‘The future is frightening’: Climate change linked to psychological distress in young people

A global study of more than 10,000 young people aged 16-25 has found that a perceived failure from governments and nations on climate action is leading to cases of distress and anxiety, with some feeling future generations have been "betrayed" by inaction.

‘The future is frightening’: Climate change linked to psychological distress in young people

The survey found that 65% believe governments are failing young people

The study, based on a survey of 10,000 children and young people across ten countries, was led by academics and professionals at the University of Bath, Stanford Medicine Centre for Innovation in Global Health, Oxford Health NHS Foundation Trust and others. It is due to be published in The Lancet Planetary Health.

It found that 45% of the global youth are affected by “climate anxiety and distress”, which has impacted their daily lives. In total, 75% of respondents believe “the future is frightening”.

It is believed to be the first time that a study of this magnitude has linked climate-related anxiety with perceived government inaction and associated feelings of betrayal. In total, 58% of children and young people surveyed said governments were “betraying me and/or future generations,” while 64% said their governments are not doing enough. 

Commenting on the findings, Greta Thunberg said: “Young people all over the world are well aware that the people in power are failing us. Some people will use this as another desperate excuse not to talk about the climate – as if that was the real problem. In my experience, what’s making young people feel the worst is the opposite – namely the fact that we are ignoring the climate crisis and not talking about it.”

The survey revealed that 55% of respondents feel they will have fewer opportunities than their parents because of inaction on climate change, while 65% believe governments are failing young people. Experts involved in the study claim that the psychological damage caused by this perceived feeling of betrayal could “amounts to a violation of international human rights law”. 

It comes as The Fridays for Future environmental youth movement calls for a global climate strike on September 24. It is expected that more than 1,100 strikes in 78 countries will take place on that date.

The University of Bath’s climate psychology alliance and co-lead author on the study Caroline Hickman said: “This study paints a horrific picture of widespread climate anxiety in our children and young people. It suggests for the first time that high levels of psychological distress in youth is linked to government inaction.

“Our children’s anxiety is a completely rational reaction given the inadequate responses to climate change they are seeing from governments. What more do governments need to hear to take action?”

The study comes as separate research revealed that Gambia is currently on course to deliver climate action that is in alignment with the 1.5C pathway of the Paris Agreement.

Climate Action Tracker (CAT) launched a new methodology to rate national approaches to climate action. Observing trends such as domestic target, policies and action, fair share, climate mitigation finance and land use and forestry, it found that just one country, Gambia, is on course for a 1.5C transition.

Another seven nations are classed as “nearly sufficient”, including the UK, with CAT stating that these nations could reach the 1.5C threshold with “moderate improvements”. CAT claims that the UK’s domestic net-zero strategy is compatible, but it is being hindered by policies.

Matt Mace

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