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‘A planet full of ifs’: Young people express climate angst

Many young climate activists say they feel hopeless and overwhelmed. Psychologists say it’s good they’re talking about it.
A group of young protestors chant slogans and carry signs during a global climate rally at Pershing Square in downtown Los Angeles on Friday, Sept. 20, 2019, part of a wave of protests around the world. Many young climate activists say they feel hopeless and overwhelmed _ and psychologists say that’s OK and it’s good they’re talking about it. It’s sometimes called climate change anxiety and you don’t have to be an activist or young to feel it. [DAVID SWANSON | AP]
Published Sep. 26

NEW YORK — Around climate-change protests, tears linger. Youthful activists cite all-too depressing science and develop angst. They grieve for a future they worry they’ll never have.

Many young climate activists say they feel hopeless and overwhelmed. Psychologists say it's good they're talking about it. It's sometimes called "climate change anxiety," and you don't have to be an activist — or young — to feel it.

"It's really hard to grow up on a planet full of ifs," said This is Zero Hour co-founder Jamie Margolin, a 17-year-old from Seattle, who is finding hard to buckle down and apply to colleges. "There's always been a sense that everything beautiful in this world is temporary for my generation."

Being young is tough and emotional, to begin with. Add into that mixture a world where each scientific report — such as one that came out Wednesday — seems gloomier than the one before, and you have a recipe for anxiety.

RELATED: Oceans rising faster, ice melting more, new climate report says

"Coming to terms with the fact that we have lived on a dying planet is terrifying," said 18-year-old activist Kaylah Brathwaite, a Charlotte, North Carolina college student. "I'll give speeches and I'll cry.... I'm just going to have to be scared for the rest of my life."

Max Prestigiacomo of Madison, Wisconsin and the Youth Climate Action Team, said as he left Saturday's U.N. Youth Climate Summit in New York that "climate anxiety is justified" because politicians are doing nothing.

"A lot of us say we can't think more than 16 months ahead because we don't know the environment we will have to grow up with," he said.

When they meet with world leaders or testify before Congress, as Margolin did earlier this month, the students emphasize the personal toll that climate change is taking on them.

"Young people from different parts of the world are living in constant fear and climate anxiety, fearing their future," Komal Kumar, a youth climate activist from Fiji, told United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres at Saturday's youth climate summit.

FILE - In this Friday, Sept. 20, 2019 file photo, students take part in a climate march in Lahore, Pakistan, part of a wave of protests around the world. Many young climate activists say they feel hopeless and overwhelmed _ and psychologists say that’s OK and it’s good they’re talking about it. It’s sometimes called climate change anxiety and you don’t have to be an activist or young to feel it. [K.M. CHAUDARY | AP]

Nowhere it was more obvious than on Monday. Usually, the most visible young climate activist, 16-year-old Greta Thunberg, gives mostly emotionless talks. At a U.S. congressional hearing, she said, simply: “I don’t want you to listen to me. I want you to listen to the scientists.”

On Monday, she shed the stick-to-the-science message and frequently choked up when she scolded world leaders at the United Nations, repeating the phrase "how dare you" over and over in a highly praised address.

"You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words," she said, later adding "We will never forgive you."

But you don't have to be famous or even an activist to feel it.

Adam Stater, a 15-year-old from Sewickley, Pennsylvania, wants to get more active about global warming but hasn't yet. What he reads, he said, scares him. He wonders "if I will be able to live my life to the fullest. Will I get to be old?"

Sarah Warren, a Chicago psychologist, said she sees the anxiety as relatively widespread.

"There's a lot of feeling that we're cooked, and there's an inevitability to that and that there's not much they can do," said Warren, who sees such emotions — even in her own children — starting in middle school and running through college.

"A sense of helplessness underlies the anxiety," Warren said.

Many young people talk about the world having only 11 years left or some variation of that message. Climate scientists, including Victor Gensini of Northern Illinois University, say that it is a common misinterpretation of a U.N. report last year that looked at the difference between two different temperature goals in fighting climate change.

People need to educate themselves on how the problem is severe but not fatal, he said.

"Climate change is a wicked problem that is going to require all of us to address, and that itself seems like an impossible mountain to climb," Gensini said in an email. "Yet there are decisions all of us can make right now to mitigate the impacts."

Pundits, especially non-scientists who reject mainstream climate science, often dismiss young activists' feelings and what they say, even using the word 'snowflake' as an insult.

Experts say that's dead wrong.

"Actually, we should all be feeling anxious about the situation. It's a healthy response," said London-based psychoanalyst Sally Weintrobe , editor of the book "Engaging with Climate Change," who works on the psychology of global warming. "If you are not anxious about this, then you are not in touch with reality."

Weintrobe said emotions about climate change are similar to the mourning cycle, with people going through denial, rage, and acceptance. She said she has felt ecological anxiety herself.

For young people, climate anxiety "is a very tough thing for them to take. How grownups react is critical to them," Weintrobe said.

Many grownups are in their corner — and recognize the anxiety. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, speaking at the U.N. on Wednesday, talked of children who write him letters about their concerns for their future — including about climate change.

"Our children have a right not just to their future but to their optimism," Morrison said. "Above all, we must let our children be children, let our kids be kids, let our teenagers be teenagers, while we do the work positively together to deliver the practical solutions for them and their future."

Climate scientists say they see the anxiety in students and even, at times, in themselves. They say they often cling to optimism that the world will eventually tackle the problems they highlight.

FILE - In this Monday, Oct. 29, 2018 file photo, Jamie Margolin, a high school student, speaks during a rally by youth activists and others in Seattle in support of a high-profile climate change lawsuit in federal court in Eugene, Ore. “It’s really hard to grow up on a planet full of ifs,” said Margolin, a 17-year-old cofounder of This is Zero Hour, who is finding it hard to buckle down and apply to colleges. “There’s always been a sense that everything beautiful in this world is temporary for my generation.” [ELAINE THOMPSON | AP]

University of Michigan climate scientist Richard Rood, who said he has made grown academics cry in despair during some of his presentations, said his students "mostly get really depressed by the first part of the course, and then they pull it together at the end when they see how they can handle it."

"My emotion more and more is moving into acceptance of loss," Rood said. "There is a loss coming, and you have to prepare yourself about it."

Doing something about the problem can help ease the anxiety, the psychologists say. Some young people have found their way to that conclusion as well.

Five to 10 years ago, Loay Radiwan of Egypt said he felt depressed and thought: "There's no way you're getting out of this. It's getting worse and worse."

So Radiwan, who was at the United Nations Youth summit for a hackathon session, became active beyond protest. The 20-year-old developed a robotic beetle that helps Egyptian farmers monitor water in the soil to adapt to the problems of climate change.

Radiwan’s anxiety is mostly gone, he said: “Actually, I’m quite excited.”

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