Yet another awful effect of climate change has been the emergence of climate anxiety, also called eco-anxiety. This dread of future extinctions and severe climate events happens disproportionately to the young, who will bear a warming planet’s greatest burdens. 

One new global study, to appear in The Lancet Planetary Health, is by far the largest of its kind, including 10,000 people between the ages 16 and 25. Participants from 10 countries were asked how they felt about climate change and their government’s reaction to it. 

More than half of respondents said that thinking about climate change left them sad, anxious, angry, powerless, helpless and guilty; 59% described themselves as “extremely worried,” while nearly half said that their feelings negatively affected their daily lives. Many said they felt betrayed by inadequate governmental response to climate change. 

“This study confirmed what those of us who work with kids have known for some time,” says Elizabeth Pinsky, a pediatrician and child psychiatrist with Massachusetts General Hospital. “I have patients who say, ‘I have no future, so what’s the point?’” Some complain of chronic nervousness, poor sleep and an inability to shut off thoughts about climate change “to the point where it can cause significant distress or impairment,” she says. Pinsky notes that research on climate anxiety is in its infancy, so there is as yet no diagnostic criteria or established treatment. When it occurs alongside conditions such as anxiety disorders or depression, however, treatment might take the form of talk therapy or medication.

Not all of the young who worry about the planet’s future are paralyzed by their fears. “Feelings of dread and despair about climate change are normal,” Pinsky says, and can be channeled into activism, such as organizing a beach clean-up. For parents, however, simply encouraging a child to attend a march isn’t enough. Listening to and not dismissing a child’s fear about the future is critical, Pinsky says, as is involving the whole family in thoughtful climate-
related discussions and decisions around the home. 

Pinsky feels that past sources of generational angst— such as Cold War-era fears—may have echoes in the current climate crisis. “It brings comfort to know that people have experienced existential threats before,” she says, “and yet they persevere.”