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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Widespread Youth Anxiety About Climate

Air Date: Week of

According to the global survey titled “Young People’s Voices on Climate Anxiety, Government Betrayal and Moral Injury: A Global Phenomenon” 60% of the young participants said that they felt ‘very worried’ or ‘extremely worried’ about the climate crisis. (Photo: Ivan Radic, Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

A study led by the University of Bath found that three-quarters of young people surveyed believe the future is frightening because of climate change and 65% agreed with the statement that governments are failing young people. Lise Van Susteren is a general and forensic psychiatrist and a co-author of the study and joined Living on Earth's Bobby Bascomb to discuss what young people are expressing about their eco-anxiety and how parents can safely talk to their kids about climate.


BASCOMB: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Bobby Bascomb.

A recent global survey found that 75 percent of young respondents are frightened for the future because of climate change. The survey, led by the University of Bath, looked at 10,000 youth, ages of 16 to 25 from 10 countries: the UK, Finland, France, the US, Australia, Portugal, Brazil, India, the Philippines and Nigeria. Lise Van Susteren is an expert on the physical and mental health effects of climate change, and a co-author of the study. She’s also a practicing general and forensic psychiatrist in Washington, DC.

VAN SUSTEREN: I have been talking with kids now, for many years about their anxiety and I was the expert witness on the psychological damages to kids in the United States is referred to as the Juliana case, we sued the United States government for inaction on climate. So, all of the things that we found in the survey, you know, if we really use our common sense, we probably could come up with them. But people don't always connect the dots. So the fact that we have it now on paper and can wave it in the air is really important. So here's what we found, we found that two thirds of the kids surveyed said that they were sad, afraid and anxious. And over half reported feeling a sense of powerlessness, helplessness, even guilt and shame. And some people will say, what's the guilt and shame? Well, that's an important aspect, first of all, because some children look at what's happening in the world, and they think they should be doing more. Or they look at what's happening in the world and there's a sense that, are they really valued knowing what's that adults know what is being predicted and they're not taking action. There can even be a sense of shame that they're not valued to the extent that of course, they would ask to be, want to be and deserve to be. So that's a little snapshot of some of the sentiments that we found in the kit.

BASCOMB: Well, that makes sense. I mean, if governments and industry know what they're doing know that this is going to cause an unlivable planet, for this large cohort of people and yet do nothing, it sort of sends the message that you know what you're not important enough for us to care about and to really, you know, address this problem in a meaningful way.

VAN SUSTEREN: Bobby, the easiest way to think about this, and I often give this analogy is think of a family. A community, a region, and nation, a planet is like a family writ large. So think about what would happen in your family if your parents didn't take care of you, if they knew that you were hungry, or that you were walking home in a snowstorm, or you didn't have the proper clothing and things like that. We know what that would do for your self-esteem? Well, the planet is that family writ large. So anything that you can think about that would hurt you about a family letting you down, think about it in terms of what government inaction messages to young people.

BASCOMB: And over half of the youth in this study reported a sense of doom that the future is literally doomed. Four in ten even said that they are hesitant to have children of their own as a result. That's really dark thinking for such a young age.

VAN SUSTEREN: It is unthinkable, you know, if a child or people adults don't want to have children, that's certainly a personal choice. But to have that decision forced on you how unnatural. And the reason kids don't want to have, or young people don't want to have or say they don't want to have children is twofold. One is that they first of all, they don't want to potentially bring a child into a world that they feel might be chaotic. Secondly, they count up the carbon emissions. And some of them will say to themselves, that they can't in good conscience add even more of a strain on the limited resources and the capacity of the planet to recover. So the added carbon emissions of having another child gives them pause.

BASCOMB: And I mean, governments should really be listening to that, because it's not good for your economy to have a sudden drop out and the demographics. Look at China, you know?

