The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published its latest findings in March on the risks associated with unabated fossil fuel consumption and what’s required to avoid unrelenting climate catastrophe. One number in particular rose to the report’s surface: 1.5 degrees Celsius above 1850–1900 temperatures. If we limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, we’ll face increasing global poverty, political instability, and widespread food and water scarcity, and people will be displaced from their homelands because of climate change. If we exceed 1.5 degrees Celsius, the consequences will be far more severe.
The details are shocking, if not debilitating. Predictions of violence and uncertainty don’t lend themselves well to casual conversation, especially when no simple or straightforward solution exists. The repercussions of elected officials, government agents, and corporate executives prioritizing profits over the previous five decades of environmental concerns will not be shared equally across generations.
In transforming the earth’s ecological health through species extinction, ocean acidification, and drought, climate change is also creating rapid shifts in human health. In addition to climate change straining the human body’s ability to handle extreme temperatures and environmental pollutants, a steadily growing field of mental health advocates, psychologists, and physicians are concerned that the youngest generation entering adulthood is shouldering a silent crisis of worry and fear. Known more widely as “climate depression” and “eco-anxiety,” pre-traumatic stress disorder is growing among young people, researchers say.
Based on the actions we take now, future generations will inherit a climate crisis or a world bearing the scar tissue of environmental disaster and stress—possibly both. But this list of inheritances doesn’t have to include a mental health diagnosis. With the right support and tools, young people can build the emotional and psychological skills needed to navigate an uncertain future.
How does a young person think about building a life in a time of ineffable loss? Prism spoke with three young people living across the U.S. to discuss their goals and dreams, how they hope to build a sense of community, and what they envision the world to be like as they grow up. The young people interviewed in this series are grappling with a task that’s never been asked of any other generation, but they also know what other generations are just now learning: The future happens first in our minds, and we can’t build what we can’t imagine.
Placing the burden of climate change on young people
Navigating the realities of climate change in real time is taking a toll on young people. In 2020, a team of environmental health and youth mental health experts began researching the mental health impacts of climate change on young BIPOC, fulfilling an executive order from Oregon then-Gov. Kate Brown. In partnership with the Oregon Health Authority (OHA), the state’s main public health agency, experts conducted focus groups with five different youth-serving organizations, with one focus group dedicated to hearing from Klamath Tribes youth.
The research was the first to focus on the unique impacts of climate change on the psychological well-being of BIPOC youth. According to the resulting report, across the board, young people’s experiences of hopelessness and despair result not only from climate change, but from “inaction from individuals in power to address the climate crisis,” “the lack of action towards dismantling systems of oppressions that continue and escalate the climate crisis,” and “the burden of responsibility that older generations have placed on youth to ‘fix’ the climate problem.”
“I didn’t realize until I really was hearing from youth in this study just how much it is affecting their sense of hope for the future and the sense of what feels like [an] unjust burden to fix this mess or disaster that prior generations both have created and then are maybe not acknowledging,” said Julie Sifuentes, the climate and mental health lead for OHA and the lead author of state’s study. “Then I was able to take the perspective of someone [younger] and think about, wow, what if I were entering adulthood?”
Youth, who constitute one-sixth of the global population, will live through three times as many climate disasters on average than their grandparents. Climate events don’t have to be catastrophic to lead to decreased mental and emotional well-being. Chronic stress due to an increasing number of severe heat days in summer months, for example, or higher levels of air pollution that exacerbate or lead to respiratory illnesses are also taking a toll.
“I feel grief,” said University of Richmond undergraduate student McKenna Dunbar. The 24-year-old is the community engagement coordinator for the Virginia chapter of the Sierra Club and a Generation Z advisory team member for the Climate Mental Health Network. Young people are already living in a polarized and volatile society. Climate change touches every aspect of life while also compounding existing challenges, such as affording rising energy and food prices.
Nearly every study on youth mental health and climate points to a global study in Nature that found the vast majority of youth are worried about climate change. In the U.S., 4 in 5 children ages 10-12 experience negative emotions when thinking about climate change. A 2021 report from the U.S. Surgeon General said climate change affects the mental well-being of young people. The sixth IPCC report concluded that climate change “will significantly increase ill health … and [increase] mental health challenges including anxiety and stress.” These consequences are stacked on top of the federal government’s findings over the last decade that show decreasing mental health outcomes among youth, with the Centers for Disease Control estimating that 13-20% of children are affected by a mental health disorder in any given year.
Long before any of these reports came out, one psychologist asserted in an op-ed for the Huffington Post in 2009 that the adult refusal to address climate change was akin to child abuse.
“Mental health professionals vigorously endorse requirements to report cases of child abuse. It is a legal obligation, but it is also a moral one,” psychologist Lise Van Susteren wrote. “Is it any less compelling a moral obligation, in the name of all children now and in the future, to report that we are on track to hand over a planet that may be destroyed for generations to come?”
Other groups argue that the government’s continued support of a fossil fuel-based economy— despite evidence that burning fossil fuels leads to rapid ecological changes—is a violation of a child’s constitutional rights.
