Children of the Climate Crisis
Last summer, Jasper McTaggart came to the abrupt realization that life as he knew it may be coming to an end. He was nine years old. It was lunchtime, and he was eating a sandwich in the dining hall of a New Hampshire summer camp. Sitting near him, a fellow camper had just opened a letter from home, and in the envelope was a news clipping with a picture from Paris, where temperatures were reaching record, fatal highs. Jasper looked up from the picture and at the faces of his friends. “We’re not in climate change now, are we?” he asked the table.
“Yes, we are,” his counselor confirmed.
Jasper couldn’t believe it. He sat there stunned. A New York City kid, he had spent his time at camp that summer basking in the promise and excitement of the great outdoors, a playground big enough to hold a boy’s dreams of adventure. There was danger there, yes, but he would be kept safe. Adults knew how to keep children safe — or so he’d thought.
Now, sipping hot cider in a coffee shop near his Queens home, he shakes his head at the memory of this moment when he realized that maybe they didn’t. “I was shocked,” he says. “I didn’t know climate change was already in effect. I knew it was going to come — and possibly in my lifetime — but I expected it more in the distant future.”
Jasper took it upon himself to find out more. He learned that parts of Florida were flooding regularly. “It’s just going to be gone. It’ll be like a hidden state,” he says. When the temperature reached 95 degrees one day, he worried about what that might mean. When he returned home from camp, he told his parents he wanted to participate in the youth climate march in September, and after the march, he joined his school’s Green Team along with his friend Kavi, who now sits next to Jasper in the coffee shop with his own hot drink and shared concerns.
“I’m scared,” says Kavi, who is 10. “Like, at some point, this is all just going to be gone. And there’s going to be no second chances. It’s just going to be game over.”
“The fires in Australia made me really sad,” Jasper adds. “Whenever I think of it, I’m like, ‘Oh no!’ ”
It’s hard to predict these “oh no!” moments. The boys say they’ll come to them unexpectedly, souring childhood memories that older generations have experienced without any emotional undercurrent of despair. Jasper thinks back to the time, a few weeks prior, when he was in his garden having a snowball fight with his dad. “I was in a snow fort, ducking and throwing snowballs, and I was like, ‘I’m so sad I won’t be able to do this with my kids.’ It just came to me that I might not be able to do this with the next generation because the Earth is warming.”
“I try to forget about it, but that doesn’t work,” admits Kavi. “It’s like the world’s going to end —not now, but it’s going to end at some point — and I might be there to experience it. So I’m kind of, like, screaming inside.
“Other generations did not have to worry about this. They didn’t have to try to save the environment.
“And all the people that made this happen and fueled it are just going to be gone by the time it really takes effect. They have the most power, but they refuse to use it.”
Kavi looks down into his cup glumly. “It’s just up to us, a couple of 10-year-old kids, to fix the world’s problems now.”
The world’s problems have not usually been the domain of its 10-year-olds, but the climate crisis has changed that, creating a veritable tide of tiny and teenage warriors who have taken to the streets and halls of power to demand that their futures be safeguarded by the actions of today. Behind their signs and placards, their anger and frustration are clear. What is harder to see is their anxiety, the psychological burden of those “oh no!” thoughts that threaten to arise, the private moments of panic and fear felt by a generation that cannot remember a time before the planet’s future was imperiled.
“I grew up in the nuclear era, and I feel like the nuclear threat activated my nervous system at a very young age,” says Renee Lertzman, a psychologist and founding member of the Climate Psychology Alliance, a group of psychology professionals who specialize in addressing climate change. When she began learning about the climate crisis in college, Lertzman felt a similar sense of panic and came to believe that, psychologically speaking, “There are really important parallels: The threats are human-created, and there’s a pervasive, visceral anxiety about the future at all times.” Yet much of Lertzman’s research has been into how the climate-change threat is unique to our time. “Unlike the nuclear threat, we’re talking about how we live,” she continues. “This is about virtually every aspect of our contemporary lives. This is about how I eat, how I get around, how I dress myself, what I put on my face. It’s very intimate.” And as such, it implicates normal people — all of us — in our own potential demise. Which, quite frankly, can really mess with your head.
