Voice O fReason-ColumnAvatar.jpg

Sarah Ray teaches environmental studies at California State Polytechnic University, Humboldt, and one day she asked a class of juniors to imagine themselves thriving in a climate-changed world.

“What does your life look like?” she asked them. “What needs to happen to you, and what needs to happen around you, to make you feel you have been successful in your efforts to flourish and to improve the lives of others? Imagine ten years from now, being thanked by the next generation for your role in achieving this vision. What are they thanking you for?”

Through this exercise, Ray was asking her students to formulate their personal plans for creating climate justice on Earth and to imagine a world where their efforts had paid off.

But, “[w]hen I asked them about their ideal future state, I heard crickets,” she writes in her book, A Field Guide to Climate Anxiety: How to Keep your Cool on a Warming Planet.

Why crickets? “The generation growing up in this age of global warming is not lazy or feigning powerlessness,” she writes. “Instead, they are asking why they should work hard, and to what end. The bigger problem comes back to their being so frozen by their fears that they are unable to desire — or yes, even imagine — the future.”

In September, the world got a glimpse into the minds of 10,000 young people ages 16-25 through a study published in the British medical journal The Lancet, where it was presented for peer review. Respondents from 10 countries — Finland, France, Australia, Portugal, Brazil, India, the Philippines, Nigeria, the United Kingdom and the United States — were asked for their thoughts and feelings on climate change and their assessment of government response to the crisis.

What they found:

• 83 percent say people have failed to care for the planet.

• 75 percent find the future frightening. 

• 56 percent believe humanity is doomed.

• 39 percent are hesitant to have children.

• More than half feel “sad, anxious, angry, powerless, helpless, and guilty.”

• 65 percent feel the government response to climate change is failing young people.

• 64 percent believe governments are lying about the impact of the actions they’ve taken.

• 60 percent believe governments are dismissing  people’s distress.

• Only 36 percent trust governments to act in line with climate science.

• Just 31 percent believe they’re “Doing enough to avoid catastrophe.”

Two fairly new terms are growing in use — “climate anxiety” and “eco-anxiety.” They describe the mental health fallout from the kinds of feelings revealed in the Lancet report, which states that...

“The climate crisis has significant long-term implications for physical and mental health as a result of acute and chronic environmental changes, from storms and wildfires to changing landscapes, and increasing temperatures.” And that...

“Children of present and future generations will bear an unacceptably high disease burden from climate change.” 

And what’s most vital for those of us in our fully adult and elder years to acknowledge? That... 

“Studies among children have demonstrated that they experience an additional layer of confusion, betrayal, and abandonment because of adult inaction towards climate change.”

Sarah Ray asks teenagers to make a commitment to help save the planet and humanity, and it’s way past time for the world’s adults to do the same. After all, we elders have known about the myriad threats to the environment since we were kids their age, and we’ve known for decades that this climate nightmare was coming. The Lancet study joins a growing body of research that shows the human costs of continued climate inaction. There’s really no excuse for leaving all the hard work to the young ones who come after us, even if there’s a good possibility we’ll all be too late.