By Robert Cook
Shouts of “There is no Planet B” ring out from all directions. Picket signs protrude out of the never-ending mob, leaving no room to breathe on the city streets. Skyscrapers shadow the assembly from the hot, villainous sun above. However, they can’t overshadow the terrifying problem that unites these determined students in protest: climate change. While their empowerment brings national attention to the climate crisis, a mental health crisis simmers below the surface.
In a world where cries to save the planet are as plentiful as denials that it’s in trouble in the first place, many kids (and adults) don’t know what to believe. They feel frustrated, isolated, and ultimately abandoned by the fact that climate change is a looming threat that isn't recognized enough or, in some cases, at all. The result of decades of this has been increasing levels of the "chronic fear of environmental doom,” or “eco-anxiety” as the American Psychological Association puts it. In fact, an international Lancet study of 16–25-year-olds found 60% of respondents have high or extreme worry about climate change, with 45% stating that their lives are negatively affected by their fear. Eco-anxiety threatens to turn up the heat in an already vulnerable situation.
Despite it being an emerging topic, eco-anxiety already has profound negative effects across the world, causing panic attacks, insomnia, hopelessness, and obsessive thinking. Children are especially vulnerable. The worst part is that eco-anxiety reaches beyond the boundaries of climate change. Look at Colin Bray, a second grader at a Denver climate protest. While Denver will experience various negative effects of climate change (as everywhere in the world will), it is ranked as one of the most climate resilient cities in the US. However, young Colin still feels “scared about the planet,” since “he can sometimes feel as if nobody else is worried.” Colin’s feeling of isolation is part of a larger issue that may cause fear beyond the effects of climate change: youth feel abandoned by the older generation, leading them to feel more generally powerless.
The same Lancet survey also analyzed opinions toward government response and found 64% of respondents describing government response negatively, with more feelings of betrayal reported than reassurance. For example, 16-year-old Adah Crandall exemplifies these feelings, fearing "for [her] future, because of the inaction of adults in the past". Adah makes a great point. Youth feel betrayed since adults created this problem and still refuse to solve it. Furthermore, many, including lawmakers, refuse to even recognize the problem or openly deny it, proving to young people that feelings of betrayal are warranted. With these emotions coming in response to climate change, other issues, like student loan forgiveness and gun control, could make youth feel similarly betrayed by leaders.
In the absence of adult action, activists like Greta Thunberg became heroes by calling out inaction on the global stage. While effective and well-intentioned, this tactic comes with its own downsides. Take Greta’s words to the UN: “I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day…act as if the house were on fire. Because it is.” Greta projects a powerful and important message, but, simultaneously, she promotes panic through her choice of words. While she empowers people to act with her strong presence, others may take her metaphoric message literally, sparking fear rather than optimistic activism. Journalism has similar effects. Articles covering climate change have skyrocketed, with publishers tapping in on drama and chaos to increase viewership.
Finally, even science can unnecessarily fuel ecoanxiety. Although new research is often intended to educate about cliamte change, the negative messaging of some journalists and activists can make information do more harm than good. Instead of promoting hope that we can solve this crisis with action, focusing only on negative trends and predictions, even if they’re facts supported by science, can add fuel to the fire of hopelessness.
With continued negative messaging and a lack of action, or at least plans for action, many kids are sadly going to end up feeling hopeless and abandoned, like Colin and Adah. The Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University gives a look into the long-term effects of eco-anxiety, stating that "early exposure to circumstances that produce persistent fear and chronic anxiety can have lifelong consequences by disrupting the developing architecture of the brain." On top of the laundry list of problems needed to be solved, mental health fallout is one that we can't afford to take on.
Eco-anxiety is the consequence of our inaction and pessimism. On the one hand, those in power are the guiltiest by refusing to implement the dramatic changes needed to mitigate impacts. On the other hand, those who speak out, educate, and work to spur action can also end up spreading inaction through hopelessness instead. The only answer to allay children’s concerns is action, both by refocusing on hopeful plans and then actually carrying them out. Their strong message of fear must be responded with an equally strong message of hope. By choosing our words and committing to optimistic education, we can teach kids to understand and recognize the problem right in front of us while also recognizing that solutions exist if we are willing to take them. However, this effort will mean nothing without implementation and action. Children are watching. We can't let them down.