Climate Anxiety Overwhelming Young People

February 17, 2020

Two pieces in the Washington Post reference impacts of climate anxiety on young people, and how we are dealing, or not dealing with it.

Long but worthwhile reads – I’m excerpting here.

Washington Post:

The nexus between climate change and the mental health of children is rarely at the forefront of the discussion around environmental politics, but it’s very real: In a Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll of American teenagers released in September, 57 percent said that climate change made them feel scared and 52 percent said it made them feel angry, both higher rates than among adults. Just 29 percent of teens said they were optimistic. Reports like the U.S. government’s National Climate Assessment have cited mental health concerns as a side effect of climate change. The American Academy of Pediatrics issued a policy statement in 2015 warning that climate change poses threats to “children’s mental and physical health,” and that “failure to take prompt, substantive action would be an act of injustice to all children.”

“Eco-anxiety” or “climate depression” is playing out in real terms among young people, sometimes in extreme ways: A 2008 study in an Australian medical journal chronicled the case of a 17-year-old boy who was hospitalized after refusing to drink water during a nationwide drought, in what the authors called the first case of “climate change delusion.” A psychiatrist I interviewed told me a patient had confessed that she secretly wished a pandemic would strike to ease stress on the planet.

But the anxiety can manifest in subtler ways as well. Sarah Niles, an 18-year-old from Alabama, told me that her fears about climate change have simply become a part of her life. “I feel like in my peer group, you just go right from talking about polar bears dying to ‘Did you see what Maya posted on Snapchat?’ Nobody has a filter to adjust,” Niles says. “It’s like, the ice caps are melting and my hypothetical children will never see them, but also I have a calculus test tomorrow.”

Park Guthrie knows about this paralysis in climate-change-spooked kids. A sixth-grade teacher in Sonoma County, Calif., he has seen the toll that the state’s raging wildfires can take on the generally enthusiastic 11- and 12-year-olds in his classes. He has witnessed panic attacks triggered by the mere smell of smoke. When smoke from a nearby controlled burn once drifted to the school, he recalls, one boy smiled blankly and announced, “I think I’m having PTSD.” Last year, after the Kincade Fire burned nearly 78,000 acres in the county in late October, Guthrie found himself, not for the first time, comforting students worried about their homes and their relatives.

Guthrie understands how much climate change troubles his students, but he doesn’t shy from talking about it. He confronts not only their fears, but also the political reality of denial and decades of inaction, all of which is disturbing to his students. “It’s like there’s a paradigm shift, like when you learn that Santa Claus isn’t real,” he says. “Everything we teach them, that science is a tool for understanding the world, that adults are protecting you, falls apart. There’s nothing to prepare them for this enormous problem that we simply haven’t solved.”

Although there’s little question that climate change will harm younger generations, there’s considerably more debate about a related concern — that the rhetoric surrounding the issue is equally injurious. When young people seize on the U.N. warning that governments need to take action in 12 years to conclude, incorrectly, that the planet has only a decade remaining (Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said last year that millennials fear “the world is gonna end in 12 years if we don’t address climate change”), or when the website of the U.K.-based activist group Extinction Rebellion warns that “societal collapse and mass death are seen as inevitable by scientists and other credible voices,” it can be terrifying. Some voices are now sounding the alarm about alarmism, suggesting that we’d all be better off if we dialed down some of the hyperbole.

“This message of ‘We’re all going to die, how dare you say there might be something we can do’ … that’s just not supported by the science,” says Kate Marvel, a climate scientist and mathematician at Columbia University. “I’m not saying we can all rest, and I’m not saying we live in the best of all possible worlds. But one can have a sense of optimism by working towards a solution.”

Washington Post:

After the birth of her son four years ago, climate scientist Kate Marvel experienced what she calls “a very profound revelation.” Marvel’s work for NASA and Columbia University involves projecting the future — not predicting, she emphasizes, but presenting possibilities of what couldhappen. Those projections once felt abstract. “But then I’m realizing, ‘Oh my God, somebody I love is going to be 35 in 2050,’ ” she says. “And that was just a very visceral thing for me.”

One day last year, Marvel and her son stepped aboard the shuttle that runs between Grand Central Terminal and Times Square in New York City, and found themselves surrounded by a brilliant, bustling coral reef; the subway car was wrapped in an ad for David Attenborough’s “Our Planet” series. Her little boy was awestruck.

“And I remember thinking, suddenly: This may be the closest thing he ever sees to an actual coral reef,” she says. “I felt a jolt at that.”

