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Rosalind Skillen

How climate issues are robbing young people of their youth

Rosalind Skillen

The paralysing nature of eco-anxiety must be addressed


Greta Thunberg at a protest in Glasgow

Greta Thunberg at a protest in Glasgow

Greta Thunberg at a protest in Glasgow

We often think of young people as passive receivers of adult wisdom. Vessels to be filled.

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

Greta Thunberg is an obvious example of this. The Fridays for Future movement, spearheaded by Greta Thunberg, started in 2018 and it was born out of her consistent climate striking outside the Swedish parliament building.

Fast forward to 2022: more than 14 million people attend climate strikes in 7,500 cities across the globe. Fridays for Future is historic for multiple reasons, not least for being the fastest growing grassroots movement of our time.

It seems paradoxical, then, that the crisis which has given a voice and platform to young people is the same crisis which disempowers and disenfranchises them. For instance, young climate activists exercise power in many ways: they organise strikes, write petitions and lead campaigns. Yet, global corporations and political figures often strip them of this power: by ignoring their demands, they leave young people feeling unheard and unseen.

Power dynamics therefore operate at different levels in the youth climate movement, and the nexus 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 capacity to organise with speed and at scale. Others find it sad that young people have been thrust into a world which leaves them no choice but to become politically active.

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

The truth is that young people have lost the very youth that defines them. Having to deal with environmental issues, like climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution, has meant that young people have become almost hardened, disillusioned and cynical – like some adults.

Greta Thunberg voiced this same sentiment back in 2019 at the U.N. Climate Action Summit in New York. She addressed world leaders, claiming: “you all come to us young people for hope. How dare you! You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words.” Outrage, anger and frustration permeate her speech. However, what strikes me most about Greta Thunberg’s words is a sense of great sadness. The fusion of emotions makes this speech one of her most moving and memorable.

Despite the plural and politicized representations of youth activism that we see in the media, environmental destruction is beyond the direct control of young people. This is one of the primary reasons that 70% young people feel hopeless in the face of the climate crisis, according to environmental charity Force of Nature. More research reveals that 40% young people in the U.K. are presenting to psychologists with eco-anxiety. For those unfamiliar with this term, eco-anxiety is defined as “a chronic fear of the future of the planet”, and it is having profound effects on the mental health and wellbeing of young people.

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

The sense of existential dread or feelings of panic, caused by eco-anxiety, are also related to a state called “climate doomism”. Climate doomism is when people feel it is too late to take environmental action, and they consequently 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 that environmentalism is evolving.

If mental health conditions, like eco-anxiety, make people feel powerless in the face of an existential threat, like climate change, we need to respond in a way that makes people feel empowered. We need to ask: are we educating people on climate change science and policy? Are we demonstrating how people can be part of the solution? Are we connecting people with one another and helping them to build supportive alliances and networks across the globe?

Young people have been 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 addressing eco-anxiety is central to 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 need to turn eco-anxiety into eco-action. We need to turn victimhood into agency. Most 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.

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