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Betrayal and grief: Young people suffering from climate anxiety demand action

·6-min read

The upcoming COP26 convention on climate change will be a decisive moment for future generations. But with increasing heatwaves, floods and wildfires – and access to endless information about climate crises – the mental health of young people is on the decline. FRANCE 24 spoke to several young people suffering from climate anxiety about their fears and sentiments of betrayal, grief and a loss of hope.

Philippine climate justice activist Mitzi Jonelle Tan pauses briefly before admitting her distress in a video posted on Twitter. “I grew up being afraid of drowning in my own bedroom,” 23-year-old Tan says, “because of the typhoons and the floods that would ravage my home year after year, getting more and more intense”. Above the video is a call to action, a plea to battle climate anxiety.

Recent record-breaking heatwaves, floods and wildfires have caused extensive damage to human livelihoods. Millions of people worldwide are being displaced due to climate change. But the impact this will have on mental health and conversations around psychological consequences have only recently come to the forefront.

The American Psychological Association (APA) defines climate (or eco-) anxiety as a “chronic fear of environmental doom”. It is not a mental health disease but rather a rational response to deep-seated uncertainty and, in the most advanced cases, it can affect a person’s daily functioning. And while anyone can feel anxious about climate change, young people ages 16-25 are particularly vulnerable, according to an investigation recently published in The Lancet medica journal.

That sinking feeling

In the first large-scale observation of climate anxiety in children and young people globally, nine researchers from universities in the US, UK and Finland came together and surveyed 10,000 people between the ages of 16 and 25 in Australia, Brazil, France, Finland, India, Nigeria, Philippines, Portugal, the UK and US.

More than half of respondents (54%) said their feelings about climate change negatively affected their functioning on a day-to-day basis. Three-quarters said the future was scary, with anxiety levels at the highest in countries like the Philippines, Brazil and India, where climate change is most visible. Close to 60% of the respondents admitted being extremely worried about climate change, with over 50% saying they felt sad, anxious, angry, powerless, helpless – and guilty.

Megan Morgan, who was born and raised in England, remembers dealing with similar emotions prompted by climate change as early as age 7. “I went to quite a progressive primary school … One day, a team came in to talk about climate change, landfills filling up and ice caps melting. I remember asking: ‘What happens when all the landfills are full and all the ice caps melt?’ I don’t remember their response, but that was the moment I became aware of my own mortality. It was an earth-shattering moment for me.”

After that day, Morgan experienced an onset of panic attacks. “Every time it poured rain or flooded I would be inconsolable,” she says. “Of course, it was never about the rain. I couldn’t even hear the words ‘global warming’ without having a sinking feeling.”

Now 24 years old, Morgan still suffers from climate anxiety but she says it feels more like stress. She explains feeling worried about the advancements societies are making while disregarding the changes needed to curb environmental destruction.

What she struggles with the most, though, is feeling helpless. “Sure I can use a metal straw, eat vegan or make ethical choices when shopping. But compared to oil being poured into the oceans, it’s a minuscule effort. There’s no accountability, no change made.”

'Betrayal of generations'

Expanding on the APA’s definition of climate anxiety, psychotherapist and researcher Caroline Hickman adds a sense of betrayal. “It’s not just distress about environmental problems. Climate anxiety is also coupled with despair, disillusionment and betrayal by people in power failing to act,” she says. The lack of accountability that Morgan feels is common among young people struggling with climate anxiety.

Miguel, a 22-year-old in Scotland, feels the same. “I learnt about environmental problems at school but always understood it as something scientists would fix. As time passed, I found it increasingly worrying that, despite the availability of significant knowledge on the problem, no action was being taken,” he says.

What Miguel and Morgan are referring to is what Greta Thunberg has called the “betrayal of generations”. Climate change is no longer a theoretical or distant threat. The world is becoming increasingly aware and informed of the consequences, which will disproportionally affect young people.

“It’s older generations failing to do the right thing by younger generations, and that is felt as a form of betrayal and abandonment,” Hickman says. “Some of the young people that I’m working with are suicidal because of this betrayal. Not because of environmental problems, but because they feel so devastated by being horrendously abandoned by people in power who are supposed to take care of us.”

Hickman explains that this betrayal can cause moral injury. It begins to erode trust in all structures within society that are supposed to take care of a person, causing great distress in young people. While older adults may have had more experiences and become “hardened” by life’s betrayals, young people are only now transitioning from early childhood’s needs for attachment, trust and safety.

“I feel a mix of emotions,” Miguel says. “Sometimes it’s a sadness for what we’ve lost and are losing, sometimes it’s a sense of abandonment as the people who are supposed to be ensuring a habitable future completely fail at providing the bare minimum for current and future generations to just survive.”

'Sorry' seems to be the hardest word

Elouise Mayall, researcher and ecologist at the University of East Anglia, believes that it is vital for people in power to show forms of emotional intelligence when it comes to climate change. “Having leaders who are cold and rational doesn’t help with a situation that is largely psychological and emotional. We’re dealing with feelings like grief or fear in young people, those are not robotic things,” she explains. Acknowledging past errors and apologising may be symbolic, but she believes it will help young people feel seen.

In her workshops with young people suffering from climate anxiety, Hickman often apologises. “I may not be Shell or a government, but I’m an adult acknowledging that it is my generation’s fault and that brings them immense relief. They feel validated and seen.”

While the obvious solution to ending climate anxiety is to take immediate action and stop harming the planet, nations are still trying to play down the need to move away from fossil fuels ahead of COP26. This is why finding a community and working with young people to transform anxiety into action – as the youth-run NGO Force Of Nature does – is crucial, according to Hickman and Mayall.

For Miguel, “action is the antidote to climate anxiety”. He wants to see leaders, governments and other vested interests like fossil-fuel companies held accountable for their decisions.

As for Megan, she wants the betrayal to end as well. “I want to feel confident that those in power really care about our home [and finding solutions] to saving it and acting [upon them] immediately,” she says. “I want them to act now. Not in 2025, not in 2030. Now.”

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