Young people today have grown up surrounded by troubling news of climate related storms, flooding, drought, ocean pollution, ecosystem devastation and the deforestation of the Amazon Rainforest. This is a generation that has not only come to witness the ‘slow violence’ of climate change but is also expected to deal with its consequences. Therefore, it is not surprising that 59% of young people aged 16-25 are ‘very’ or ‘extremely’ worried about climate change, with 45% saying that these feelings negatively impact them every day.
Thus far, ‘climate anxiety’ has been largely neglected from the climate change education agenda. However, the serious mental health implications of this issue mean that it is time for climate education leaders to pursue a strategy interlinked with climate anxiety considerations.
What is climate anxiety?
Increasingly prevalent feelings of fear, grief and overwhelm regarding the climate crisis have led to the development of new terms in response to this. Terms such as climate anxiety, eco-grief, eco-anxiety, pre-traumatic stress and climate nihilism are becoming frequently used in climate change discourses to address these feelings.
In general, the concept of ecological grief (eco-grief) has been used to describe the lived or anticipated experiences of loss due to climate change, including the loss of species, meaningful landscapes, habitats, and ecosystems. Similarly, climate anxiety is understood to explain feelings of uncertainty, such as the loss of a predictable future, about how everyday life might change, and even feelings of abandonment. Climate change is a problem that often elicits feelings of anxiety because it touches on the roots of existentialism and doom, often inspiring hopelessness in individuals. Whilst defining these emotions helps us to raise awareness of the issue, to effectively engage with feelings of climate anxiety in our classrooms, we must better understand their sources, particularly in young people.
Young people and climate anxiety
There are a multitude of reasons why young people are anxious about climate change, and understanding these sources is vital to developing strategies to relieve these feelings in our classrooms. Outside of the classroom, students feel dissatisfied and betrayed by inadequate responses to the crisis, which in turn leads them to feel stripped of power and unable to contribute to a resolution. They feel stranded by the generation gap and see an older generation failing to create solutions to a problem that will affect their entire lives. Due to this, students feel incredibly fearful about their futures, to the extent that they are unable to even imagine what they might look like.
Unfortunately, the picture is not much better when it comes to young people’s educational encounters with climate change. Students are struggling to connect their climate change education to the rest of their lives, which leads students to feel ‘helpless’ in the face of climate change – they want to act but they do not know how, and the curriculum is not providing any pathways for them to carry out meaningful personal or social action. Moreover, the curriculum’s lack of effective support for the complex emotions that climate education gives rise to, as well as fears that negative emotions would not be taken seriously by tutors, can be devastating for students.
The University of Bristol itself is home to climate refugees and those with first hand experiences of climate related disasters and resulting threats to health, livelihoods, and social relationships. How are we engaging and considering those who have themselves felt the effects of climate change? Educational support must be provided for students who have climate trauma, and centring these often-marginalised voices is essential to this strategy.
What can we do?
A change is needed in how we approach climate education. We should encourage making climate education an active experience, to provide students with the opportunity to turn negative feelings of concern about the climate crisis into positive, motivating feelings that will enable them to realise their potential to become change-makers and innovators.
The following section outlines actionable points to develop a strategy that will engage climate anxiety in our classrooms; this involves both possible curriculum changes and tools educators can deploy to immediately begin supporting students.
Effective curriculum changes:
- Engage marginalised voices to co-create a curriculum that accounts for individuals with lived experiences of climate change devastation.
- Intertwine emotion and reason into climate education to create spaces for an intellectual exploration of emotions, where students feel their voice and opinions are respected and valued.
- Initiate collaboration between younger and older people to build mutual trust.
- Provide students with opportunities to explore personal and social action to address their concerns and engage them in methods of sustainable behaviours to ease feelings of helplessness.
Tools to enable students to explore their climate-related emotions:
- Use participatory drama (role-play) to deep dive into complex topics, whilst maintaining a sense of privacy.
- Undertake creative writing workshops to deal with feelings of climate anxiety.
- Use visualisation as a tool for maintaining hope – combine realistic outcomes for what the future could look like with personal hopes to motivate action.
Finally, the university should consider climate anxiety and its implications in its wider mental health strategy to raise awareness of the issue and protect young people’s mental health outcomes.
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