But Marvel does not dwell on those sorts of thoughts, and when people ask her, as they often do, whether she is filled with existential dread as a climate scientist and a mother, she tells them emphatically that she is not. Her work has taught her that what matters is what we do right now, and the urgency of that edict leaves no room, no time for despondence.

In the face of potential climate catastrophe, some have questioned whether it’s moral to become a parent — is such a burden fair to the broken planet, or to the child who would inherit it? But Sarah Myhre, a climate scientist in Seattle and the mother of a 6-year-old son, rejects this line of thinking. You can’t save humanity by abandoning it, she says, and these sorts of messages are harmful to the children who are already here.

“Kids are listening to that, and what they hear is that their presence in this world is a violation of the world itself,” she says. “It’s really important to let kids know that they were born into a changing world, that they did not betray the world by being born, and that they are born into a time where they can do profound good and have really transcendent, powerful impacts on the world.”

That is what she’ll tell her son, when he’s old enough to ask about his future; for now, Myhre is focused on helping her son become the strongest, kindest person he can be.

“I believe that the through line for us, as communities, as individuals, is the humanity that we bring to solving problems,” she says. “Our ethic of care, our empathy, our stewardship of one another. And so I think that stewarding that particular aspect of my son’s internal life is really important to me, so that he is coming to the world with a robust, empathetic, integrated sense of self.”

This means that her family prioritizes quality time together, she says. “I have made a large pivot in my life, as a parent, toward the cultivation of joy on a daily basis,” she says. “It’s easy to say and a lot harder to do — because joy requires us to be vulnerable, it requires us to be in the moment.”

Meanwhile there continue to be some idiot pseudo-intellectuals out there making pronouncements of imminent doom that go beyond what the science says. These bastards are elevating themselves in their literary circles by pretending to translate the science without taking a really hard look at it over time.
So as a first step, maybe they should stop that.

Popular Science:

On Sunday, the New Yorker published an essay titled “What If We Stopped Pretending,” by Jonathan Franzen. The subtitle reads: “The climate apocalypse is coming. To prepare for it, we need to admit that we can’t prevent it.”

Franzen goes to explain that—based on the “modelling” he’s done in his head—there is no scenario in which we can avoid 2ºC of warming, that the challenge is simply insurmountable, and that human nature is at odds with the mobilization required. Perhaps it’s fair to be a pessimist in these times: the climate has indeed warmed by just over 1ºC while carbon emissions continue to climb. It’s going to take sweeping changes to our industrial and transportation sectors to change this, and that probably won’t happen without policies that mandate such an overhaul. “Particularly in the case of the 1.5 degree target, it would be very, very difficult to meet at this point,” says Zeke Hausfather, director of climate and energy at the Breakthrough Institute, an environmental think tank. “The challenge there is that the only real way to get to 1.5ºC without relying on sort of global scale engineering to remove carbon from the atmosphere is to cut all global emissions to zero in the next 30 years.”

But however hard it might be to meet our climate goals, Franzen’s diatribe goes a step beyond just pessimism. He’s claiming that those advocating for climate action are practically delusional, and that renewable energy projects and high speed trains are futile efforts to stop a planet “spinning out of control.” His argument, though, rests on a mischaracterized—if not just plain wrong—understanding of several climate science and policy points, as experts have pointed out. With that in mind, we’d like to offer a few corrections:

But there’s little evidence that the sort of runaway feedback loops that Frazen suggests will happen at 2ºC actually will. “There’s a pretty good linear relationship in climate models between the cumulative emissions we’ve done—the total emissions to that date—and the amount of warming you get,” says Hausfather. “There’s not some dramatic jump there.” Still, there are certainly unknowns, since humans are conducting a science experiment unparalleled in the Earth’s history. “The further we push the Earth out of the range it’s been in for the last couple million years, the more there is a possibility that we could tip it to a permanently warmer state,” says Hausfather. “But we don’t know where that point is.”

In Franzen’s mind, it seems that taking action on climate change amounts to denial: “You can keep on hoping that catastrophe is preventable, and feel ever more frustrated or enraged by the world’s inaction. Or you can accept that disaster is coming, and begin to rethink what it means to have hope.” And again, in this quote: “The evil of the Republican Party’s position on climate science is well known, but denial is entrenched in progressive politics, too, or at least in its rhetoric.” He continues to use this line of thinking to cast doubt on the relevance of high speed rail projects, the Green New Deal, and large-scale renewables.