In 2015, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a policy statement positing that “the social foundations of children’s mental and physical health are threatened by the specter of far-reaching effects of unchecked climate change,” and that “given this knowledge, failure to take prompt, substantive action would be an act of injustice to all children.” Since then, those in the mental health fields have started to see the effects of this specter: children coming to therapists grief-stricken at the thought that they wouldn’t live in a world where it was ecologically sensible to have children of their own; kids arriving at the ER, suicidal with despair about damage to the environment; children who refused to drink water during droughts or who suffered from panic attacks at the thought of human extinction. These may be the more extreme cases, but for many of those who traffic in mental health, they represent a bubbling over of what is just under the surface for scores of young people today.
“This time last year, there was maybe one request a month,” says Caroline Hickman, a British psychotherapist whose particular focus is eco-anxiety in children. “This year, there are two or three a week. I’ve got the NHS, I’ve got the civil service, I’ve got counseling organizations, I’ve got schools approaching me on a weekly basis saying, ‘Can you help?’ ”
“I’m struggling to find the words to describe the magnitude of what is being faced from a public mental health perspective,” says psychiatrist Lise Van Susteren, who was an expert witness in Juliana v. United States, a 2015 case in which 21 young plaintiffs sued the federal government for infringing upon their right to life and liberty by failing to take substantive action on climate change (the case is currently in appeal). “If we think the storms are bad outside, wait until we see the storms inside,” Van Susteren continues. “You cannot continue to hold up in front of young people the fact that things are only going to get worse and expect that they can create a kind of life that will allow them to thrive.”
Indeed, a December Amnesty International survey of more than 10,000 18- to 25-year-olds in 22 countries identified climate change as the most important issue facing the world in these Generation Z’ers’ minds (pollution came in second). In the fall, The Washington Post/Kaiser Family Foundation released the results of a poll in which 57 percent of American teenagers (ages 13 to 17) said that climate change made them feel scared, 52 percent said it made them angry, and only 29 percent said they were optimistic about the issue. Among young adults (18 to 29), the results were even more stark — with 68 percent of that group reporting feeling afraid and 66 percent saying they feel helpless — implying that distress grows with age.
In 2019, both the National Association of School Nurses and the California Association of School Psychologists endorsed climate-change resolutions, the latter declaring climate change a potential threat to the psychological development of children and calling on “Congress to take effective action on climate change to protect current and future students.” This came after the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported in 2018 that policymakers have only 12 years to act before the consequences of global warming become irreversible, a timeline that young people have latched onto with what has been referred to as “ecological doom.” The home page of youth activist group Zero Hour features large black numbers counting down the years, days, hours, minutes, and seconds to this deadline, like a ticking bomb.
And while it makes sense that young people would be particularly susceptible to eco-anxiety — knowing that they will be the ones inheriting the brunt of the issues — there’s more to it than that. There’s also the particular makeup of young minds, and the way those minds function. “Children are incredibly switched on to fairness and unfairness, and what’s right and wrong,” says Hickman. “They’re also emotionally connected to other species. How do we teach children how to empathize and build relationships? We buy them picture books with rabbits and puppies or kittens. That’s how we teach kids about relationships. That’s how we teach them to care. So, of course, they care.”
Then there’s the reality that young people are sensing the loss of a world they are still in the process of trying to figure out and understand — a heartbreaking form of FOMO (“fear of missing out”) at a time when the vestiges of another, healthier natural world remain. “I grew up in the Pacific Northwest, and I still live here,” says Jamie Margolin, 18-year-old co-founder of Zero Hour. “Our bus cards are called Orca cards, but I’ve never seen an orca in my entire life. In the park close to where I live, there are signs that say, ‘Please don’t feed the resting seal pups.’ I’ve never actually seen any seals or wildlife in that park for as long as I’ve lived here. Ever.”
This sense of impermanence matters, as a child’s process of making sense of the world is best accomplished when that world is seen as fairly immutable, if not entirely predictable. “I remember thinking it was so weird that all these adults were saying that so many different things were true,” says Jane Nail, a 20-year-old college student who grew up in Alabama and first heard about climate change when Barack Obama was running for president. “It was one of the first times that the adults in my life weren’t all on a united front. The concept of good and evil was in my head, and I remember thinking that one side had to be good and one side had to be evil. One of them was obviously lying, but I didn’t necessarily know which side. I remember being really jolted by that.”
