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Climate Change Is Scaring Kids

Updated: Feb 8, 2022

You may be surprised to learn that climate denial isn’t really a thing in the United States anymore. Sure, there are a few people living out there on the fringe of reality who still insist, without displaying any credible, peer-reviewed, scientific evidence whatsoever, that climate change is a hoax propagated by a cabal of pointy-headed “coastal elites” or some such conspiracy theory.

According to the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, 72% of American adults who were surveyed in 2020 agreed that global warming is happening, and most of them know that human activities — greatest among them, extracting and burning fossil fuels — are to blame. Nearly three-quarters of those surveyed said they were worried future generations will suffer harm as a result of climate change. The concern for their kids and grandkids goes so deep that 78% of American adults say that schools should teach children about global warming, according to the poll.

Adults who are still on the fence about accepting the reality of climate change should just ask their kids. They know all about global warming and the climate crisis that isn’t waiting for them to grow up. They are learning about changes in the environment occurring right now — in school when they study science, at home when they turn on the TV to watch extreme weather happening in real time, and when they simply have time and curiosity to explore and ponder the great outdoors. And what they are learning, seeing, hearing, and experiencing is really scaring them.

In a study pre-printed last month in The Lancet, researchers from the University of Bath in England describe the eco-anxiety young people around the world are feeling as global warming accelerates without eliciting the responsible, bold, and, yes, adult response that is needed to stop it:

Climate change has significant implications for the health and futures of children and young people, yet they have little power to limit its harm, making them vulnerable to increased climate anxiety. Qualitative studies show climate anxiety is associated with perceptions of inadequate action by adults and governments, feelings of betrayal, abandonment and moral injury.

American youth in particular “expressed the lowest levels of trust in government, and American young adults overwhelmingly said that their climate concerns are not being taken seriously enough,” says Karin Kirk, who reviewed the methodology:

The researchers surveyed 10,000 young people, aged 16 to 25 years, in 10 countries. They gauged how people feel about the future, how well humanity has cared for the Earth, and if governments’ responses have been honest, sufficient, and aligned with climate science.

One of the study’s lead authors calls the results of the survey “devastating;” another says their study “paints a horrific picture of widespread climate anxiety in our children and young people.”

• 59% of children and young people surveyed were very or extremely worried about climate change [84% said they were at least moderately worried]; • More than half of respondents said they had felt afraid, sad, anxious, angry, powerless, helpless, and/or guilty; • 55% of respondents felt they would have fewer opportunities than their parents; • 65% felt governments were failing young people, while 61% said the way governments deal with climate change was not “protecting me, the planet and/or future generations”; • Almost half (48%) of those who said they talked with others about climate change felt ignored or dismissed. • Young people surveyed from the Global South expressed more worry and a greater impact on functioning; while young people surveyed in Portugal (which has seen dramatic increases in wildfires since 2017) showed the highest level of worry amongst those from the Global North.

Children’s fears about climate change are well founded and shouldn’t be dismissed by the adults in their lives. Another study published last month in Science revealed the extent of the “intergenerational inequality” of climate change. Sarah Kaplan says the study shows that children living today “will be exposed to an average of five times more disasters than if they lived 150 years ago.”

If the planet continues to warm on its current trajectory, the average 6-year-old will live through roughly three times as many climate disasters as their grandparents, the study finds. They will see twice as many wildfires, 1.7 times as many tropical cyclones, 3.4 times more river floods, 2.5 times more crop failures and 2.3 times as many droughts as someone born in 1960.

How can parents alleviate the eco-anxiety their children may be feeling? Andrew Gregory spoke to two public health experts who worry that the climate crisis is “taking a growing toll on the mental health of children and young people.”

“The best chance of increasing optimism and hope in the eco-anxious young and old is to ensure they have access to the best and most reliable information on climate mitigation and adaptation,” they said. “Especially important is information on how they could connect more strongly with nature, contribute to greener choices at an individual level, and join forces with like-minded communities and groups.”

Finally seeing some positive actions on fixing the climate crisis by adults in responsible positions wouldn’t hurt young people either. That’s precisely what health professionals in the U.S. and around the world are calling for.

Originally published on The PediaBlog on October 13th, 2021.

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