VAN SUSTEREN: Such an astute remark. Let's be realistic and that is that the benefits that older people seniors have, because of their long years of work, are in part paid for by a younger generation that continues to work, you know, we take care of each other all along the generational divide. And this is a point that's actually really important to me, and that is that there is a real generational injustice here on the part of people who have power who are older, and I've even called a generational aggression. When you know that you're hurting someone and you're doing it anyway, you know whether you like it or not, whether you accept it or not, whether you say so or not and whether you're conscious of it or not, it's still aggression. And I see this aggression in the attitude of some people not all, towards the younger generation that's going to have to deal with us.

BASCOMB: Yeah, I do hear, you know, there's sort of the sentiment of older people saying, well, you're overreacting, you're weak, you know, you don't, I don't know, you don't really understand the world. You know that you're overreacting to these things

VAN SUSTEREN: Oh that snowflake thing?

BASCOMB: There you go.

Tens of thousands of demonstrators marched through central Paris as well as other French towns on October 13, 2018 calling on the French government and the international community to do more to tackle climate change. This is one of many protests. (Photo: Jeanne Menjoulet, Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

VAN SUSTEREN: Boy, that really really nails me when I hear the baby boomers talking about this generation that is going to have so much to deal with. And I'm not saying that you can't build resilience. I'm not saying that you don't have a collaborative spirit. I'm not saying any of these things. But the idea that we should trash the place, it's sort of like, you know, it's a reverse sort of situation where parents go out of town and the teenagers trash the house. Well here we are with young people looking, waiting, and expecting a planet that's in good shape or at least as good as their parents got it and we've trashed it. And we have, and we're doing it consciously. Now, it's one thing when we didn't know and lots of people didn't know, we know now, we are being warned. We can see with our own eyes.

BASCOMB: Well what did the participants have to say specifically about government action on climate change?

VAN SUSTEREN: The realization is that while obviously corporations are not exempt, and adults generally are not exempt, the kids realize very, very well, that if you really want rapid social change, they know full well, that it's writing policies that protect them for the future, that will assure that we have responsible attitudes, in a sense in place. And by attitudes I mean corporate, I mean social, I mean other political, because after all, businesses need to have policies that they can follow that tell them these are the rules of the road, when they hear that they will make a changes very quickly. Kids are very savvy, they know full well, that government is the one that can unleash the power.

BASCOMB; Well, what do you see in this report in terms of the views from developed versus developing countries which are represented here by Nigeria, India, the Philippines, and you can make the argument Brazil?

VAN SUSTEREN: One of the things about developing countries versus an established country is that in developing country, first of all, the cross section of people, because we had to find kids that were able to get internet, that's number one, and they also had to be computer savvy, of course. So that limits your ability to get a real cross section, you could make the case that we're really speaking to elites, one could make that case. I don't know if we really dug down if you could make that accusation. And certainly, we're not going to spend a lot of money doing something like that. Because it just is very clear. And that is, kids who do have access to what's going on in the world, are very media savvy. So I think we can conclude that the future leaders of countries that are developing are very aware, and they will be the thought leaders, they will be the ones that are speaking out. And those are the ones that we clearly need to talk to us, you know, primarily given the fact that they will have future power.

BASCOMB: Well, you know, so many young people responded with a very, very high level of anxiety and concern about climate change. How does that affect a growing brain? So many of these people are still growing? I mean, does it connect the synapses in a way that's hardwiring them for future concerns?

