Climate Change Is Stressing Out the Young, But Inspiring Some to Action
Young people have high levels of distress about climate change, and a new study argues that their anguish could be key to fighting it.
“People of all ages are being affected by the climate crisis. Young people in particular, though, will live through more of the unfolding hazards of the climate crisis than older generations,” said researcher Emma Lawrance, mental health innovations fellow at Imperial College London's Institute of Global Health Innovation.
“Children born today will experience seven times the number of heat waves of their grandparents, for instance," she noted. "At the same time, they are not yet in traditional positions of power to make the changes they know are urgently needed to safeguard their future."
For the research, Lawrance and her colleagues surveyed 539 people in the United Kingdom between 16 and 24 years of age.
In all, 64.3% had moderate or high levels of climate distress. Those with diagnosed mental health conditions were significantly more likely to be among this group.
Those who were more well-to-do had significantly higher odds for experiencing moderate as opposed to low climate distress.
And guys were less likely to have high levels of climate distress.
A child psychiatrist in New York hears the alarm coming from young people all the time.
"If you speak to many young people today they will often say, 'I'm worried about the notion of bringing a baby into the world. Why would we want to bring a baby into the world given the state of the planet?'" said Dr. Victor Fornari of Northwell Health in Glen Oaks, N.Y., who reviewed the findings.
"I think there is a great deal of concern we hear about on a daily basis," he added, "Some of the serious impact of climate change, whether it's fires in North America, fires in Hawaii, a recent hurricane in Southern California that hadn't happened for almost 90 years, concerns about flooding, what will the sea level be like, what coastline cities are at most vulnerable risk."
In the survey, climate distress was associated with several social/psychological impacts, including frustration over inaction; lack of control/agency, and feelings of guilt or shame about one's own contributions.
But here's the good news: 86% of comments left by survey participants expressed hope about the future of climate change action.
“I hope that world leaders will take the issue of climate change more seriously,” one respondent wrote.
Respondents who had higher levels of climate distress were more likely to see positives in taking action -- especially the perceived improvement of health and well-being from adopting eco-friendly practices; gaining a sense of purpose and identity through climate action, and being able to set an example for others.
The authors said this hope can promote personal resilience as well as a way to form community, which could, in turn, help respondents better manage stress, live longer and want to fight climate change.
The researchers also found that respondents with higher levels of climate distress were more likely to engage in climate activism, especially if they had externally focused emotions, versus withdrawing.
Pro-environmental behavior included activities like cycling instead of driving to see friends; recycling or reducing single-use plastic; and, less often, civic participation or political activism.
But while young people are not yet the ones in power, Lawrance argued, governments and corporations need to step up.
“The main action legislators need to take is to … phase out fossil fuels." she said. "Taking sufficient and visible climate action will reduce the direct impacts of climate change on mental health, while also reducing the anxiety that largely comes from seeing insufficient action in the face of known and growing threats."
Also vital, in Lawrance's view: Creating opportunities for young people's voices to be meaningfully included in climate decision-making.
Doing so, she argued, will not only help the planet, but also the next generation's stress level.
“There are many win-win opportunities or co-benefits to taking climate action for mental health and wellbeing of children," Lawrance said. "[By taking] actions needed to slow climate change and cope with its effects, such as reducing air pollution and access to green space, strengthening social connection in communities, decreasing inequalities, properly insulating buildings and improving active transport [better options for walking and cycling], for instance, legislators can create conditions that better foster good mental health and safeguard from mental illness."
The study was published Aug. 23 in PLOS Global Public Health.
The United Nations has more about climate change.
SOURCES: Emma Lawrance, DPhil, MSc, faculty of medicine, Institute of Global Health Innovation, lead policy fellow for mental health, Imperial College London, U.K.; Victor Fornari, MD, child/adolescent psychiatry, Northwell Health, Glen Oaks, N.Y.; PLOS Global Public Health, Aug. 23, 2023