Climate disasters exacerbate systemic inequalities
Though the recent research on the implications of climate change on youth mental health may strike some adults as emergent, young people are intimately familiar with the findings. Platforms like Instagram have been integral to climate organizing among young people.
For years, young people have also used social media to air their climate-related concerns and fears. In response to one recent TikTok about the seven years we have to act before reaching an irreversible climate tipping point, a young user commented, “I’ll only be 20… I wanna achieve my dreams and most of them only start at the age of 20… What can we do??”
While adult decision-makers are slowly accepting the idea that climate change is caused by a fossil fuel economy, young people are clear about the links between our current economic system and climate change. OHA’s report found that young people cite capitalism as a driver of climate change. “Meaning, consumerism and a drive for increased profits prohibits climate change action,” the report noted. Young people are also clear that climate change compounds other structural inequalities and functions as a lens through which we can understand the burdens that disinvested, BIPOC, and marginalized communities carry. In other words, climate change is the crisis that exacerbates other crises.
“There needs to be an active shift and prioritization of those [who are] a part of marginalized communities and having not just the platform but also having the resources backed up for those individuals to actually institute change,” Dunbar said.
Communities that are majority Black, Latinx, or Indigenous are 50% more vulnerable to wildfires, which are increasing in frequency and intensity because of climate change-driven cycles of drought. Land loss due to sea level rise in Alaska and Louisiana is pushing Indigenous communities from their traditional homelands. After a climate disaster, the ability of affected communities to recover is directly linked with income, with researchers finding a “strong significant association” between inequality and depression and no association between the two for the wealthy. Climate disasters discriminate because the systems that underlie them do too.
Experiencing disaster bears its own mental health impacts. After the deadliest wildfire in California history, brought about by negligent practices of the state’s largest utility provider, residents suffered from increased levels of post-traumatic stress disorder, with younger people “significantly associated” with higher severity. Other studies have tracked individuals’ increased use of alcohol and drugs in the aftermath of a climate disaster.
So what is a young person supposed to do with this information: that the greenhouse gases trapped in the atmosphere are exacerbating racism and capitalism trapped in our political system? That it’s likely the crises will balloon before they abate, and that we have no unified approach to divest from fossil fuels?
Like climate change, the future is culturally and politically determined
As it relates to mental and emotional health services, solutions generally fall into two buckets: either large-scale policy solutions or community-led grassroots services.
The IPCC report recommends that universal health care access is one way to ensure that individuals receive the mental health care and support needed to process climate-related feelings. Individual states are now opting to expand services for youth. California launched the Child and Youth Behavioral Health Initiative in 2022, allocating nearly $5 billion to rewire how the state diagnoses and treats youth mental health concerns. It’s too early to see what impact the state’s funding stream will have, given that only 5% of the 5.3 million children and youth receiving the state’s low-income health insurance have received mental health care.
Federal disaster insurance and support implemented by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) offers mental health care to communities that suffered storms, hurricanes, and other disasters. Usually this funding accounts for about 1% of FEMA’s budget and is woefully under-prepared to meet the growing frequency of disasters. A 2020 investigation from the Center for Public Integrity and Columbia Journalism Investigations found that 70% of residents interviewed received no mental health services after a disaster.
Others are opting for non-governmental, community-driven solutions. Sarah Newman, the co-founder of the Climate Mental Health Network, said that building resiliency is one of the primary goals of climate-mental health work.
“If we don’t have these conversations, it limits our ability to connect with people and to be emotionally resilient,” Newman said. And if we don’t learn to process our emotions in an open and constructive way, she said we won’t be able to respond to the climate crisis in the ways that we need to.
Becca Phillips, the climate and health fellow with Physicians for Social Responsibility, said that intergenerational healing and grief circles create opportunities for people to express their emotions. Most importantly, there isn’t pressure to resolve feelings in the moment; the mere act of expressing them allows people to build community and to share their stories.
Phillips said that healing circle participants have reported that they feel “a profound sense of loss, especially with biodiversity loss and seeing changes in their neighborhoods and just feeling a sense of hopelessness.” Holding space, she said, functions as a solution in itself.
And for those who are feeling disconnected from the environment, sometimes the solution is to explore natural spaces. Ankur Shah, a volunteer project manager with Black to the Land, a Detroit-based organization that works to enhance Black and brown relationships with the land, said spending time in nature can help people feel more calm. These mental shifts are concurrent with biophysical changes as well, like reducing one’s blood pressure.
But not all young people can find a forest near their homes. “We found that many young folks of color don’t have as much access to nature based on where they live and oftentimes are afraid to adventure by themselves, although they might be interested in spending more time in nature,” Shah said. “If students and children don’t have access to nature, that can be detrimental to their health.”
To help shed light on the mental health challenges young people experience in an increasingly fraught world where the future isn’t guaranteed, Prism spoke with three young people to hear their perspectives on how they are making sense of the changing world. Follow their stories here.