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Study Shows Young People Have A Lot Of Anxiety Around Climate Change


Storms, floods, wildfires, heat waves - many of us are now being impacted in some way by climate change. And maybe that makes you feel dread, fear - there is a name for that, climate anxiety. Young people are especially vulnerable to this. A forthcoming global study looked at 10,000 young people's attitudes towards climate change. And one of the authors is Caroline Hickman. She specializes in climate psychology at the University of Bath. And she's here to tell us more about what they found. Hello.

CAROLINE HICKMAN: Hello. Good morning.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You surveyed 10,000 young people across 10 countries, all of them between the ages of 16 to 25. And you asked them a variety of questions about their feelings and their thoughts about climate change. How would you characterize their answers?

HICKMAN: Well, the short answer is we found these answers quite devastating. We've known from our previous research with children and young people around the world that they were distressed, that they were finding climate change terrifying. What we didn't realize was quite how frightened they were. We didn't realize the depth of the feeling. And we didn't realize how that was impacting on their thinking and their daily functioning.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. I mean, did it vary country by country? And what were those numbers?

HICKMAN: Yes, there is some variation country by country. And not surprising, countries like India, Nigeria, the Philippines are reporting a much greater impact on their trust in governments and adults to be taking action and much higher levels of distress. But to be honest, the levels of distress across all of the countries were worrying. I mean, across the results, we found things like two-thirds overall were feeling sad, afraid, anxious. And half of young people were telling us they were feeling angry, powerless, helpless, guilty and ashamed. This was not a small percentage of children and young people. Eight out of 10 were telling us people have failed to take care of the planet. Eight out of 10 were saying, the future is frightening, you know? And then some of the worst findings - over half were telling us that they thought humanity was doomed. And 4 out of 10 felt reluctant to have children themselves because of their fears about climate change.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And you mentioned that they said that their feelings about climate change negatively affect their daily lives. Did they explain how?

HICKMAN: Yes, they did. They said it has a negative impact on eating, sleeping, going to school, studying, working and playing and having fun. I'm afraid there was no area of their life that they said wasn't impacted.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It seems like what your study suggests more broadly is that anxiety around climate change is causing psychological distress to young people in very significant ways but that the lack of action from government intensifies that feeling because they feel like they don't have control over resolving the issue.

HICKMAN: That's absolutely right. Of course, children and young people are worried about environmental destruction - the fires, the floods, the heat dome in the Pacific Northwest. But what children and young people were very clear about was they would be reassured about those things if governments were taking action. And we found that two-thirds believed that governments were lying to them about the effectiveness of the actions they were taking on climate change. So they said they felt betrayed and abandoned by governments.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, what do you think the long-term impacts of, you know, those anxieties will be for young people?

HICKMAN: I think there's a number of long-term impacts. First and foremost, I'd say they're relational. So we've got children and young people who are already struggling because they can't talk to their parents. They can't talk to teachers. They feel they're not being listened to, and they're not being respected. So I think it has a devastating impact in terms of trust and relationships and children's ability to talk to us about their problems and how they feel. I think it also has a long-term impact in children's ability to feel that they're part of the world and that their needs and their future needs are being given attention. And children and young people are saying to me in my qualitative research that they no longer believe and trust what adults say to them. Lots of them are saying to me things like, what's the point in going to school? What's the point in sitting exams? Because I'm not going to have a future. So to leave children and young people feeling this way on their own is really unfair.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, then what would you say to parents of children, adolescents and young adults who are struggling with this? I mean, how can they best support them?

HICKMAN: I always say tell children the truth. You wouldn't get divorced from your partner and not talk to your 4- or 5-year-old about it, would you? So it's the same thing. We have to talk to children about these frightening things that are going on in the world, but we have to find ways to do that that helps them understand what's going on and not feel alone. I mean, I'm going to quote Sophia (ph), who's a young child in Sweden. I said to her, how do we talk to children about this without frightening you? And I'm going to quote her because she's perfect. She says, well - she says, "you've got to tell me the truth because if you don't tell me the truth, you're lying to me, and I can't trust you." She said, "but don't tell me all the bad news all at once. Tell me some bad news, then some good news, then some bad news, then some good news." She said, "and anyway, I'm not a baby."

So actually, I know our research in many ways is worrying and could be depressing. But, actually, I think there is, strangely, a positive message in this. I think this actually gives us the opportunity to validate directly with children and young people how they're feeling, to have them feel heard by us. And it gives us the opportunity to say to children, sorry - we're sorry we've not acted on this before. And this is our responsibility. And then we've got to put the message back to governments - governments, you need to do something because if you don't do something, you're leaving the children and young people in your country with this terrible distress.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Caroline Hickman, a lecturer at the University of Bath in social work and climate psychology. Thank you very much.

HICKMAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.