The 2022 UN Climate Change Conference, otherwise known as COP27, has made it clear that we’re still a long way from adequately dealing with climate change. Despite historic deals being struck to protect the most vulnerable nations, those that have been the worst hit by the escalating climate disaster, there remains little else to be hopeful about given the mammoth task ahead. The frustrating lack of urgency displayed by global leaders has perpetuated a rising phenomenon known as climate anxiety, which is spreading rapidly amongst the global youth.

Is the anxiety justified?

Climate anxiety is not just another buzzword, it’s an alarming trend that encompasses a sense of fear, worry or tension related to climate change. In a recent seismic survey, it was reported that over 45 per cent of teens and young adults said their feelings about global warming negatively affected their mental health. The findings were representative of Europe, Africa, Asia, Oceania and the Americas, highlighting a global existential dread about the fate of the planet. Given that humanity is on course to blast through the 1.5°C warming limit, it should be asked: are young people right to be worried about the future?

Sceptics may argue that climate anxiety is simply a media-fuelled frenzy. But the environmental decline is unmistakable, progressive, and its effects culturally traumatising. This year alone, tens of millions of homes were destroyed in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh from flash flooding triggered by extreme heat. Elsewhere, in places like Somalia and Ethiopia, high temperatures exacerbated severe food and water shortages. Accepting the harsh realities of our time is a psychologically demanding task. As political realities continue to take precedence over environmental concerns, people’s anxiety about our declining environment is likely to deepen.

The prioritisation of the global economy has plagued our natural world as the delusion of infinite growth wreaks havoc on our finite planetary resources. Rather than investing in sustainable alternatives, particularly amid the energy crisis, international governments have continued to exploit existing opportunities for gas and oil production. Congo, for example, recently auctioned the rights for new oil blocks in the world’s second-largest rainforest. The peatlands and swampy areas of the Congo Basin hold billions of tonnes of carbon, sparking fears of environmental catastrophe if drillings proceed. The U.K. is similarly culpable of approving a new coal mine in Cumbria, neglecting its climate targets and highlighting a global trend of refusing to transition away from fossil fuels.

Such irresponsible government actions run counter to official meteorological data, which states that climate change is primarily caused by the burning of fossil fuels. One explanation for the ongoing negligence is that the severity of the situation has been considerably downplayed so that business can carry on as ‘normal’. Unlike governments, young people have no vested interests and have not closed their eyes to the facts. They know just how serious the climate situation is and that time is of the essence.

Big change is coming

In his latest book The Uninhabitable Earth, David Wallace-Wells presents numerous scientific findings that show the planet is on the verge of dramatic and disastrous change. Amongst the worst, are what is known as cascades. A cascade happens when a climate change effect causes the globe to warm even more, creating a destructive feedback cycle. The melting of the Arctic ice sheets is one obvious example. Since white is an excellent reflector of light and heat, our polar ice caps reflect a significant quantity of sunlight back into space. But as global warming causes ice sheets to recede, less of that heat is reflected and more is absorbed instead. As ice sheets melt, the planet gets warmer.

Less ice also means a rise in sea levels. If current warming rates continue, the Indonesian megacity of Jakarta will be completely submerged by 2050. Rising sea levels are a global issue. It is estimated that if nothing changes, up to 3 billion people may need to migrate by 2070. Given the hostile welcome refugees currently receive, these figures are nothing but terrifying. Just imagine what will happen when one-third of the global population has to migrate. And that would only be the start. As the Arctic poles continue to melt, ancient bacteria and diseases, currently trapped deep beneath the ice sheets, could be released into the atmosphere and trigger a host of pandemics far worse than Covid-19.

The future is bleak but not a black hole

Given everything we know, it’s hardly surprising that young people are struggling to remain optimistic about the future. Emilie, 22, from Quebec, says:

‘Our climate reality tolls on my mental health every day. My community wears rose-coloured glasses. It’s hard to find people who understand how I feel. I feel guilt and a sense of shame for bringing up this topic. I’ve had people label me as cynical, too pessimistic, privileged, or refusing to appreciate the good in our world. Every day, I use various unhealthy ways to cope and escape reality because of this isolation.’

Climate anxiety will likely continue to affect an increasing number of young people like Emilie. Notably, as the environmental crisis intensifies, there is evidence that this is a predominantly white issue.

Professor of Environmental Studies, Sarah Jaquette Ray, describes climate anxiety as an ‘overwhelmingly white phenomenon.’ Climate change is often cited as ‘the greatest existential threat of our time,’ but this claim ignores people who have endured genocide, slavery and centuries of marginalisation. The threat of cultural destruction has beset oppressed communities for generations, who, out of necessity, have had to establish traditions of resilience. As Dr Ray writes: ‘Black, feminist and Indigenous leaders have painstakingly cultivated resilience over the long arc of the fight for justice.’ Patience and determination have helped oppressed peoples achieve radical political change throughout history. We must take note of this and guide our actions accordingly.

As the year concludes, young people should evaluate the present and direct their environmental anxiety towards collective action. Collaborative persistence is the ultimate form of resistance when all hope seems lost. Developing new ideas, communities of support, and practical faith beyond the confines of our destructive system, is where real change lies. No revolution ever happened overnight. As a new year beckons on the horizon, it’s up to the younger generation to plant the seeds for a better and brighter future. 

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