There’s also the growing knowledge, in our age of attachment parenting, that “attachment to the natural world is just as important in terms of security as our attachment to other human beings,” says Elizabeth Haase, an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University and a founding member of the Climate Psychiatry Alliance. “That’s actually a radically new concept in psychology.” Just as children need to trust that a caregiver will be there for them in order for healthy psychological development to occur, they need to trust that their environment will be there as well. That it may not be — or not as it is now — creates a sense of insecurity, a sense of loss that can’t cycle through the normal stages of grief because it’s a loss that’s ongoing. “When you have a traumatic loss or any kind of disruption that’s very painful, you can come out of it by going back to trying to do it the way you did it before, right?” Haase asks me. “Which is mostly what you hear from people: ‘I can’t wait to get things back to the way they used to be and just get back that sense of security, or get another dog, or rebuild my house after the hurricane.’ ”
Not only do children not have enough life experience to envision that sort of regenerative cycle as effectively as adults can, but they also don’t conceive of climate change that way. For them, there’s no going back to how things were, which is leading to a type of dread that’s sometimes referred to as solastalgia (a sort of anticipatory grief caused by the climate crisis) or pre-traumatic stress disorder, in which, as Haase puts it, “the focus is not on being constantly vigilant to what has happened, but constantly vigilant to what can happen.” The limited studies of Pre-TSD — often done on soldiers before they entered a war zone — shows that those who have it are far more likely to develop Post-TSD if something bad does in fact happen — they are, in a sense, primed to have their stress systems kick into overdrive.
“As animals, we are wired to react to trauma and danger — the fight-or-flight system, right?” says psychiatrist Beth Mark, who has worked at the counseling center at the University of Pennsylvania for more than 20 years. The response is not just psychological but physical: Heart rates and inflammation go up, immunity goes down. “The dilemma that seems completely new to humankind is that we’re having a pre-traumatic response. We can look ahead and think about what’s going to happen, which has to be raising our fight-and-flight response in a low-grade way. We are more and more at this constant edge, and it creates a chronic state of depletion with negative impact on how we are going about our days.”
And for kids who assume that most of their days are still in front of them, it can also create a sense of paralysis. “I’m not even sure if I’m going to go to college,” 18-year-old Alejandro Vasquez tells me from the sidewalk in front of New York’s City Hall, where every week he protests as part of the Fridays for Future campaign. “What’s the point of having an education if we’re not going to have a future?” When I interviewed Zero Hour’s Margolin, she was on her way to a college interview, the irony of which did not escape her: “I’m talking to you about my fear of there not being a future, while I’m going through the motions of preparing for my future. I’m still preparing for a future that doesn’t exist, out of hope that it maybe will.”
Almost none of the teens I talked to want to have kids, though some said they had wanted to before learning about climate change. “I feel like it would be cruel to myself and to children to bring them into such an unstable world,” said 15-year-old Fiona Jarvis, a member of the New York chapter of the youth advocacy group Extinction Rebellion, which has its own Slack channel devoted to mental health. “If I think 20 years out, I get stressed out, to be honest. It’s very much on a day-to-day basis for me.”
All of which may explain why, according to the National Institutes of Health, nearly one in three teenagers in America will experience an anxiety disorder, and why anxiety disorders in this group rose 20 percent between 2007 and 2012. “Climate crisis affects our mental state more than we know and more than we actually understand,” says Jasilyn Charger, 23, one of the original founders of the Standing Rock encampment, where thousands of Native American youth moved to protest the Dakota Access Pipeline. Though the movement is famous, what is less known is that it grew out of group called One Mind Youth, which was created to combat the spate of teen suicides that plagued the Cheyenne River Reservation. The encampment gave its young people singular purpose, reigniting a sacred connection to the land that their culture prized — and for its duration, suicide rates on the reservation plummeted. When the youth lost their battle with the fossil-fuel industry and were forcibly moved from the encampment, rates spiked again.
