How climate anxiety is devastating a generation

How climate anxiety is devastating a generation
‘I‘ve felt utterly helpless‘ — A new study has exposed the terrifying extent to which the climate crisis is linked to widespread psychological distress among young people globally. Experts are calling on governments to take these concerns seriously, or risk inflicting further damage.

“I grew up being afraid of drowning in my own bedroom,” said 23-year-old Mitzi Tan from the Philippines, reflecting on the impact the climate crisis has had on his mental wellbeing. Tan’s words form part of a new study which surveyed 10,000 young people aged 16 to 25 across ten different countries on the subject of the climate crisis and government response. The results of the survey, which is the largest of its kind and is under peer review in the scientific journal Lancet Planetary Health, are devastating. 

The study, which was released today, found that nearly half of global youth surveyed (45 per cent) said that climate anxiety and distress is affecting their daily lives and functioning. It found that 75 per cent of respondents believe the “future is frightening” while almost half (48 per cent) of those who said they talked with others about climate change felt ignored or dismissed.

“Society tells me that this anxiety is an irrational fear that needs to be overcome,” Tan continues, “One that meditation and healthy coping mechanisms will ‘fix.’ At its root, our climate anxiety comes from this deep-set feeling of betrayal because of government inaction. To truly address our growing climate anxiety, we need justice.”

Young people surveyed from the Global South expressed more worry and a greater impact on functioning; while young people surveyed in Portugal (which has seen dramatic increases in wildfires since 2017) showed the highest level of worry among those from the Global North.

The shocking statistics come just weeks before the UK is scheduled to host the COP26 summit in Glasgow in November. The summit, which will see representatives of countries, organisations and peoples from across the world gather in the Scottish city, is seen by many as a pivotal moment in the global fight to thwart further devastating and irreversible climate change.

Some of those surveyed would have been just ten years old when COP21 was held in Paris in the winter of 2015, leading to the Paris Agreement, an international treaty adopted by 196 parties with the intention of keeping global warming well below two degrees. Just two years after the treaty, also sometimes known as the Paris Accords, came into effect, the UN’s International Panel on Climate Change (the IPCC) released a report that warned that humanity had just 12 years to avert irreversible climate change. 

Beth Irving, the 19-year-old climate activist behind the Cardiff student climate strikes, was just 16 at the time the IPCC released their report. “I went through phases of feeling utterly helpless in face of this immense problem, and then would launch myself into organising protests or changing things within my school. To put so much energy into something and then see so little real life impact was exhausting; I had many occasions where I would hide myself away and think ‘None of this is enough’. It’s so damaging to put this problem on the shoulders of young people – hope needs to come instead from palpable structural action.”

Of those who responded to the survey released today, 65 per cent felt governments were failing young people. 61 per cent of those asked said the way governments deal with climate change was not “protecting me, the planet and/or future generations”. 

“This study paints a horrific picture of widespread climate anxiety in our children and young people,” says Caroline Hickman, from the University of Bath, Climate Psychology Alliance and co-lead author on the study. “It suggests for the first time that high levels of psychological distress in youth is linked to government inaction. Our children’s anxiety is a completely rational reaction given the inadequate responses to climate change they are seeing from governments. What more do governments need to hear to take action?”

Last month the IPCC released its latest report, which made for grim reading. In a statement, UN Secretary-General António Guterres said: “Today’s IPCC Working Group 1 report is a code red for humanity.  The alarm bells are deafening, and the evidence is irrefutable:  greenhouse‑gas emissions from fossil-fuel burning and deforestation are choking our planet and putting billions of people at immediate risk.” Days later, on 12 August 2021, students came together outside the Department of Education to demand urgent action over a curriculum which they state is failing to address climate change.

In the run up to the latest wave of Extinction Rebellion action in London, which saw thousands of activists take to the streets demanding urgent action on climate change, Scientist Rebellion leaked the text of the upcoming IPCC report, due to be published next year. The text, which was still in draft form, warned that “[climate] mitigation and development goals cannot be met through incremental change”. 

It identifies some reasons for this: “The pace of transition can be impeded by ‘lock-in’ from existing capital, institutions, and social norms”. Fossil fuel companies receive trillions of dollars in subsidies each year, an estimated 6.5 per cent of global GDP [IMF]. Redirecting this capital would dramatically improve life for the majority, but as the report notes, “the constraint is also political, in terms of the power of incumbent fossil fuel interests to block initiatives towards decarbonisation”.

The study, released today, which surveyed young people in Australia, United States, United Kingdom, India, Nigeria, Philippines, Finland, Portugal, Brazil and France, concludes that governments must respond to “protect the mental health of children and young people by engaging in ethical, collective, policy-based action against climate change”. The research comes after UNICEF released a report into the physical threat climate change poses to children, with one billion children at “extremely high risk” of the impacts of the climate crisis.

Dr Liz Marks, from the University of Bath and co-lead author on the study said: It’s shocking to hear how so many young people from around the world feel betrayed by those who are supposed to protect them. Now is the time to face the truth, listen to young people, and take urgent action against climate change.”

Ben Smoke is Huck’s Politics & Activism Editor. Follow him on Twitter.

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