Young people are justifiably anxious about their future lives in a changed climate. Recognising this anxiety positions climate change within our own homes, spurring us to take up our responsibility to protect our young by reducing our consumption and voting for transformative climate mitigation measures.
Climate change will not play out equally. Those of us with enough money to burn up an outsized portion of the earth’s resources are likely to be protected by geography, money and age from its most dramatic effects. Following yet another extreme weather event, us fortunate ones wisely exclaim that climate change is upon us but we don’t allow it to disrupt our lifestyle of consumption. We push climate change to the back of our minds, to be dealt with sometime later, possibly, when it’s inevitable – when it’s really upon us.
Closer to home than we think
But what if the effects of climate change are already lurking within our homes?
A 2021 survey of 10,000 children across 10 countries found that 84% felt moderately worried about climate change, and 59% were very worried about it. Emotions reported included sadness, anger, powerlessness and guilt. A staggering 45% felt it already had a negative impact on their functioning in daily life, including on their work and private lives, sleeping, concentration and eating.
In the intervening period, we have witnessed record polar temperatures, devasting floods and fires across Europe, Australia and North America, and crippling droughts in parts of Africa. The 6th Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report was released, which reiterated the need for carbon-dioxide emissions to peak in 2025 in order to keep within 1.5 degrees of global warming – which is above the temperatures driving today’s destructive climate events. And the International Energy Agency reported that global energy-related carbon dioxide emissions rose by 6% in 2021 to their highest ever level. It is reasonable to hypothesise that if this survey were repeated now, the percentage of young people who felt that climate change was affecting their daily life would be far higher.
Translated, these figures of youth climate anxiety mean that every second young person in your life is feeling the impact of climate change – on their mental health. Us ‘boomers’ know that feeling of dread about the world’s future. We grew up with the threat of nuclear war and acid rain. And yet we ignore or minimalise the current anxiety of today’s youth, often with the justification that every generation has faced global crises.
However, there is a chasm of difference between the political commitment that was required from two world leaders to reduce the threat of nuclear war and the multifaceted, multilateral commitment that is now required from all governments, industries, institutions and individuals to create a new global economic order that forces us to reduce our addiction to consumption.
Young people’s concerns are real and realistic. They are supported by the science. They are recognised by law. They are evidenced by the increasing severity and speed of climate events.
Don’t worry? Really?
The step before fear, anxiety makes us alert to events we perceive as potentially stressful or dangerous. It is a call to action. But the action taken to date does not leave young people with much confidence that those in power will act effectively in their interests.
Greta Thunberg perfectly captured the anxiety rendered by the climate emergency; “I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if our house is on fire. Because it is.”
My kids quizzed me at the recent onset of the Russian war in the Ukraine about what we would do in that situation – would we stay or flee? And I was reminded of how I had also asked my Mum the same question when watching the news about a far-distant war. I remember my genuine fear about whether my mother would take the necessary action required to protect us.
Research (1) into climate anxiety among young people has found that an important contributing factor is witnessing the failure of older people to address the crisis and the subsequent failure to protect them. Feelings of powerlessness exist not just because of the overwhelming challenge of climate change but because the adults who are supposed to be doing something to protect their young are not doing enough, or dismiss their concerns as teenage angst (2).
Relegating parental responsibility to governments?
Thunberg was addressing governments. Climate mitigation is dependent on government action and regulation. But this does not abdicate us from the individual responsibility inherent in our roles as elders, citizens and consumers – a pivotal role in the current economic system – from taking whatever action we can as individuals to address climate change.
Unfortunately, good intentions to act are easily waylaid by conflicting personal values and circumstances (3). The global nature of our economic system and of climate change, combined with the addiction and pleasure of consumption, makes it increasingly difficult to value the importance of individual action: we, and our young people, feel social pressure to show off our spending capacity; distant tropical beaches in the other hemisphere are very alluring; I would love to show my kids the Great Barrier Reef before it dies out. The overwhelming flood of online opinion and advice further stifles our responses to our young folk: Am I being over-protective? Not protective enough? Will it undermine their resilience? What about their self-determination? Shouldn’t we focus on something more positive? Until, once again, we become paralysed and do nothing.
Research has documented a range of internal emotions that can lead to the adoption of pro-environmental behaviours, including empathy and a strong internal locus of control (3, 4). Also referred to as agency, people who have a strong internal locus of control in relation to environmental issues are more inclined to adopt behaviours that have less impact on the environment.
When we understand and acknowledge that climate change is already affecting our young ones and we anchor the crisis firmly within our own households, our individual actions become decisive – for those we love. By recognising that climate change is personal, local and happening now, we can foster our belief in the importance and effectiveness of our own actions in addressing climate change.
From this perspective, beliefs about whether individual actions help mitigate climate change are secondary, because the primary aim of climate friendly behaviour is to address and relieve the concerns of the young person. But through this response to the anxiety within our homes, we are also fostering our internal locus of control in respect of a global problem.
Reducing our individual consumption and voting for transformative change do matter, both to our young people and to the environment.
- 1. Jones, C.A., Davison A. Disempowering emotions: The role of educational experiences in social responses to climate change. Geoforum, 118, p. 190 – 200 (2021)
- Hickman, C., We need to (find a way) to talk about …… eco-anxiety. Journal of Social Work Practice, 34. p. 411 – 424 (2020)
- Kollmuss, A., Agyeman, J. Mind the Gap: why do people act environmentally and what are the barriers to pro-environmental behaviour. Environmental Behaviour Research. 3 (2002)
- Pavalache-Ilie, M., Unianu, E. Locus of control and the pro-environmental attitudes. Procedia – Social and Behavioural Sciences. 33. 198-202. (2012)