If his point about the supposed out-of-control feedback loops was true, maybe he’d be right. But since the models show a more linear relationship between increasing emissions and temperatures, it still makes sense to lower emissions—even if an optimistic goal is unattainable. The impacts to ecosystems and humans will just get worse and worse with more carbon in the atmosphere, so if we miss targets like 1.5ºC or 2ºC, should still limit our emissions as much as possible. “If we take our time to get the political will to seriously cut emissions and end up in a world that’s 2.5 degrees, that’s still infinitely better than a world where we just do nothing at all and end up at 3.5 degrees or 4 degrees,” says Hausfather.

15 Responses to “Climate Anxiety Overwhelming Young People”

  1. mtpccl Says:

    The parenting thoughts by climate experts in the Washington Post article that you reference, Peter, also contains this insight:

    “Parents must help their children imagine a future that is happy and safe, Sarah Myhre agrees — but to do that, they must first process their own sense of fear and loss. “If parents can’t transcend and make sense out of their feelings, and derive action and meaning from their feelings, then they are stuck,” she says, “and they are going to transpose that stuckness, that anxiety, onto their children.”

    This has always been the work of parenting, all the more essential now in extraordinary times: to hold a steady balance between grief and gratitude, to find a way to move with purpose through a world that brims with both beauty and heartbreak.”

    I think adults need to get busy learning how to overcome their own fear and paralysis and start taking constructive action to model for their children the means to a livable world.

    • redskylite Says:

      In my neck of the woods, I don’t think enough parents have an appreciation of what future generations will be facing from climate change, still too much complacency and indifference.

      Just saw a documentary of families living through a siege in one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world (Aleppo in Syria), with nightly bombings on their hospitals and dwellings. The parents seemed to keep the children cheerful with spirits up most of the time, so maybe it’s an instinctive human trait.

      Let’s hope so.

  2. Brent Jensen-Schmidt Says:

    Expounding on children’s stress is a talking point of the stupidsphere. Common one is ‘Greta is frightening children’. Whilst appreciating there can be negatives to telling the truth, the world is full of threats the kids are better off knowing.
    Get over it and handle it.

    • dumboldguy Says:

      “Get over it and handle it” indeed! 70 years ago the threat of a Russian nuclear attack was the boogeyman—-we little ‘uns paid no attention to it except when we had those stupid duck and cover drills in school.

      This is a good piece, but it seems a bit over the top to state: “Meanwhile there continue to be some idiot pseudo-intellectuals out there making pronouncements of imminent doom that go beyond what the science says. These bastards are elevating themselves in their literary circles by pretending to translate the science without taking a really hard look at it over time”.

      “Idiot pseudo-intellectuals?” “bastards?” “pretending to translate the science?” Please!

      • indy222 Says:

        yeah – indeed! Now, if he’s referring to Guy McPherson and his band of “we’re all DEAD in 8 years!” crowd – then I totally agree. But if instead he’s referring to anyone who quotes good science which is more ominous and even catastrophic than the old IPCC AR5 carbon budgets nonsense and the happytalkers who think we’ll just techno our way out of a dysfunctional paradigm, then there’s more work to do to get people onto reality. Enough already with the “I’m an Optimist!” or “I’m a pessimist” nonsense. Be a realist – and tell the damn truth.
        When even the CMIP6 climate models are coming in with ECS=5C and not the old 3C, let alone the ridiculous 1.5C of Otto et al which the “optimists” forced down the scientists throats for IPCC AR5, then it’s time to get very worried and tell our children the truth, but also with actions they can take. And I don’t mean putting a bucket in the shower and recycling their soda cans. I mean starting a revolution – organize a Washington DC Occupation which will not leave until a 28th Amendment is passed “Congress shall pass no law which degrades, for current AND future generations, the Earth’s great Commons – the oceans, atmosphere, ice caps, and great forests”. And any violators will serve mandatory jail time (not a slap on wrist $$ extracted from shareholders). Laissez Faire Capitalism worked fine at accelerated growth as long as there was a “limitless” Earth to exploit in Adam Smith’s day. It’s a prescription for utter death today. Accelerating price put on the heads of diminishing resource and precious life.

      • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

        I think a lot about the difference between growing up with the possibility of nuclear war and being aware that avoiding climate catastrophe involves a large number of people acting against their own selfish interests.

        People feel more stress when they think if they only did something more and different it could make a difference. Few of us thought we had any control over the likelihood of Global Thermonuclear War, but there’s this sense that we should second-guess daily decisions (drive less, buy less stuff, eat less meat, etc. etc. etc.) and convince our neighbors to do the same.

        • dumboldguy Says:

          I don’t feel much stress—-I do what I can, but don’t agonize over any of it. I DO feel bad that the whole biosphere (of which we are just one part) is going to suffer much damage.

