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8 October 2021

Half of young people believe humanity is doomed – for their sake, we need to talk about climate change

Eco-anxiety is impacting the mental health of children across the world.

By Philippa Nuttall and Katharine Swindells

Young people everywhere are growing up against the backdrop of climate change. The extreme heatwaves, droughts and floods of the last year have brought the impacts of a warming world into more children’s lives and homes than ever before. Research shows deep concern about the future and the lack of action from adults to bring down carbon emissions is causing serious mental health problems among youngsters around the world.

Climate anxiety is affecting nearly half of children according to a new study led by researchers at the University of Bath. Three-quarters of the 10,000 children and young people aged 16-25 surveyed across ten countries – Australia, the US, the UK, India, Nigeria, Philippines, Finland, Portugal, Brazil and France – described the future as “frightening”. Meanwhile, around 60 per cent of respondents said their governments were “betraying me and/or future generations” and not doing enough to avoid a climate catastrophe.

Young people surveyed from the Global South expressed the greatest worries, while in developed countries, youngsters in Portugal, which has seen dramatic increases in wildfires since 2017, were most anxious about the impacts of climate change.

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The findings are worrying, but little of this is new for co-lead researcher Caroline Hickman. “I have been hearing this emotional response from children for years,” says the psychotherapist. Indeed, over half of child and adolescent psychiatrists surveyed in England by the Royal College of Psychiatrists in November 2020 said they are seeing children and young people distressed about the climate crisis and the state of the environment.

But Hickman was nonetheless “shocked by the impact of climate change on their thinking”. The fact 40 per cent of the youngsters surveyed were “hesitant to have children” and over half of them believe “humanity is doomed” is “sobering”, she says.

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Perhaps the most sobering message of all is that children are most scared of “the failure of adults” to respond to the climate crisis, the “patronising attitude” of many adults to such concerns, and the fact young people feel they have been left to carry the burden of climate climate on their own, says Hickman.

The findings of the research have come as a relief for many young people who have written to Hickman from all over the world expressing their gratitude and insisting that they “no longer feel alone”. 

Hickman and her colleagues are meeting with policymakers in the UK and across the EU to discuss the survey results. The work is also being examined by lawyers working on cases where young people are taking governments to court over climate inaction. And the researchers are working with organisations like Teach the Future in the UK to help teachers better approach climate change with students. 

Teach the Future has set up an online petition calling for “sustainability and climate change to be taught across the curriculum”. Italy is the only European country to have made climate change education compulsory in schools.

The need for children to better understand what is happening in the world seems vital given that their lives will be, in many cases, seriously affected by global heating. Research published in September by Save the Children in the journal Science found that children born in the past 12 months will, on average, face seven times more scorching heatwaves during their lives than their grandparents. Likewise, newborns across the globe will, on average, experience 2.6 times more droughts, 2.8 times as many river floods, almost three times as many crop failures, and twice the number of wildfires as people born 60 years ago.

These estimations are based on countries fulfilling the pledges they first made under the Paris Agreement, which, if implemented, would allow global temperatures to rise by an estimated 2.6-3.1°C above pre-industrial levels. Lowering these figures, and the risks of climate change to today’s and future generations, is the reason why so much pressure is being put on all countries to come forward with more ambitious emissions reduction goals ahead of COP26 in Glasgow this November.

“We need to take account of the psychological and emotional needs of kids,” says Hickman. “It is important to find solutions and an approach that is relatable to them; it has to make sense. Adults have to find more creative ways to talk to young people and find what matters to them.” This includes acknowledging that climate change is here and is a problem. “We shouldn’t infantilise them; they need knowledge to play their part. We have to find ways to talk to them with a degree of reassurance, and need to make changes in the world. They don’t want to be soothed.” We need to tell them “here’s how bad it is, and here’s what we can do”.

Hickman is also insistent on the need to “grieve for what we’ve done”. 

“We should be depressed and anxious about climate change,” she says. “It is odd if you are not. It is a healthy response and young people should be proud of feeling eco-anxiety. There is nothing to be ashamed of.”

[See also: “We have a responsibility to dirty our hands”: Julie Laernoes on the French Green party]

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