Climate grief and anxiety

We are increasingly seeing articles in the media talking about climate grief and climate anxiety—fears that are especially strong among adolescents.  How can we allay these fears?

Many people, not just youth, feel anguish and anxiety when they read about the melting icecaps and the rising seas; when they see the horrific images of wildfires and burned animals in Australia; and when they read that there are only “a few years left” to keep global warming under control.  Even Greta Thunberg’s strong messages are alarming for many people when she describes the global situation as a “house on fire”.  These fears have an impact on the mental health of young people. In fact, climate grief is the term that now refers to the mental health impacts and anguish caused by climate change. 

Should she dial it down?

The dilemma is that people, and especially young people, need to know the truth about the dangers that the changing climate will bring. Although the truth is scary, it is unethical to minimise these dangers in order to somehow ‘protect’ young people from reality.  On the other hand, it is irresponsible to exaggerate the threats. But if we are not keenly aware of the dangers we face, will we find the motivation and courage to confront them?

People that warn of the dangers of climate change need to also explain that solutions to the problem exist; the situation is far from hopeless. The climate crisis is being driven by the continuing burning of fossil fuels: coal and natural gas in power plants, and the hundreds of millions of vehicles on the roads that burn gasoline and diesel fuel. We have known for years how to shut down these emissions of planet-heating greenhouse gases, so why hasn’t it happened?  One reason is that it is only in the last few years that the cost of the renewable energy technologies that can reduce these emissions has declined to the point where they are now among the lowest-cost ways to generate electricity. This is not just good news; this is the best possible news, and it deserves much greater emphasis.

Another major transition is underway with transportation–as electric vehicles increasing appear on the roads. Although they are still relatively expensive, their cost is falling and the purchase price of electric cars is soon expected to match that of conventional vehicles. But even at today’s prices, electric cars are less expensive than gasoline and diesel automobiles when their operating costs are calculated over their lifetime.    

The technologies that will bring an end to the climate crisis are well known. Hydropower and geothermal energy have been generating electricity for more than a century. Solar arrays and wind turbines are now being deployed on a huge scale. Several newer technologies are the focus of intense research and development as scientists work to find more effective ways to capture the carbon from the effluent gases of heavy industry—particularly steel and cement.  Even absorbing carbon dioxide directly out of the air is possible.

If the technologies are well known and economically viable, what is blocking this transition to renewable sources of energy that will draw down emissions to a level called ‘net zero emissions’?  This is when the emissions of greenhouse gases (mainly carbon dioxide) are matched by their absorption in the natural sinks–like forests and other biomass.

For many countries, the road to achieving net zero emissions has already been mapped out. What’s blocking progress down this route are  powerful vested interests that are fighting to protect their businesses and the profits of the people who invest in them. For the fossil fuel companies, mining and extracting coal, oil, and natural gas has been phenomenally profitable. It’s not hard to understand why they resist the transition to renewable sources of energy. But this is a rear-guard action.  There is absolutely no doubt that fossil fuels are gradually being replaced by renewable sources of energy. 

Young protesters–an international movement. But stressful.

So what can young people actually do? Too young to vote, they may feel powerless to change anything.  Although not able to directly influence government policy, students can have a significant local impact if they act together. Even at home, they can make a difference.  Greta Thunberg famously convinced her parents to change to a lifestyle that reduced their air travel and the carbon footprint of the food brought into the house. To make these changes in the home, students need to know more about climate science than their parents. It is a subject that can be studied together—in eco-clubs and work groups, students should learn about the science of climate change and the renewable energy technologies that will eventually bring the crisis to an end.  They also need to learn about the politics and economics of climate change action, and why in places where the regional economy is dependent on oil and gas, there is so much resistance to switching to cleaner sources of energy.

In addition to learning a lot more about climate science and renewable energy, students should study how energy is used, and how emissions of greenhouse gases are generated in the places where they live and work. That means the home and the school. In particular, the school should be a showcase of energy efficiency, zero waste management, and maximum tree cover in the grounds around the buildings. The first step is an energy audit of the school.  Students can do this themselves. Can the school get to net zero energy? How is food waste managed?Actions always speak louder than words, and concerted positive action is the best antidote to climate grief and anxiety. And this is learning by doing–by far the best way to learn.   

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