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75 Percent of Young People Are Frightened by the Future. That’s the Only Sane Reaction to Climate Change.

Climate change is already devastating the young, who feel abandoned by their governments and earlier generations.

Young people sit, wearing facemasks, on the ground.
Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg with fellow protesters outside the Swedish Parliament during a Fridays for Future demonstration, on August 20, 2021

The climate crisis is also a mental health crisis. Psychologists have known this for some time. But this week, preliminary findings from a massive new study have revealed that global warming’s impact on young people’s well-being is far more intense than anyone predicted. The worst part is that the kids’ distress isn’t irrational: The problem lies with their governments. 

Climate distress has been a growing field of inquiry but, until now, low on quantitative research. This study’s scale was impressive: Researchers surveyed 10,000 people aged 16 to 25, in 10 countries (1,000 in each country) on their feelings about the climate crisis. The findings in the study, which has not yet been peer reviewed but will eventually be published in The Lancet, are harrowing: Over half the respondents think “humanity is doomed,” while more than 45 percent reported that distress over climate change affected their daily life and ability to function. 

While 84 percent of the young people surveyed were “at least moderately worried,” nearly 60 percent were “very or extremely worried,” and 75 percent felt that the future was “frightening.” More than half felt sad, anxious, powerless, helpless, and guilty about the climate. The feelings least reported were optimism and indifference. During an online panel discussion of the study Tuesday morning, one of the authors, Caroline Hickman of the University of Bath, said that while the researchers had assumed that young people were suffering over climate change, “we did not know how much.”

Depression, anxiety, and intense pessimism about the future are sometimes seen by psychologists as pathological. Many young people in the United States and elsewhere are treated for such feelings. Often, the goal of treatment is to feel better, and in many cases it should be.

But severe distress over climate change is not crazy. Arguably, it’s a sign of sanity. Throughout Tuesday’s panel, researchers emphasized that the feelings young people expressed in the study were rational. “This is an emotionally mentally healthy response,” Hickman said of the distress the survey revealed. Psychologists measure mental health in part according to how people respond to external reality. “The external reality is increasingly frightening,” said Hickman. “I would worry about people not having this response.”    

There are good signs here: The widespread distress among the study’s respondents suggests that as well as facing reality, young people are having feelings about it that they’re able to express, rather than deny, repress, or deflect. Climate anxiety also suggests a healthy level of connection to the rest of society and to the world. Elouise Mayall, a co-author of the paper who is also, at 23, part of the age group studied, said she suffers from eco-anxiety “because I have empathy for people on the other side of the planet that I don’t know.” Youth climate anxiety speaks to a level of global citizenship that might surprise adults concerned about young people’s Instagram narcissism (all those selfies!).

But eco-anxiety isn’t only about the climate crisis itself; it’s inherently political. In addition to the intensity and breadth of young people’s climate distress, Hickman said, researchers were startled by how strongly such feelings aligned with the respondents’ views of their government’s response to the climate crisis. Many felt betrayed and let down by their government’s inadequate responses. The more distressed they were about the government’s lackadaisical policies, the more intense their climate anxiety.

On Tuesday’s call, several young climate activists emphasized that point. Jennifer Uchendu, 29, a Nigerian activist and founder of Susty Vibes, a social enterprise working to engage young people in sustainable development projects in Africa, said, “We are planting trees and doing these really nice things, and then there is government-backed tree felling and deforestation.” Luisa Neubauer, 25, a founder of Fridays for Future Germany, agreed, emphasizing, “The climate crisis itself is a burden we can handle. What we cannot handle is the inaction of governments everywhere. It is unacceptable, it is impossible to carry, knowing that our future is at stake, and our present is at stake, knowing that we will spend every single living year within an escalating climate crisis, with no government acting adequately.” Uchendu said that for her, anxiety over government policy “inspires action on the one hand; it also inspires feelings of powerlessness and overwhelm.”

In Germany, climate activists say, none of the major political parties, not even the Green Party, has a platform ambitious enough to address the climate crisis. Six young people have been on hunger strike for two weeks, demanding that the candidates running for chancellor meet with them publicly. One of the activists told the BBC, “I already told my parents and my friends there is a chance I won’t see them again.” 

Faced with widespread distress among young people, what can adults do to help? Hickman says the study presents “an opportunity to validate their feelings.” This means, listen, and tell the truth. We can’t offer false reassurance. As adults, being confronted with young people’s distress can be hard, and especially on this issue. Among those respondents who had talked with other people about climate change, more than half reported being ignored or dismissed. Says Hickman, “We struggle to hear these feelings because they can make us feel very guilty.”

But the best way to validate young people’s feelings is to press our governments to address climate change. If the climate movement remains primarily a youth movement, young people’s feelings of abandonment by older generations will only get worse. Political engagement is the only solution, and we can’t just leave it up to the kids. In that spirit, earlier this month longtime climate activist and author Bill McKibben announced Third Act, a new effort to organize people over 60 for “a fair and stable planet.”

Six young people in Portugal are suing 33 countries in the European Court of Human Rights, charging that by inaction on climate change, the governments have not done enough to protect their physical and mental well-being. A lawyer on Tuesday’s call, Natasa Mavronicola, who is also a human rights expert at the University of Birmingham, said that the findings of the forthcoming Lancet study strengthen the Portuguese young people’s case.

On Tuesday’s call, young people emphasized that the media needs to tell the truth about the severity of the climate crisis. But Jennifer Uchendu also thought the “doom and gloom” of such reporting should be balanced with coverage of solutions and of “what our communities are doing to find ways to live with the climate crisis,” emphasizing that hope inspires us to act. While Neubauer felt the severity of the crisis wasn’t covered adequately—climate, she said, had for too long been a “side topic,” and the media had failed to hold governments accountable for the crisis—she also agreed with Uchendu that “reporting on the climate crisis is just part of the truth. The other part is people rising up everywhere, taking the future into our own hands, and realizing that it is in our own hands.”

“I am hugely grateful to be part of a movement where people turn their anxiety into action,” Neubauer added, encouraging listeners to join the upcoming global climate strike on September 25. “This shouldn’t be a moment for pity. The adequate response to this study would be climate action. Someone said, ‘For children to worry less, adults must worry more.’”