Pushed to the back of Gen Z anxieties by the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change remains a looming stressor for many people younger than 30, experts say.
“Natural disasters precipitated by climate change, including hurricanes, heatwaves, wildfires, and floods can lead to ... increased rates of depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress, and other mental health disorders,” according to researchers at the University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser University in Canada, and Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.
The authors label the fear “eco-anxiety, climate distress, climate change anxiety, or climate anxiety,” writing in the British medical and science journal, The Lancet Planetary Health.
In other words, the future is not looking bright from the perspective of many people under 30.
Xiye Bastida, a student at the University of Pennsylvania, has been fighting the climate crisis since her hometown in Mexico flooded when she was 13. She calls it a pivotal moment in her environmental activism.
“Sometimes we don't realize when we actually start caring about something and acting upon it,” she said.
Mexican-Chilean Bastida is one of the founding members of the New York City chapter of Fridays for Future, a strike movement that pressures public officials about climate change by protesting outside schools and government offices. She is also the co-founder of Re-Earth Initiative, which seeks to educate the public about climate issues.
Bastida’s generation might be more likely than adults to experience climate anxiety, the Lancet Planetary Health paper states.
“They are at a crucial point in their physical and psychological development,” the authors wrote, “when … stress and everyday anxiety elevate their risk of developing depression, anxiety, and substance use disorders.”
Bastida said she has experienced eco-anxiety and burnout from climate activism. She ended up in the hospital with heart palpitations because she was so stressed, she told VOA.
“For me, the way I experienced and dealt with climate anxiety was just by always blaming myself for not doing enough,” Bastida explained.
She continued, “If you don't take care of yourself, if you don't take care of your home, if you don't take care of your well-being, you cannot take care of the world.”
“Climate change is rapidly creating a less safe, less secure [food security, national security], less healthy, and less prosperous world,” Edward Maibach, director of George Mason University’s Center for Climate Change Communication (4C), wrote to VOA.
“Today’s young people will be living in this world, as conditions deteriorate, unless the nations of the world rise to the challenge they currently face.
“In my view, young people who don’t care about climate change are not paying attention,” he wrote.
But many young people are paying attention and trying to effect change. The children and grandchildren of those who planted trees for the creation of Earth Day and the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970, are giving environmental justice a hard push forward.
The movement has been propelled by young people everywhere.
Sweden’s Greta Thunberg riveted global attention as she sat outside a Swedish Parliament meeting, her expression capturing the impatient disgust of her generation with inactivity over climate change.
Other famous young environmentalists include Canadian Autumn Peltier from the First Nations community, Argentinian Bruno Rodriguez, and Helena Gualinga from the Ecuadorian Amazon.
Nikayla Jefferson is a volunteer writer for the Sunrise Movement, co-founder of the San Diego hub, and a doctoral candidate at University of California-Santa Barbara. For her, the scariest part of climate change is basic, she says.
“The total loss of human life and the land that gives us our history and story,” she said. “We understand climate change science and how devastating it is to the Earth, but addressing carbon emissions is not enough,” Jefferson wrote to VOA. “We need to look at climate change through a human lens because climate change is the not the only existential threat people are facing.”
Anxiety about climate change and a desire to act erases political lines, according to research from Pew, Brookings Institution and 4C. In the 2020 presidential election, climate change was among the top three issues to young voters.
And 4C’s Maibach says that youth leadership about climate change has woven generations together on the issue.
“Politicians and CEOs alike have every reason to want to keep young people happy, because they won’t keep their jobs for long if they don’t,” Maibach wrote. As the percentage of younger votes eclipses those of Baby Boomers, born between 1946 and 1964, the Gen Z and millennial vote becomes more powerful.
“CEOs are not directly accountable to the public, but corporations are becoming increasingly sensitive to public opinion, especially that of young people, because they want to attract the best and brightest young people as employees, and they want to earn the loyalty of young customers,” Maibach wrote.
While Bastida said she still worries about the future, she looks on the bright side and believes her generation can have an impact.
“I think that we have to realize that that timeline is already running out,” she said. “And we cannot just keep talking about what we're going to do, we need to actually start doing it. And when I see people actually doing things, when I see initiatives coming up, when I see companies changing their whole business model, that's what makes me optimistic.”