Youth Climate Anxiety Is Skyrocketing — and Government Inaction Is to Blame

For Zaynab Jawaid, 18, the climate crisis got personal in 2013. Driving home from mosque one day in September, Jawaid spotted Mount Diablo engulfed in flames through the windshield. Fire tore through the dry, steep terrain, eventually spreading to over 3,000 acres of Northern California. She was in sixth grade at the time, and it was surreal.

“We’re going to school, and going to lunch, and seeing the mountain in the background,” Jawaid recalled for Truthout.

Her first “smoke day” was in 11th grade. Officials cancelled class because the air quality was so bad. “It’s the exact opposite of a snow day, where you’re so excited about what’s falling from the sky,” Jawaid said.
The next year — Jawaid’s senior year of high school — came the rolling blackouts. In October 2019, Pacific Gas & Electric implemented power outages during windy wildfire season to prevent new fires, cutting off power for over 800,000 people. It ended up being a relatively tame year for fires in California, comparatively. Still, 260,000 acres burned.

“You don’t know when it’s going to clear up, you don’t know if it’s gonna get worse, and you don’t know what’s going to happen to the people whose houses are being directly affected,” Jawaid said.

Like billions of other young people coming of age amid the backdrop of fires, floods and power outages, fear, uncertainty and anger — among the host of emotions related to climate anxiety — have defined much of Jawaid’s adolescence, and moved her toward activism.

The impact of climate change on mental health — known as climate anxiety or eco-anxiety — is a well-documented phenomenon recognized by leading psychiatric organizations. But a new landmark study in The Lancet Planetary Health, released on a pre-publication basis on September 14, is the largest and most international-in-scope to demonstrate the immense psychological toll the climate crisis is wreaking on young people across the world. It is also the first study to suggest a link between the complex feelings related to ecological and climate crises — such as despair, hurt and grief — to a sense of anger, confusion or abandonment regarding government action, or inaction, in the face of the climate emergency, which is swiftly worsening before young people’s eyes.

The study, a collaboration between psychologists, psychiatrists, ecologists, and others that was funded by the global activist network Avaaz, draws from 10,000 surveys conducted in 10 countries, including Brazil, India, Nigeria and the United States. Researchers asked young people ages 16 to 25 a series of questions covering seven domains, including the presence of certain climate-related thoughts or worries; the degree to which climate-related feelings negatively impact daily functioning; and positive and negative beliefs about government action on climate change.

The findings of the survey are striking: 75 percent of youth respondents said that they felt the “future is frightening.” Over half of respondents said they believed what they “most valued will be destroyed,” and that their “family security will be threatened.” Over a third are hesitant to have their own children.

Meanwhile, almost 60 percent of young people said they felt elected officials had “betrayed” or “dismissed” their ongoing distress over the climate emergency.

Clinical psychologist and lecturer at the University of Bath in the U.K., Caroline Hickman, is a co-author of the study. She said in a press conference that the results were more drastic than researchers had anticipated. “When we started this research, we knew that children’s lives were being affected on a daily basis. We didn’t know how much this is affecting eating, sleeping, studying and playing.”

Forty-five percent of respondents said their feelings about climate change actually impaired their daily functioning.

Katerina Gaines, 16, is a senior at Carlmont High School, and an organizer with Youth vs. Apocalypse, a group of youth climate activists from around the San Francisco Bay Area.

Gaines, who plans to study environmental science after graduation, says climate anxiety gets in the way of her sleep. “When I’m [lying] in bed at night, I’m thinking about climate change and what I can do to stop it. I’m thinking about my little sister’s future and my future and what will happen if I don’t. I feel like that stress is always so much bigger than, ‘Am I going to get an A on my test tomorrow?’”

Gaines, who took the Avaaz survey, said she was not at all surprised by the results.

“How could it not be that way? We’ve just been thrown this issue,” she told Truthout. “Like, ‘We believe in you, you can fix it, you can do this’ — when we’re still just trying to figure out how to be functioning as human beings. It’s incredibly anxiety-inducing.”

