Young people engaged in a climate protest outdoors.

Climate anxiety: a narrative in need of change

In contrast to the stereotype of the spirited young student, brandishing placards on the streets of university towns, British students today appear to be politically disengaged. As Brazilian students took to the streets over Bolsenaro’s sweeping education cuts, British students seem to accept their fate entering a post-pandemic economy with a distinct lack of adequate skilled work, and a dismembered housing market in a kind of apathetic stupor. Even some of our closest neighbours – the French – continue their long held tradition of youth uprising as seen in recent cost of living related protests across the country.

Somewhere we seem to have lost our historic culture of rebellion and by doing so have allowed our living standards to be trampled on. We know things are bad, but worse, we seem to believe that we can’t do anything about it.

This outlook seems to culminate in an unstated despondent worldview adopted by the British youth –  and is associated with widespread pathologies. Many teenagers now harbour palpable climate anxiety which, although it can be overwhelming, is not yet a registered mental illness and so sufferers are offered very little (if any) support. Depression is the most treated condition by the NHS and is increasingly affecting younger ages. Eating disorders have increased by two thirds since the pandemic, mostly amongst young girls.

This is not typical teenage angst. It goes hand in hand with austerity-driven cuts to youth services and the first generation to have a lower expected quality of life than their parents. It is not hyperbolic to suggest that being young in late capitalist Britain is close to being classified as an illness. 

It is not hyperbolic to suggest that being young in late capitalist Britain is close to being classified as an illness. 

The familiar well-wishing comments often spouted by the baby-boomer generation like “I know what it’s like to be young” no longer have much of a ring of truth or grasp of the reality of being young in the 21st century. Treating these problems as if they were caused solely by an individual’s neurological imbalances or family background is essentially a form of victim-blaming and by doing so, any question of social systemic causation is made impossible.

Instead, teenagers channel their malaise into never-ending echo chambers, else drown it out by doom scrolling or better yet, ignore it completely. If a plant was wilting we wouldn’t diagnose it with ‘plant-wilting-syndrome’, we would change its conditions. Yet when humans are suffering under bleak conditions, we are told something is wrong with us and are expected to keep pushing through. The most effective therapy would be structurally addressing the societal causes of malaise among our generation. We need to search outside the individual for solutions to the pains of our generation to address collective trauma and anxiety. By doing so we may finally help to address their causes. 

Building collective mental resilience will be essential to our fight for climate action long into the future. We need to be equipped to both deal with the catastrophe we face as well as fight back against impending threats to our lives, livelihoods and futures. The collective aspect of this is important as the climate crisis is an issue we all face and must all confront; we must not forget that we are more effective when we act synergistically.

Climate anxiety can be isolating and so erodes collectivism as people lose hope in their futures. It is a paradoxical phenomenon because it is experienced to some extent by almost everyone who knows the scale of destruction we face, and yet it has not inspired sufficient concern amongst the population or politicians to secure the action needed. Take the recent Tory leadership contest – while neither candidate was an out-and-out climate denier, neither did they propose any satisfactory course of action for the future of Britain, and the fracking-fanatic Truss even came out on top. 

It seems the gap between public sentiment and policy action can be attributed to three possible causes. The first is that not enough people know enough about climate change which is evidently an issue with the media and education system. The second is that people do not transfer belief into actions (voting or otherwise) – they may have other priorities or simply don’t care enough. Or lastly, it could be that people act enough but it is not translated into policy which is a problem with the political system or politicians themselves.

All of these are certainly contributors, as my experience campaigning in environmental movements  brought me into contact with members of the public in each of these three categories. But what can be done about them? There is a fine line between instilling enough fear in the public to spark action, and fear-mongering in such a way that action seems hopeless. We appear to have a deadly mixture of these two phenomena occurring concurrently. Leaders will only be pressed to act if they are spooked by drastic collective action of the people, and our climate anxiety will be best kept at bay if we see the change we need and can be a part of it. 

…climate anxiety will be best kept at bay if we see the change we need and can be a part of it.

Therefore the solution to these parallel problems seems clear: present the solutions alongside the problems. The media and education systems must change to first address the scale of the issue for those still in the dark but just as importantly, they must also address what can be done about it as this is key to containing climate anxiety while keeping pressure on the powers that be to address the issue urgently. This is the clearest way we can address both climate anxiety and the climate crisis itself.

If not addressed together, these issues risk turning public sentiment even further inward, paralysing it with fear and adding to our generation’s hapless pile of comorbidities which will erode the collective mental resilience we will need to push for vital climate justice. We need a narrative of hope which addresses the challenges of being young in Britain today while being realistic about the future we face.