad for individuals’ well-being – it contributes to distress and anxiety in adults and children around the world – and it is a barrier to collective pro-environmental action. It’s both stressful and demotivating, which is a bad combination.

Q: Is there anything we can do about climate despair?

A: There has been a lot of behavioral science that paints a picture of the climate-despair problem, describing the experience in detail, identifying who might be most vulnerable and documenting its implications. But there has been much less work on trying to identify conditions that lead to a more hopeful outlook. Our research is some of the first that investigates potential solutions that can lead to positive climate action.

The idea we explored is whether people feel more hopeful when they learn about eco-innovations. Scientists, engineers and other innovators around the world are developing new technologies that might be part of society’s responses to slow the climate crisis and help us live more sustainably. We wanted to know whether learning about some of these exciting and novel efforts might help to counteract the doom-and-gloom narratives that breed climate despair.  

Q: Explain “eco-innovation.” What is it and why might it decrease climate despair?

A: Eco-innovation is any process, practice, or product that contributes to sustainability goals. From a psychological perspective, what really matters is that it seems new and promising. Our study focused on technological innovations that seemed slick, futuristic, and exciting.

It’s this subjective experience of having your mind opened to totally new approaches that we thought might increase people’s sense of hope. It might create an emotional experience of awe. It might remind you that others are working toward the problem you care about. And it might show you that there are potential pathways toward a better future that you simply didn’t know were there.

Q: Does it work? How do participants who are shown eco-innovation stories react?

A: The team ran eleven studies with over 3,000 adult participants (mostly from the U.S.).

In six of the studies, we compared baseline levels of climate hopelessness (how do you usually feel, with no intervention) to levels of climate hopelessness after watching a video that showed eco-innovation. For example, one of the videos was a tour around a net-zero “Sustainable City” in Dubai. It showed electric vehicles, green architecture, and wise water management. There were stunning visuals of geodesic biodomes where they grow crops.

We found that participants reported lower average levels of climate hopelessness after watching an eco-innovation video than they did without having watched one.

In the other five studies, we compared the eco-innovation videos to videos about less innovative, more traditional forms of collective climate action such as an environmentally focused intentional community. These comparisons allowed us to ask whether it’s really the innovation part that is creating the differences. And that does seem to be the case. This suggests there is something special about the innovativeness, about seeing approaches that you haven’t considered before.

Q: So eco-innovations can decrease climate hopelessness, but is it actually better to feel the full severity of the climate crisis? Is this creating unwarranted optimism?

I think we need to try to strike a delicate balance. People need to understand the problem. They need to feel a sense of urgency. But, without some amount of hope, they are not going to be resilient to the looming threat and motivated to act. The next big behavioral-science challenge in this area is figuring out how to turn that hope into action.  

Q: How do you think current media can use your research to change their messaging to the general public, and why do you think it matters?

The science journalist Clive Thompson wrote an article in Wired a few years ago arguing that we might finally be moving past “peak indifference” on climate change. That is good because it means more people are starting to care. But moving past that point is also fraught. As more people start to acknowledge the urgency and magnitude of the crisis, more people are at risk of feeling overwhelmed. We need to start convincing people there are solutions to the climate crisis.  

The argument from our new research is NOT that technology on its own can save us. But some technological developments will surely be part of a portfolio of responses. And, socially, these eco-innovations can be inspirational. Learning about eco-innovations can open people’s eyes to some of the fresh, new and exciting ideas that smart, creative people are exploring.

Many people know that the climate problem is getting worse, and quickly, but not everyone knows that our response options are improving, too.  I think we can aim for a better balance in describing both the growing problem and the developing response options.

We do need action, not just hope. But hope is a prerequisite to action.

To learn more, read these publications:

Converse, B. A., & Austin, M. M. (2022). People-watching and the environment: Looking for signs of hope while concern outpaces action. Current Opinion in Psychology, 43, 249-253.

Neale, C., Austin, M. M., Roe, J., & Converse, B. A. (2023). Making people aware of eco-innovations can decrease climate despair. Climatic Change, 176, 1-21.