Climate Guilt

What is climate guilt?

Climate change is one of the most pressing issues of our time and most of us want to do something about it. Yet oftentimes our lifestyles are far from good for the environment – many of us identify as “consumers”, “flyers”, or “meat eaters”, and we live in a capitalist system that prioritizes economic or personal benefit over planetary health. Noticing this can make us feel guilty or ashamed.

Climate guilt arises when people think they have behaved badly (e.g., “I bought fast fashion even though I know it’s bad for the environment”). Guilt can be an individual experience, but it can also be felt collectively. Collective guilt can arise when the group a person belongs to (their “in-group”) is seen as responsible for doing harm.

Guilt can be felt for a short period of time or it can persist long-term – after all, none of us can escape the system we live in.

Climate guilt might be felt together with climate shame. While the emotions guilt and shame are sometimes used interchangeably, there are important differences between them. For example, shame is more closely linked to identity, whereas guilt often concerns a person’s actions (or inaction).

How does climate guilt affect our mental health and behaviour?

Guilt can activate other emotions like sadness, isolation, and anger. It can also spark or regulate changes in behaviour. For instance, climate guilt can improve our ability to make moral actions by allowing us to recognize our fault and amend it for the next time.

Yet because guilt can be difficult to bear, it can also motivate defence mechanisms and problematic coping strategies, such as:

  • Scapegoating (blaming someone else for your wrongdoing)
  • Religious confession
  • Moral disengagement strategies (e.g., diffusing and displacing responsibility, downplaying the consequences of the harmful action, or reframing the harmful action as serving some worthy cause)

Psychoanalyst Sally Weintrobe’s concept of “bubbles” refers to the psychological defences that people construct to protect themselves from the discomfort of climate guilt. These “bubbles” can take the form of denial, compartmentalization, or distancing from the realities of climate change.

Therefore, feeling guilt is not in itself problematic, but the psychological barriers we build to avoid guilt can be.

The amount of guilt we feel is related to our social and personal norms. For example: if a society, or even a group of friends, views flying as a bad thing to do, someone in the group will feel more guilty for flying than if they were in a group that encouraged flying.

Climate guilt in the climate crisis

While feeling guilty about contributing to climate change is not a new phenomenon, the prominence and prevalence of climate guilt has increased in recent years, with increasing media coverage and public concern, and as the impacts of climate change intensify and become more widespread. Even devoted environmentalists who actively practice living sustainably report experiencing guilt.

Individual actions are an important part of reducing emissions. Yet an emphasis on individual actions and lifestyle choices risks diverting attention from the corporations, individuals, or nations whose emissions are much higher. One example: Many might be familiar with the term “carbon footprint”, which calculates a person’s emissions based on everyday lifestyle choices. This concept was in fact invented by the oil company British Petroleum, as part of their marketing strategy to shift the blame and responsibility for climate change to the consumer, rather than acknowledging that their product (oil, a fossil fuel) causes climate change when burned. It is therefore understandable that many people criticize the concept of climate guilt, saying that corporations have manipulated our feelings of guilt.

Ultimately, climate guilt can be a powerful motivator for some, while feeling like a personal attack for others. Luckily, we don’t have to choose between feeling guilty or taking action. We can acknowledge that oil companies and governments bear the majority of the responsibility for climate change, while also recognizing our own responsibility, and the impact we can have in creating new social norms.

Unequal experiences

Everybody contributes to climate change in some way via their carbon footprint, making it difficult to point out a “bad guy”. However, generally, fossil fuel companies, rich people, and wealthy nations have contributed a far greater share. On average, countries in the Global North (such as North America or European countries) have a much larger ecological footprint than countries from the Global South (e.g., countries in Latin America or Africa). Despite this, a survey by the National Geographic found that people from countries with lower environmental footprints felt the most guilt about their impact, while people in high-consuming countries did not feel as bad about it.

There are similar differences with climate activists: activists in the Global North have a tendency to reject guilt as an effective emotion for mobilizing people, whereas activists from the Global South are more prone to place guilt, particularly on northern countries.

Socioeconomic status is an important factor in managing guilt. Many people do not have the means to reduce their guilt by living “sustainably” (e.g., installing rooftop solar panels or heat pumps, buying an electric car, shopping locally or from sustainable brands), as these options can be more expensive or have a high up-front cost.

Age affects the experience of climate guilt, with young people reporting more guilt than older people. For example, in the United States, young people (under age 30) are nearly 1.5 times more likely than people over 30 to say they “feel guilty about their negative impact on the environment”.