VAN SUSTEREN: It so does, there is a psychological priming, so that when you have trauma, especially if kids have had repeated trauma and some of these kids have had repeated trauma, what happens is that you are more prone to trauma in the future. So that's the psychological underpinning. And then there's something else that is even more troubling to me and I sort of suck in air because you can't traumatize a generation and not think on many levels, that this isn't going to have an effect on future generations. So it's not only the traumatized people are more inclined to raise traumatized kids because of their own behavioral choices and their own moods and things like that. It's just inevitable but something that's even more sobering Bobby is that we know that there is something called transgenerational it's epigenetic transfer of stress, which means basically, that when you awaken DNA strip, in one generation to code really for stress, that code gets transmitted to the next generation. So it stays awake into the next generation, it doesn't reset and start over at zero. So what you have is the next generation experiencing the trauma of a previous generation. So just think about it in every single way, when you're traumatized. And, and let's just talk about, let me back it up a little, let me just say, how about stress? You know, I say to your listeners, how well do you do when you're stressed? Do you think well? Can you remember exactly conversations? Certainly, you've been stressed and known that you've gotten sick. So it affects your immune system, it reflects your memory, it reflects your judgment. We all know we don't make great decisions when we're under stress. Well, teenagers, young people all the more and as you suggested, for a growing brain, what happens is that you get this sort of neurologic foundation that serves you for the future and it is being altered when it's at its most plastic, as its most responsive. So that's, that's the danger that we face. And I don't want to say it's only bleak, because we don't want to suggest that kids have only a bleak outlook, and they're victims and all the rest. The world is waking up and we need to talk about that, too.

Participants from the global south expressed a high concern for the climate crisis with 92% from the Philippines describing the future as “frightening”. (Photo: Felton Davis, Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

BASCOMB: Yeah. Well, you are a practicing psychiatrist, what do you think is an appropriate age for parents to start having these types of conversations with their children? You know, I think most parents want their kids to have a carefree childhood, they don't want them worrying about the existential threat of climate change and, you know, causing this harm that we've been talking about. But at the same time, I mean, that's the reality of the world. And we need young people to care about it, you know, we need everyone together, you know, to push for action on this. How do you square that circle?

VAN SUSTEREN: So, so well said. And I get that question a lot. So I have my three L's as listen, learn and leverage. So it is never too early to encourage a child to respect life. And by life, it's all nature, and all animals and plants. They're all our brothers and sisters, we evolved from them, we know how much we share. So teaching kids to respect life, at the earliest of ages is critical, so that you can start before you ever say a word about climate. So what I've also learned is that it is really important to listen to kids. What are your kids saying? A lot of kids have heard stuff. And so you might say to them, you know, there's a lot of talk lately about the weather and if they have older siblings, they might have heard about it, ask them what they have heard. And, you know, sometimes I had a patient who has child thought, heard about extinction and thought that the family dog Charlie was going to die and hadn't said anything to the mom but was harboring this fear that Charlie was going to die. And it's why it's so important to hear about what your kids are thinking. So listen to what your kids are saying. Learn about what you need to know so that you can talk to them. And then you can say, and this is the leverage part, you can say to them, yes, and you are right, there has been a lot of this. Never lie to a kid. What you might do is disabuse them of some of the irrational thoughts that they have. But tell them you understand their fears. And then this is where you go to say, well, that's why in our family, and then talk about what you do to protect nature, or if they're old enough the climate, depending upon their age of course, how you respond is important. So that's why we turn out the lights, that's why we don't take a lot of or any plane trips, that's why we eat the kind of food we do, that's why we have a garden, etc. And if you haven't been doing those things this is the perfect opportunity to make your child feel important and say, you know what, based on what you've just said to me, and what I've heard about what you're thinking, our family is going to do more to make sure that the planet is safe for you. So you can use these conversations not only to steer them in the right direction, but to build their self-esteem and resilience, these are empowering words to a child who feels vulnerable.

BASCOMB: Dr. Lise Van Susteren is a practicing general and forensic psychiatrist in Washington, DC, an expert on the physical and mental health of climate change. Thank you so much Dr. Van Susteren for this chat and all of these great advice.

VAN SUSTEREN: Thank you.



Watch a panel hosted by AVAAZ on how youth climate anxiety is linked to climate inaction

Learn more about Dr. Lise Van Susteren’s work in studying the physical and mental health effects of climate change.

Read the preprint in The Lancet here: "Young People’s Voices on Climate Anxiety, Government Betrayal and Moral Injury: A Global Phenomenon"


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