“Standing Rock really helped a lot of my friends with their mental problems — depression, PTSD, anxiety, insomnia. A lot of people felt at home,” says Charger. “But when people started coming back from the encampment, a lot of them fell deep into a hole of either drugs and alcohol or depression. We lost a lot of young people when we came back.” It wasn’t just that the movement had failed, threatening the ecology of the area and the future of its youth — it was that, for a time, kids had seen a glimpse of hope for the natural world. “They killed themselves because they missed camp,” Charger says. “The younger people who weren’t there, they felt like they missed out on something. It took a toll on us mentally.”
For every young person like Charger, who has seen a hint of what a world of climate cooperation might look like, there are now far more kids who’ve witnessed the other extreme. From an Australia on fire to the sinking Maldives, a growing number of children and young adults no longer experience pre-traumatic stress disorder when it comes to climate change; they know what climate trauma is firsthand. And they know that they are likely to be traumatized again.
Madigan Traversi evacuated her Sonoma County, California, home late one October night in 2017 wearing her pajamas, with the smell of smoke in the air. She didn’t take the time to change, to pack more clothes, or to even grab her toothbrush. “We just grabbed my dog and got in the car,” the 14-year-old explains. “I took my school backpack, and that was it.” Two days later, she and her parents were in a hotel in the San Francisco area when they got a call from a neighbor and learned that their house had burned to the ground 20 minutes after they had evacuated. As Madigan huddled in the hotel room, crying with her family, she was in utter disbelief. “It didn’t seem real — I still don’t feel like it’s real two and a half years later.”
Weeks afterward, when she finally returned to her neighborhood, the outlines of where her home had been were all you could see. She looked for her favorite tree, the one with the swing she had played on almost every day, but it was gone — along with everything she had owned or made as a child. “The hardest possessions to lose were things like diaries and artwork from when I was little,” she says. “Of course, I remember my childhood, but I don’t have any first artworks. I know my mom was heartbroken about that.” Now, all throughout fire season, Madigan keeps two laundry baskets packed with everything that she wouldn’t want to lose a second time. During the Camp Fire of 2018, schools in her area shut down. In the Kincade Fire of 2019, she had to evacuate yet again.
“Just in the past two and a half years, our school has been closed due to four different climate-related disasters,” says Park Guthrie, a sixth-grade teacher in Sonoma County, father of three and co-founder of Schools for Climate Action, who speaks of the “psychological or spiritual destabilization” he sees in many of his students, all of whom know someone who lost a home and live with the uncertainty that fire season brings. For these kids who have experienced climate change acutely, Guthrie thinks climate inaction is particularly damaging — and undermines his role as an educator. “They’re right at that age where they have one foot in childhood and one foot in a broader world,” he tells me. “It’s a moment of revelation in many ways, and as it relates to the climate crisis, it’s a terrible revelation. Like, ‘If this is the case, then what about everything else you’ve been telling us about who we are as a country — that we value mainstream science, we value solving big problems, working together, speaking up for justice?’ A healthy classroom culture is embedding these lessons, and when you pull back the veil on not just climate crisis, but our national climate neglect, it’s totally destabilizing. It’s painful cognitive dissonance.”
That cognitive dissonance is what gets to Guthrie, that as his students are donning masks to go to school, members of Congress are denying the existence of climate change and the National School Boards Association is refusing to use the term for fear of alienating some of its members. He calls climate inaction a “form of neglect/abuse” arguing that “it’s not just metaphorical: We have collectively abandoned our children’s generation and future generations.”
Considering this neglect, he’s also frustrated by the patronizing way adults congratulate kids for being the ones who will assuredly solve climate change. “They hate hearing that ‘You’re going to be the ones that fix this problem that we elders couldn’t fix.’ That’s a terrifying thing to tell a seventh-grader,” says Guthrie. “It’s not healthy for kids to grow up with this nagging sense that ‘the adults aren’t in charge.’ ” In fact, this sentiment was echoed by all the young people I interviewed. They didn’t want the burden of saving the planet when some of them couldn’t even vote, when they had a Spanish test looming, and when they had come to understand that climate change is not simply a matter of science but of classism, racism, capitalism, and the way the global north indiscriminately dumps on the global south.
The psychological enormity of what they’re up against has actually helped fuel the Republican argument that climate change should not be taught in schools, that reiterating the subject could augment student distress; and it’s true that among some young people, there’s a level of alarmism that reflects the most dire of all possible outcomes. But it’s also true that those outcomes could come to pass, and that eco-anxiety is not necessarily pathological. “It’s a logical, emotionally healthy response to the reality of what’s going on,” argues Hickman, who recently had an 11-year-old point out to her that in “the world in which I am growing up, it is normal not to have polar bears. And that’s different to the world in which you grew up.”
