Wash Post Mag: ‘Kids are terrified, anxious and depressed about climate change. Whose fault is that?’
The Environmental Burden of Generation Z
By Jason Plautz
The message these young people have come to send to their city, to their state, to the nation — to the world of adults — is serious. Deadly serious. “We won’t die from old age,” reads one of the signs they hoist above their heads. “We’ll die from climate change.”
High school sophomore Sophie Kaplan is marching in a bright yellow flowered sundress, but the sentiment on her poster is hardly so sunny: “Why Should I Study For a Future I Won’t Have?” She thinks about climate change every day, she tells me. She reads “about how we’re on the brink” and hears her teachers and parents tell her that it’s up to her generation to fix things. “I don’t understand why I should be in school if the world is burning,” she says. “What’s the point of working on my education if we don’t deal with this first?”
As the estimated 7,500 marchers converge on the state capitol, I come upon Chris Bray and his children, sixth-grader Arianna and second-grader Colin. Dressed in plaid shorts and blue sunglasses, Colin hovers shyly behind a homemade sign (a picture of coal with the word “Why?” and a shining sun with the words “Why not?”). The boy is “scared about the planet,” he tells me, but it feels good to be surrounded by so many other people who care, since he can sometimes feel as if nobody else is worried.
The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said in 2018 that policymakers have just 12 years to avert the worst consequences of global warming; news coverage is constantly filled with apocalyptic stories of storms and wildfires. Young people, absorbing the gravity of these warnings, have become the defining face of the climate movement — marching, protesting and berating their elders for bequeathing them an uncertain, unstable future. Underlying their anger, though, is another a-word: anxiety. And it’s something they’re increasingly voicing. Teachers hear their students talk about panic attacks when wildfires break out, and psychologists face young patients weeping about their fear of never having a family. Amber Bray recalls Colin solemnly telling her on his eighth birthday, “My life would be better without climate change.”
How to handle such fears? The adult world seems unsure, at best. The Brays, for their part, think it’s important to work through the anguish and keep talking to their kids. “We’ve decided to be open and honest. They have feelings, we validate them,” Chris says. At the same time, he admits, “It’s sad, it’s hard.”
In expert testimony for the plaintiffs from 2018 in Juliana v. United States — a lawsuit filed by a number of young people seeking to force the U.S. government to adopt policies to fight climate change and end fossil fuel subsidies — psychiatrist Lise van Susteren wrote that children will be “at the center of the storm” as climate change worsens and that they may already be feeling mental health impacts. “Day in and day out worrying about the unprecedented scale of the risk posed by climate change … takes a heavy toll on an individual’s well-being, wearing them down, sending some to the ‘breaking point,’ ” she wrote. “Children are especially vulnerable.” Those words, she told me, were “really painful” to write. Interviewing children about their fears for nature and their worries about their future families, she says, left her with “a sense of shame.”
“Eco-anxiety” or “climate depression” is playing out in real terms among young people, sometimes in extreme ways: A 2008 study in an Australian medical journal chronicled the case of a 17-year-old boy who was hospitalized after refusing to drink water during a nationwide drought, in what the authors called the first case of “climate change delusion.” A psychiatrist I interviewed told me a patient had confessed that she secretly wished a pandemic would strike to ease stress on the planet.
But the anxiety can manifest in subtler ways as well. Sarah Niles, an 18-year-old from Alabama, told me that her fears about climate change have simply become a part of her life. “I feel like in my peer group, you just go right from talking about polar bears dying to ‘Did you see what Maya posted on Snapchat?’ Nobody has a filter to adjust,” Niles says. “It’s like, the ice caps are melting and my hypothetical children will never see them, but also I have a calculus test tomorrow.”
Michael Shellenberger, an author and founder of the California-based nonprofit Environmental Progress, which promotes nuclear energy, remembers how panicked he felt after watching the movie. Now, he considers it “bizarre” that adults would have decided “to traumatize teenagers with that.” Today, he says, some in the environmental movement are making climate change “the new apocalypse.”
“These scenarios of apocalypse, of really cataclysmic climate change that people are scaring children around, are in the realm of an extreme, unpredictable event,” he told me. He has reflected on eco-anxiety while observing his 14-year-old daughter and her friends grow more worried about the planet; his book on the topic, “Apocalypse Never,” is due out in June. He’s not advocating that children be shielded from the science, but rather that it be presented seriously. The headline-grabbing threats of mass extinctions and deaths may motivate action, he says, but at what cost?