Consequences if carbon emissions continue to climb

If unaddressed, climate guilt can activate defence mechanisms, riding us further into climate denial the worse carbon emissions get.

Research findings

A main research question about climate guilt is whether it encourages climate action. Research studies show:

Next directions for research

Research on climate guilt shows inconsistent findings about whether it’s effective in spurring behavioural change. While many studies have found guilt to be a motivator of pro-environmental behaviour, this is not true for everyone or all scenarios. Other researchers have found that pride might have a more powerful effect. Future research should identify under which conditions guilt appeals are effective, and when it would be best to switch to other strategies.

What can we do to address climate guilt?

Acknowledge that climate guilt is completely valid. Feeling climate guilt from time to time is normal. In fact, it can even be a helpful signal to show you in which areas you are on the right track, and where you could improve. While striving to live in a more sustainable way is important, remember that no-one is perfect. For most of us, it is impossible to always know which action is most ethical and has the least environmental impact.

Focus on collective action. Climate guilt often pushes us to focus on individual actions. When you find yourself asking what you can do about the climate crisis, remember that while personal changes are valuable, the most impactful action we can take is collective. In the words of Bill McKibben: “The most important thing an individual can do is be a little less of an individual.” Acknowledging that oil and gas companies, wealthy elites, and affluent countries bear significant responsibility can help us direct our energy towards systemic issues and climate justice.

Assess what’s making you feel guilty. If you want to feel less climate guilt in your day-to-day life, take a closer look at the actions that lie behind those emotions. What specific thing is making you feel guilty? Oftentimes, making small changes in our lives doesn’t have to be big or scary. Take a look at these tips from the United Nations to help you find alternatives that are not only better for our planet, but can make you feel empowered about living according to your values.

Talk about it. It can always help to share how you feel with like-minded individuals or a mental health professional, especially if your guilt is becoming overwhelming. Joining a climate cafe could be a place to start, where anyone can share and discuss their thoughts and feelings about the climate crisis in a supportive, empathetic environment.

Cultivate compassion. Understanding that we all have our limitations and challenges can help us support one another in the collective effort to mitigate climate change. As psychoanalyst Sally Weintrobe writes about emerging from our psychological “bubbles” that protect us from climate guilt, “It matters greatly that this is undertaken in a spirit of forgiveness of self and other based on an understanding that we too have an inner exception”. By cultivating compassion for yourself and others, we can transform climate emotions into a driving force for positive change.

Further reading


Ecologies of Guilt in Environmental Rhetorics by Tim Jensen, published in 2019 by Palgrave Pivot.

Psychological Roots of the Climate Crisis: Neoliberal Exceptionalism and the Culture of Uncare by Sally Weintrobe, published in 2021 by Bloomsbury Publishing.

Articles and Online Sources

An Audacious Toolkit: Actions Against Climate Breakdown (Part 3: I is for Individual), published in Living Well Within Limits on December 18, 2018, by Julia Steinberger.

Big oil coined ‘carbon footprints’ to blame us for their greed. Keep them on the hook, published in The Guardian on August 23, 2021, by Rebecca Solnit.

Climate Change Enters the Therapy Room, published in The New York Times on February 6, 2022, by Ellen Barry.

Charts: Which Country Feels the Most Guilty About the Environment?, published in Mother Jones on July 13, 2012, by Kate Sheppard.

Compassion, published in The Handbook of Climate Psychology, pg. 15, on August 29, 2022, by the Climate Psychology Alliance UK.

Dealing With Climate Guilt, published in Terra Movement on November 17, 2020, by Sofia Hadjiosif.

Global survey shows: Broad majority of global population supports climate action, published by the University of Bonn on February 12, 2024.

Green, but Still Feeling Guilty, published in The New York Times on September 29, 2010, by Joyce Wadler.

Opinion: You Are Not the Problem — Climate Guilt is a Marketing Strategy, published in State of the Planet, Columbia Climate School, on February 15, 2023, by Helena Kilburn.

What to Do If You Feel Guilt About Climate Change, published in Verywell Mind on June 12, 2022, by Julia Childs Heyl.

Videos and interviews

Feeling Guilty About Climate Change feat. Hank Green, produced by Hot Mess, published by PBS digital studios, first aired on January 30, 2020. A brief look into climate guilt, it’s link to fossil fuels, and different ways to cope with it.

