Rosalind Skillen: How climate issues are robbing young people of their youth

We often see young people as passive recipients of adult wisdom. Vessels to fill.

The climate movement, which is largely a youth-led movement, upends this idea. While young people are often portrayed as “the future”, youth-led climate activism and action shows us how young people are already mobilizing and catalyzing in the present.

Greta Thunberg is an obvious example. The Fridays for Future movement, led by Greta Thunberg, started in 2018 and it grew out of its constant banging outside the Swedish parliament building.

Fast forward to 2022: over 14 million people are taking part in climate strikes in 7,500 cities around the world. Fridays for Future is historic for several reasons, including being the fastest growing grassroots movement of our time.

It therefore seems paradoxical that the crisis that gave young people a voice and a platform is the same crisis that disempowers them and deprives them of their rights. For example, young climate activists wield power in many ways: they organize strikes, write petitions and campaign. Yet global corporations and political figures often deprive them of this power: by ignoring their demands, they leave young people feeling ignored and invisible.

Power dynamics therefore operate at different levels in the youth climate movement, and the link between political power and youth voice is complex.

Public perceptions of youth activism are equally complex. Some people find it inspiring that young people have the ability to organize quickly and on a large scale. Others find it sad that young people have been thrown into a world that leaves them no choice but to become politically active.

In many ways, the politicized role that young people have been forced to adopt challenges the very definition of ‘youth’. The first years of life, what we call “youth”, have connotations of childhood, adolescence, even innocence.

The truth is that young people have lost the very youth that defines them. Dealing with environmental issues, such as climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution, has caused young people to become almost calloused, disillusioned and cynical – like some adults.

Greta Thunberg expressed that same sentiment in 2019 at the United Nations Climate Action Summit in New York. She addressed world leaders, saying, “You all come to us young people for hope. How dare you! You stole my dreams and my childhood with your empty words. Indignation, anger and frustration permeate his speech. However, what strikes me most about Greta Thunberg’s lyrics is a sense of great sadness. The fusion of emotions makes this speech one of his most moving and memorable.

Despite the plural and politicized portrayals of youth activism seen in the media, environmental destruction is beyond the direct control of young people. This is one of the main reasons why 70% of young people feel hopeless about the climate crisis, according to environmental charity Force of Nature. Other research reveals that 40% of young people in the UK consult psychologists with eco-anxiety. For those unfamiliar with the term, eco-anxiety is defined as “a chronic fear of the future of the planet,” and it has profound effects on the mental health and well-being of young people.

Eco-anxiety can be crippling. Its symptoms are similar to those of depression and prevent people from doing normal things like socializing and seeing friends. At worst, eco-anxiety can keep people from leaving the house or even getting out of bed.

Feelings of existential dread or feelings of panic, caused by eco-anxiety, are also linked to a condition called “climate doomism”. Climate doomism is when people feel it is too late to take environmental action, and as a result they disengage and fall into despair.

The emergence of conditions, like eco-anxiety and climate doomism, means that mental health has become integrated into the climate conversation. This is one of the many ways in which environmentalism is evolving.

If mental health issues, like eco-anxiety, make people feel powerless in the face of an existential threat, like climate change, we need to respond in ways that make people feel empowered. We need to ask ourselves: are we educating people about the science and politics of climate change? Are we demonstrating how people can be part of the solution? Are we connecting people to each other and helping them build alliances and support networks around the world?

Young people are born into a climate crisis that they did not create. It would be very easy to see them as victims. Yet when we create a culture where tackling eco-anxiety is at the heart of our environmental response, we turn victims into agents.

In a world where young people cannot even imagine what the future relationship between humans and the environment will look like, we must turn eco-anxiety into eco-action. We need to turn victimhood into agency. More importantly, we need to show young people that we love them.

How do we show young people that we love them? By listening to them.

Teresa H. Sadler