According to the study, functional impairment is more pronounced for young people living in the lower-income countries generally referred to as the Global South.

Colombian climate activist Juan David Giraldo spoke of a similar experience in 2019. He told Truthout then that he learned about climate change through Greta Thunberg’s speech at the United Nations in 2018, which prompted him to research the climate crisis on his own time.

“It was a big shock for me — every new fact I learned made me more and more anxious. I told myself, ‘I need to stop [reading], I need to stop,’ but I couldn’t,” he said. “I was in the hammock looking at the sky, trying to convince myself that climate change wasn’t real,” he recalls. “I tried to escape from the fear, but it wasn’t possible.”

“This is an emotionally, mentally healthy response,” Hickman said of eco-anxiety on Tuesday, given that “mental health” is qualified as the ability to respond appropriately to external reality. External reality is increasingly frightening. “So [young people] who are expressing these feelings are the mentally healthy ones. I would worry about people that are not feeling these things,” she said.

In line with the study findings, Gaines and Jawaid both spoke of anger, frustration and disbelief over elected officials’ responses to their grave concerns and ideas about solutions, pointing to an incident in 2019, when California Sen. Dianne Feinstein dismissed and belittled youth activists’ demand that she vote in favor of the Green New Deal resolution.

More recently, Jawaid recalls not being taken seriously in a meeting with Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan in April 2021. “All these amazing questions were asked by high school and college students, and he never really had a concrete answer,” Jawaid said.

The good news is that climate-related anger, in particular, is a key adaptive emotion and a driver of political engagement. On September 24, climate activists across the world, including activists with Youth vs. Apocalypse, will take it to the streets again, under the umbrella of Fridays for Future, to demand that the wealthy countries of the Global North cut emissions drastically, given that they are responsible for 92 percent of excess carbon emissions.

In the United States, youth activists will put pressure on the Biden administration to live up to his campaign promises, such as declaring a Climate Emergency, halting fossil fuel exploration and extraction and using executive authority to stop Line 3, to the grassroots communities of color and youth organizers who helped him win the election. In spite of a commitment to cease drilling on public lands, the Biden administration has approved over 2,000 drilling and fracking permits since January 2021.

The options for concrete action are numerous. World leaders could make a widespread commitment to emissions pathways that curb warming at 1.5 degrees Celsius rather than 2 degrees Celsius, for instance, which could be the difference between sea level rise that disappears island nations, or does not.

The findings of the Lancet study may also hold implications for the wave of climate lawsuits brought by young people against governments around the world, such as Agostinho et al. v. Portugal et al., which takes aim at 33 states for violating young people’s rights to a livable future.

Natasa Mavronicola is a human rights attorney and professor at the University of Birmingham in the U.K. She says emotions related to eco-anxiety that the study documents — like prolonged uncertainty, desperation, fear and anguish — overlap with conditions that European Court of Human Rights case law has established as feelings associated with inhumane and degrading treatment.

“An attitude of indifference or disregard by state authorities towards a powerless person’s serious suffering — that the authorities are aware of and in a position to alleviate — can amount to ill-treatment,” she said. Accordingly, the study findings specifically strengthen litigators’ ability to argue that states have violated youth plaintiffs’ rights not to be ill-treated by failing to adequately address the causes of the climate crisis in response to emphatic, continuous youth demands, Mavronicola noted.

Luisa Neubauer, 25, is a climate activist from Germany. At a Tuesday panel organized by Avaaz, she said the findings of the study should not prompt pity, nor serve as an excuse for adults to shield their children from the crisis at hand.

Instead, Neubauer and other activists are calling for adults to worry more, so young people can worry less.

“The climate crisis itself is a burden we can handle. What we cannot handle is the continuous inaction of governments everywhere. It is unacceptable and it’s impossible to carry,” Neubauer said.