          The whole climate crisis sneaked up on us as we made the world a better place by burning fossil fuels and going “modern”. The problem is not so much the little man as it is the greedy rich and the corporations that simply refuse to move away from fossil fuels until they’ve extracted every penny of profit from them.

    • redskylite Says:

      Unfortunately not all kids can get over it – and there have been suicides reported. Severe anxiety is a medical condition where the subject may be irrational.

      I grew up under the nuclear arms race – but at least that was controlled by militaries and presidents.

      It never happened (outside of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, but climate change is happening all the time.

      Yes kids grow up in wartime and some have frequent threats, such as earthquake, and generally they get through it.

      But climate change and species extinction is a whole different ball game.

      I can’t imagine how some of those kids must be feeling, as I am in my sunset years.

      But harden up and get over it is not the best advise for people suffering from severe anxiety.

      Let’s hope schools provide counselling services for such unfortunates who are not getting support at home.

      • Brent Jensen-Schmidt Says:

        In retrospect, my get over it comment is primarily aimed at parents et al.
        Nuclear bomb death fear was worse, as it was permanently immanent, and generations lived with it. Anyway, beware protecting from truth. Cheers.

  3. Paul Rattenbury Says:

    I think that the melted Arctic and the broken Jet-stream will do us in through the resultant famines caused by unreliable farming. I think that the great reveal of Global Dimming resulting from the reduction of global industry will follow. Perhaps the Aerosol Masking Effect will be over-come by nuclear winter: itself a result of the famine caused wars… This is; I think on a much shorter time-frame than the Methane Bomb already in the pipeline… er; pipelines. Then comes the great sea-level rise…

  4. redskylite Says:

    For god’s sake – our kids are our future, we should make it a priority above all else to give them a decent future. Individually we are here for a very short time, but the human race continues, and we do have a primary and overwhelming duty to our offspring.

    “Children facing uncertain future, experts warn

    The experts warned a 4C rise in global temperatures by 2100, in line with current projections, would result in “devastating health consequences” for future generations – a rise in ocean levels, heatwaves, severe malnutrition and a spike in infectious diseases such as malaria.

    “More than two billion people live in countries where development is hampered by humanitarian crises, conflicts, and natural disasters, problems increasingly linked with climate change,” said minister Awa Coll-Seck, from Senegal, who co-chairs the commission.

    While the world’s poorest countries were found to be among those with the lowest greenhouse-gas emissions, they were deemed most likely to be exposed to the negative impacts of climate change.

  5. rhymeswithgoalie Says:

    In the face of potential climate catastrophe, some have questioned whether it’s moral to become a parent — is such a burden fair to the broken planet, or to the child who would inherit it? But Sarah Myhre, a climate scientist in Seattle and the mother of a 6-year-old son, rejects this line of thinking.

    Let’s change that up a bit: In the face of obvious overpopulation, many should question whether they should make another person, rather than helping support or raise any of the large number of other babies being born on the planet.

    Of course, if reproduction were limited to people who desired children (without social or familial pressure) and committed to raise them, we wouldn’t be struggling with the overpopulation we have now.

    • dumboldguy Says:

      The whole question of overpopulation is not a moral one or even one that involves any thinking. Humans are animals, obey the laws of nature, and our numbers simply grew when we conquered certain ‘death dealers” like disease, poor sanitation, dirty water, and food shortages. Now we have progressed to the point where we have the luxury of “thinking about it” and navel-gazing about “the morality”—-all wasted effort, because Mother Nature bats last—-she has done the math, and will soon be setting things back in balance.

  6. redskylite Says:

    Population increase came after the wars when people began to feel confident and comfortable with the economy and peacetime. As for disease the latest Covid-19 outbreak, plus recent fatal measles episodes show we haven’t conquered as much as we thought. Many projections foretell the increase in deaths through disease as the temperature climbs.

    Yes we do have to answer to Earth physics, part of nature, but we still can influence what nature will throw back at us, with ii’s mighty bat.

    We are still masters of our destiny and should remember that, no reasonable climate scientist is telling us that we have gone beyond the edge, although much is telling us we are precariously close.

    “FOR ALMOST ALL of human history, the Earth’s population has skewed younger. But since the last World Population Day on July 11, a major shift occurred: There are now more people age 65 and older than there are under age five.

    World Population Day was established by the United Nations Development Program in 1989 to bring attention to population issues. Having more people on the planet is not the only concern, though, since a population’s age structure matters too.”
    Older populations are rising

    By 2100, almost one in four people will be 65 years old or older, while one in 20 will be younger than five.

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