In a newly released paper, Elizabeth Marks, Caroline Hickman, and colleagues explore young people’s attitudes about climate change. The current research surveyed 10,000 people from 10 different countries and is presently the most extensive and most diverse research conducted into attitudes around climate change.
According to the authors, most young people feel negative emotions about climate change, and nearly half say these feelings affect their everyday lives. The respondents also report distrust in their governments as a result of inaction on this issue.
“A large proportion of children and young people around the world report significant emotional distress and a wide range of painful, complex emotions (sad, afraid, angry, powerless, helpless, guilty, ashamed, despair, hurt, grief, depressed)” the authors write.
“Similarly, large numbers report experiencing some functional impact and identify pessimistic beliefs about the future (people have failed to care for the planet; the future is frightening; humanity is doomed; they won’t have access to the same opportunities their parents had; things they value will be destroyed; security is threatened, and they are hesitant to have children).”
Previous research has shown climate change to have a significant effect on the mental health of our youth. In a survey given to 11,000 members of Gen Z, climate change and pollution were the two most cited global concerns.
Research has also found that the adverse effects of climate change affect people far removed from the cites of climate disasters and can persist for years. Authors have compared the kind of stress associated with climate change, namely that something terrible can happen randomly, suddenly, and insidiously, to the stress associated with living under a military dictatorship, living in homes with domestic violence, living with the risk of cancer relapse, and living close to a nuclear reactor.
Research has shown that climate change-related weather events positively correlate with poor physical health, depression, PTSD, increased psychiatric hospital visits, and suicide. For example, using historical temperature records, one piece of research estimates that by 2050, Mexico and the United States will see between 9,000 and 40,000 additional suicides due to increasing temperatures. By this measure, climate change would have roughly the same impact on suicides as an economic recession.
While the stress associated with climate change can have disastrous effects on our mental and physical health, that stress may also be the key to taking action on this topic. According to one author, individuals with the highest rate of ecological stress are the most likely to engage in pro-environmental behaviors.
Other research has blamed individual “psychological barriers” for our collective inaction on climate change. However, some authors believe this to be an insidious narrative designed to allow powerful corporations to continue their destructive practices by blaming climate change on individuals (that refuse to take action) rather than corporations (that take destructive actions on a much larger scale).
The present research examines survey data from 10,000 participants aged 16-25 years. The researchers selected ten countries from which to pull participants to reflect attitudes from both the global north (United Kingdom, Finland, France, United States, Australia, and Portugal) and the global south (Brazil, India, Philippines, and Nigeria).
The survey examined seven dimensions related to climate change attitudes: climate-related worry, climate-related functional impact, climate-related emotions, climate-related thoughts, the experience of being ignored or dismissed, beliefs about the government response to climate change, and emotional effects of government response to climate change.
60% of respondents reported feeling “very” or “extremely” worried about climate change. In addition, over 45% said feelings about climate change negatively affected their daily lives.
77% said the future was frightening due to the impacts of climate change. Again, poorer countries, and those located in the global south, were more likely to report negative emotions. The exception to this finding was Portugal, which showed the highest level of worry. The authors attribute this to an increase in wildfires in the country since 2017.
The least reported emotions around climate change were optimism and indifference. Among the participants who attempted to speak with others about climate change (81.2%), 48.4% reported being ignored or dismissed.
The attitudes towards government response to climate change were also overwhelmingly negative. For example, 60% of respondents agreed with every negative statement and disagreed with every positive statement the survey presented about government action on climate change.
The current research has found that a large portion of young people experiences significant emotional distress around climate change. Furthermore, the more negative this group views the government’s response to climate change, the more emotional distress they experience.
Negative emotions around climate change are present both in countries with significant physical impacts from climate disasters and in countries with less obvious consequences.
According to the authors, some common ways adults and governments respond to climate change primarily involve dismissing, ignoring, disavowing, rationalizing, and negating the negative experiences of others. As a result, the anxiety young people feel around ecological disasters is compounded by the impression that influential people do not care about the problem.
The authors reject the popular narrative of blaming climate change on irresponsible individual behaviors and instead say it is precisely these powerful entities that must act to combat climate change. To remedy climate change’s negative mental health impacts, the authors propose increased psychosocial resources, coping skills, and agency. They write:
“Factors known to protect against mental health problems include psychosocial resources, coping skills, and ‘agency’ to address and mitigate stressors. In the context of climate anxiety, this would relate to having one’s feelings and views heard, validated, respected, and acted upon, particularly by those in positions of power and upon whom we are dependent, accompanied by collective pro-environmental actions.”
The authors recognize several limitations to this study. A non-standardized measure was used to conduct the survey. Second, the term “climate anxiety” is not well defined and has varying definitions across the literature. Third, the use of online surveys limited responses to people that had access to the internet.
Hickman, C. et al. (2021). Young people’s voices on climate anxiety, government betrayal, and moral injury: a global phenomenon. The Lancet. Preprint. (Link)