In fact, mental-health professionals warn that the internal inconsistencies created by climate disavowal — knowing a truth but not acting on it — can be more psychologically disruptive than confronting that hard truth repeatedly. “We know that what we try to push away usually comes back or turns into a symptom in some other form,” says psychotherapist and Climate Psychology Alliance North America co-president Elizabeth Allured, who argues that rather than constraining climate education, we need to train educators on how to deal with the psychological implications of what they’re teaching.
Instead, we’re leaving that to kids as well. Just before the September climate march, Zero Hour’s Margolin was approached by a group of girls who knew of her activism and wanted her help. “They were like, ‘I was crying myself to sleep the other night about this. I’m so scared. Jamie, do you genuinely think that we’re going to be OK?’ I was trying not to discourage them, but what could I say? ‘I don’t know,’ I told them. ‘It depends on the action that we take.’ ”
For her part, Margolin has found activism to be the only way to push back on overwhelming eco-anxiety, the only way to navigate the precarious line between existential dread and improbable — but necessary — hope. “I think the psychological is what we need to impact,” says Allured. “We need more people to be thinking psychologically about this and to be feeling what’s going on. In terms of social tipping points, we never know what is going to push a system out of its equilibrium into a new level of awareness.”
In other words, we need the Jamies of the world, the Gretas, the iconoclasts, the idealists, the people whose brains are still wired for exploration. And we need them not to solve the climate crisis for us but rather to invite us into their way of seeing the issue. If young people are scared, anxious, and grieving, then so should we all be. We need the psychology of children to be our guide.
Sometimes, though, that scares me almost as much as the climate crisis itself. This past September, on the Facebook page for my son’s first-grade class, someone posted the question, “Is anyone taking their kids out of school tomorrow for the climate march?” Some parents wrote that they were, but I opted against it. At the time, my son was only five. I didn’t know if he was aware of climate change yet. I didn’t want to expose him to something so scary at such a young age. I wanted to preserve his blissful ignorance as long as I possibly could.
So it was a surprise when, a few months later, he came home with a petition he’d created to save the koalas (or “kwola’s,” as he spelled it). He’d gotten his teachers and classmates to sign it. He wanted me to send it to President Trump, and to the zoo. He doesn’t watch the news, nor had my husband and I talked about the fires in Australia in front of him. But, somehow, some way, the message had gotten through. And what I realized, standing on the sidewalk beside his bus stop, holding that piece of paper, is that I was naive to think that I could shield him from the truth that the world he lives in is changing. And in my naiveté, I had allowed his introduction to that concept to come from someone other than me.
When I tell Hickman this story, she’s silent for a moment. “Often, we have to interpret what children say to us,” she eventually says. “It would be too traumatic and frightening for your six-year-old to say, ‘Mommy, save me.’ But he is asking you to save him. When children ask us to save koala bears, they’re asking us to save them. He’s saying, ‘Save me.’ ”
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By this time, of course, I’m in tears. Right now, I don’t know how to save him. I know to recycle, to try to offset my carbon footprint when I fly, to buy locally and organically when I can, to compost. I know how to make decisions that can help us all feel a little more in control. But I also know that these things are salves, that while they are important — psychologically and otherwise — the problem of climate change cannot be solved by these steps alone. And I know that when my son asks me about this, I will have to tell him the truth.
In the meantime, I practice what I might say to him when the time comes. “I am sorry that my generation and other generations haven’t fixed this for you already,” I tell Jasper and Kavi the afternoon we meet. By now, we’ve carried our drinks to the benches outside, the January day mild enough for us to sit there in light jackets.
“Well, yeah,” Kavi agrees. “It’s a lot of pressure.”
Jasper nods. “It’s a lot of stress on us.”
“I just tell myself, ‘Well, we’re going to do something.’ ” Kavi says. “And hopefully that’s true.”
Jasper looks at his friend uncertainly. “I thought climate change was going to make its way across like a storm. But no,” he sighs. “It’s here to stay.”
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