Climate depression is real. And it is spreading fast among our youth | Peter Kalmus

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Climate depression is real. And it is spreading fast among our youth

This is a crisis that cannot be solved by ‘positive messaging’. The only thing that will help is action from world leaders

A School Strike for Climate protest in Sydney, Australia, May 2021

Last modified on Thu 4 Nov 2021 06.42 EDT

If you are anything like me, you think of the climate emergency a lot. Possibly every waking hour. Perhaps you experience the psychological tension caused by feeling trapped between the truth of climate and ecological destruction on the one hand and inaction from world leaders on the other. I feel this tension myself, and as a parent and climate activist, I see it affecting young people especially hard.

We are in a growing epidemic of serious climate depression among young people. This is a crisis that cannot be solved by “positive messaging” any more than climate breakdown itself. Ultimately, the only thing that will help the mental and physical safety of every age group, including the young, is meaningful action from world leaders.

Global heating is a vise tightening on nearly every aspect of our planet, our society, and our minds, driven by the production of fossil fuels. Each gram of fossil fuel burned intensifies every manifestation of climate and ecological breakdown; there is no negotiating with physics. Without emergency-mode climate action, things will break. Lots of things. Big things. Eventually, everything.

The climate mental health crisis is already hitting those who have lost everything in worsening climate infernos. It’s already hitting farmers in Australia, India and elsewhere who face serious and sometimes insurmountable challenges growing food in a rapidly changing climate (which, incidentally, should be a climate wake-up call for anyone who eats). It’s hitting Indigenous and vulnerable communities, for whom climate breakdown is the culmination of centuries of colonial and social oppression. It’s hitting parents, who feel unable to protect their children; I sometimes cry while talking about climate breakdown when I think about my kids. And of course, it’s hitting young people.

A recent survey by a team of psychologists probed the climate anxiety felt by 10,000 young people aged 16-25 from countries in the global south and north. In the survey, 77% said “the future is frightening”, 68% feel sad, and 63% feel anxious. 39% feel “hesitant to have children”. This distress correlates with a belief that climate action from governments is inadequate. Additionally, mental distress increases with hotter temperatures, with 9,000 to 40,000 additional suicides projected by 2050 in the US and Mexico under a worst-case climate scenario due to excess heat alone.

Therapy can help people struggling with climate anxiety and depression; but since climate emotions are driven by real, intensifying, physical processes on Earth, therapy only treats the symptom. Something that helps me is being part of a vibrant community of activists. I could not handle the weight of this knowledge if I had to do so alone.

However, as everything gets worse – and unfortunately it will get worse – we’re all going to need more than friends, as important as they are. We’re also going to need a sense that, collectively, society is finally heading in the right direction, with emergency speed. Since climate breakdown is caused by fossil fuel production, meaningful action must include ending the fossil fuel industry rapidly, with binding, annual goals for industry contraction, and therefore emissions reduction.

One path would be to seize assets and nationalize the fossil fuel industry to ensure equitable distribution during the ramp-down; forge a fossil-fuel non-proliferation treaty for international coordination; enhance social safety nets to ensure stability during a period of rapid change; and implement a Green New Deal to create transition infrastructure as well as a deep sense of solidarity. Young people and teens must be included in climate decision-making. Voting ages should be lowered.

The Greek word neo means “young, new”. We can thus coin a word, neocide, meaning “the deliberate killing of young people and future generations”. The fossil fuel industry and the US government have known for half a century that fossil fuels would lead to catastrophic global heating that would be especially destructive to young people and future generations. After decades of lying and misleading the public, political and corporate leaders continue to delay action, leading to vast, irreversible, and accelerating losses throughout Earth’s ecosystems and life support systems. Of course this creates mental anguish for young people!

It is psychologically devastating to feel climate and ecological catastrophe closing in every day while watching those in power not only failing to act, but actively making things worse by expanding the fossil fuel industry. Instead of more empty words and distractions, humanity desperately needs real action. World leaders must orchestrate a rapid end to the fossil fuel industry, for the sake of us all – but especially for the sake of young people.

  • Peter Kalmus is a climate scientist and author of Being the Change: Live Well and Spark a Climate Revolution

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