How to let go of your climate guilt, produced by See Change Sessions, recorded on March 3-4, 2022. Speakers Stephen Posner and Molly Kawahata discuss how ineffective narratives behind the climate crisis spur climate guilt and shame and how we can reframe them.

Sally Weintrobe: Moral injury, the culture of uncare and the climate bubble, produced by Akademie Psychoanalyse & Psychotherapie München.

Selected Research/Scientific Papers

Ágoston, C., Csaba, B., Nagy, B., Kőváry, Z., Dúll, A., Rácz, J., & Demetrovics, Z. (2022). Identifying types of eco-anxiety, eco-guilt, eco-grief, and eco-coping in a climate-sensitive population: a qualitative study. International journal of environmental research and public health, 19(4), 2461.

Culiberg, B., Cho, H., Kos Koklic, M., & Zabkar, V. (2022). The role of moral foundations, anticipated guilt and personal responsibility in predicting anti-consumption for environmental reasons. Journal of Business Ethics, 182(2), 465–481.

de la Fuente, P. P. (2020). Guilt-tripping: On the relation between ethical decisions, climate change and the built environment. Urban Planning, 5(4), 193-203.

Hoppen, T. H., Schlechter, P., Arntz, A., Rameckers, S. A., Ehring, T., & Morina, N. (2022). A brief measure of guilt and shame: validation of the Guilt and Shame Questionnaire (GSQ-8). European Journal of Psychotraumatology, 13(2), 2146720.

Kleres, J., & Wettergren, Å. (2017). Fear, hope, anger, and guilt in climate activism. Social Movement Studies, 16(5), 507–519.

Kusch, S., & Fiebelkorn, F. (2019). Environmental impact judgments of meat, vegetarian, and insect burgers: Unifying the negative footprint illusion and quantity insensitivity. Food Quality and Preference, 78, 103731.

Li, Z., Yu, H., Zhou, Y., Kalenscher, T., & Zhou, X. (2020). Guilty by association: How group-  based (collective) guilt arises in the brain. NeuroImage, 209, 116488.

Lim, R. E., & Hong, J. M. (2022). Don’t make me feel guilty! Examining the effect of a past moral deed on perceived irritation with guilt appeals in environmental advertising. Journal of Current Issues & Research in Advertising, 43(4), 421-436.

Obradovich, N., Guenther, S.M. Collective responsibility amplifies mitigation behaviors. Climatic Change 137, 307–319 (2016).

Pasca, L. (2022). Pride and guilt as mediators in the relationship between connection to nature and pro-environmental intention. Climatic Change, 175(1-2), 5.

Pihkala, P. (2022). Toward a taxonomy of climate emotions. Frontiers in Climate, 3, 738154.

Poortinga, W., Demski, C., & Steentjes, K. (2023). Generational differences in climate-related beliefs, risk perceptions and emotions in the UK. Communications Earth & Environment, 4(1).

Rees, J. H., Klug, S., & Bamberg, S. (2015). Guilty conscience: motivating pro-environmental behavior by inducing negative moral emotions. Climatic change, 130, 439-452.

Rees, J. H., & Bamberg, S. (2014). Climate protection needs societal change: Determinants of intention to participate in collective climate action. European Journal of Social Psychology, 44(5), 466-473.

Shipley, N. J., van Riper, C. J., Stewart, W., Chu, M., Stedman, R. C., & Dolcos, F. (2023). Pride and guilt as place-based affective antecedents to pro-environmental behavior. Frontiers in Psychology, 13, 1084741.

Schneider, C. R., Zaval, L., Weber, E. U., & Markowitz, E. M. (2017). The influence of anticipated pride and guilt on pro-environmental decision making. PloS one, 12(11), e0188781.

Tam, K. P. (2019). Anthropomorphism of nature, environmental guilt, and pro-environmental behavior. Sustainability, 11(19), 5430.

Turp, M., & Weintrobe, S. (2022). Exploring The Psychological roots of the climate crisis. Psychodynamic Practice, 28(4), 360-366.

Weintrobe, S. (2020). Moral injury, the culture of uncare and the climate bubble. Journal of Social Work Practice, 34(4), 351-362.

Wohl, M. J., Branscombe, N. R., & Klar, Y. (2006). Collective guilt: Emotional reactions when one’s group has done wrong or been wronged. European Review of Social Psychology, 17(1), 1–37.

Author and version info

March 8, 2024

Author: Sophia Münzer

Editor: Colleen Rollins, PhD