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Study finds COVID-19 distracted people, forcing climate change to the back burner

Dr. Ala Stanford administers a COVID-19 test in Philadelphia. Stanford and other doctors formed the Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium to help address the pandemic's heath disparities.
Matt Rourke
Dr. Ala Stanford administers a COVID-19 test in Philadelphia.

The COVID-19 pandemic dominated the minds of people over the past few years, resulting in reduced attention toward climate change, according to a study conducted by Stony Brook University political scientists.

The study is based on the theory of “the finite pool of worry,” which was coined by Princeton University professor Elke Weber. It suggests that the human mind avoids accepting multiple negative events at the same time. In this case, the pandemic remained in the forefront of people’s brains, while climate change took a back seat.

Oleg Smirnov, an associate professor in the department of political science at Stony Brook University and lead author of the study, said his team analyzed Twitter activity to determine which topics people were more concerned about.

“We scraped all tweets by all people or organizations, '' he said. “Everyone who mentioned climate change on Twitter — we collected those for a total of almost 19 million tweets,” he continued.

There were two stages of the research, which was conducted across three years, between 2019 and 2021. First, political scientists looked at the quantity of daily tweets, calculating the number of posts that mentioned climate change. Next, the research team worked with statistical software, using regression analysis to estimate the relationship between COVID-19 cases and deaths, and the number of tweets that mentioned climate change. Other factors influenced Twitter activity, including natural disasters, political factors, and media coverage.

“The second part of our work was related to analyzing the content of the tweets, specifically the sentiment and the emotions,” Smirnov said.

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His team used sentiment analysis tools to look at emotions such as anger, fear, and disgust to determine how Twitter users were feeling. They found that there was less of these sentiments in the tweets that talk about climate change, as the pandemic worsened.

“Fear and anger would underlie anxiety whereas sadness is something more related to depression,” Smirnov said.

Fear and anger are known as high energy states that prioritize threats, according to the study. Sadness is known as a low energy state, which enables people to be sad about multiple things at once.

Smirnov said the team has a goal to include the year 2022 in their analysis. As soon as the year ends, they will go back and collect the necessary data to see if the initial results change in any way. Next, the team will look at the impact of nuclear war threats in relation to climate change, since they are seen as an existential threat to humanity. Similar to coronavirus, Smirnov said tweets could indicate nuclear war being seen as both an existential and immediate threat, while climate change remains distant.

“It’s really important to address climate change today because whatever we do today will determine the future,” Smirnov said.

Lauren is a former news intern at WSHU.