Growing number of young Americans feel climate anxiety. Here’s what they need to cope

In a recent PBS NewsHour survey in partnership with The Generation Lab, nearly two-thirds of children and young adults said climate change will influence where they decide to live. A third said it would affect their decision to have children. Growing research shows young people are increasingly experiencing what’s known as “climate anxiety.” William Brangham reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    In a recent "PBS NewsHour" survey, in partnership with The Generation Lab, children and young adults said they expect climate change to have major implications for how they live.

    Nearly two-thirds said that climate change will influence where they decide to live. More than half said it will change how and where they travel. And a third said it would affect their decision to have children. That is on top of growing resurge that shows that young people are increasingly experiencing what's now known a climate anxiety.

    Our William Brangham has this report about young people's lives and how they see their future.

  • William Brangham:

    These young protesters in downtown San Francisco are frustrated by what they see as inaction on climate change.

  • Protester:

    What do we want?

  • Protesters:

    Climate justice!

  • Protester:

    When do we want it?

  • Protesters:

    Now!

  • William Brangham:

    They're also here because they're worried about their own futures.

  • Sofia Palau, Youth Vs. Apocalypse:

    Of course I have panic attacks about climate change. It's the biggest issue facing our society today.

  • William Brangham:

    Seventeen-year-old Sofia Palau is a member of an organization called Youth vs apocalypse. It organized today's protest. Palau says the group's name is no exaggeration.

  • Sofia Palau:

    Truly, what we are facing right now is the apocalypse.

    When people think, oh, no one's going to die of climate change, then they're already discounting all of the people who have died in California wildfires, or all of the people who've died in hurricanes, or islands that are slowly going underwater, and people's lives who are being uprooted.

  • William Brangham:

    Palau says, thinking about climate change is overwhelming at times. It makes her nauseous. It makes it hard to concentrate at school.

  • Sofia Palau:

    It's very stressful. Like, last weekend, I had my ACT, but all I could think about was impending doom.

  • Lise Van Susteren, Climate Psychiatry Alliance:

    It's clear that we have passed certain tipping points already that have convinced children that they are in trouble, that their futures are imperiled.

  • William Brangham:

    Lise Van Susteren is a member of the Climate Psychiatry Alliance that's training more therapists to recognize and treat this growing anxiety.

  • Lise Van Susteren:

    Kids have told me that they don't want to pursue a secondary education. What's the point? Kids have said, of course, that they don't want to have children because they don't want to bring a child into the chaos.

    And then there are other kids who have just become anxious by themselves and might take all sorts of responses, maybe eating disorders, some people, or just a general feeling of apathy.

  • William Brangham:

    Do you share any of the concern that some critics share that we're overly scaring children, that the entire youth climate movement is stirring up fears that are terrifying kids inappropriately?

  • Lise Van Susteren:

    That is a common reaction among some people who do not want to face the reality.

    The kids are not dreaming this up. They aren't living in a cave. They have seen with their own eyes. It's no longer just scientists telling them. They have seen what is happening. And for us to sweep this under the rug makes them feel even worse.

  • Ana Alanis, California:

    Carpet Creek Road snakes through these trees, and this is Billy's Peak.

  • William Brangham:

    Twenty-five-year-old Ana Alanis is one of those young people who has seen the effects of climate change firsthand.

    Alanis grew up in Coffee Creek, California, population 200. It's a tight-knit community in the Northern California wilderness. It's a haven, but it's one threatened by wildfires that are, in part, made worse by climate change.

  • Ana Alanis:

    My climate anxiety looked, at its worst, it was not being able to sleep and thinking about different disaster scenarios. It feels like you're trying to be productive, but it's very painful.

  • William Brangham:

    For several years, she worried that fire would come to her childhood home, where her mom and stepdad still lived. Then, earlier this year, it did.

  • Ana Alanis:

    It's still hard for me to say it out loud, but, on September 7, 2021, my family home burned in a wildfire.

    It was surreal to realize that what I had feared for years happened. And it was a mix of balancing relief and gratitude that we're physically OK, and then just incredible grief of what happened to my community and the areas around us.

  • William Brangham:

    After taking leave from work and seeing a therapist, Alanis is slowing learning how to cope.

  • Ana Alanis:

    What I really want now is acknowledgment that my personal tragedy is happening, in the greater context of climate change.

    Because there's still so much that is threatened and still so much that we can save, I need that acknowledgment, so, that way, this loss didn't just happen for nothing.

  • William Brangham:

    There are some groups popping up to help kids put climate change in perspective and to give them a sense of agency.

    For example, in this interactive class in Oakland, California, elementary-aged students are learning how to make teas that are good for the throat and lungs.

  • Woman:

    So, when you're having problems with, like, air quality issues, these are good teas to have.

  • William Brangham:

    The goal is to empower kids, like 8-year-old Kabir Jacob, who's already thinking about climate change.

    Kabir Jacob, 8 Years Old: I'm starting to worry about climate change, because, every day, all these people and, like, just not endlessly, for like 24 hours, just burn all this stuff that's bad for the Earth. So I'm getting a little worried.

  • William Brangham:

    The class is run by the Mycelium Youth Network, which uses technology and indigenous traditions to empower students.

  • Lil Milagro Henriquez, Founder, Mycelium Youth Network:

    I had this huge sense that, when the chips are down, that there is very little that the government is going to do to support and empower poor people of color to be able to survive climate change.

  • William Brangham:

    Lil Milagro Henriquez founded this group because she worried how this issue would affect her own kids, physically and mentally.

  • Lil Milagro Henriquez:

    Kids as young as second and third grade know when the air is toxic. They might not have the words for it, but they know that they're experiencing it.

    But when we don't talk about climate change or the effects of it, that's when young people have a sense of anxiety, of hopelessness, of disconnect from what they are themselves experiencing, and what adults are telling them is what is important and what we should be focusing on.

  • William Brangham:

    Even as kids try to prepare for a changing future, many, like Sofia Palau, are using their fears to fuel climate activism.

  • Sofia Palau:

    I march, I protest, I take action. And that's the only thing that really calms me down, is knowing that I'm doing all that I can to stop climate change.

    But even if I'm just doing this, or my friends are doing this, it still might not be enough for the giant changes around the world that we need.

  • William Brangham:

    Those changes have to be made by older generations, who, she says, hold young people's fate in their hands.

    Judy, those young people's experiences are absolutely echoed by what we heard from young people here in Glasgow.

    I met a young woman from Kenya. She's Maasai. Her region is being hit with terrible drought and floods. And she's worried whether she can live there when she grows up.

    I talked to two university students who said, coming to COP and learning about the very real revolution that's going on in renewable energy, how that helped blunt some of their concerns.

    And then I met a chemist who brought her two young daughters to COP so that they wouldn't be anxious about climate change. She said: I want them to see that there are people from all over the world coming together trying to address this problem.

    So it is a really diverse and interesting group of young people who are watching these negotiations very closely.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm William Brangham.

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