'Terrifying and overwhelming': The young people suffering from climate anxiety

Children at a climate protester
In a global study, nearly half of young people said climate-related anxiety was affecting their daily lives. Credit: AP

By ITV News Digital Presenter and Producer Mojo Abidi

When the bushfires started ravaging Australia in 2019, Clover Hogan was distraught.  

The 22-year-old, who lives in London but grew up in Queensland, watched helplessly as her home town went up in flames: “I fell into a puddle of grief. I was reading horrifying, apocalyptic headlines and watching videos of my friends back in Australia standing on their roofs trying to beat back fires.

“It was terrifying. I felt an overwhelming sense of guilt and inadequacy, that feeling of being too small to do anything.” 

Speaking ahead of the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow, which begins on Sunday 31 October, Hogan said her worries and anxieties soon became crippling. 

The climate emergency is now impossible to ignore, but scientists are also fighting a less-obvious consequence - the toll it is taking on people's mental health. 

Clover Hogan grew up in Australia and said she was heartbroken when she heard about the bushfires. Credit: AP

According to the world’s largest ever study into children and young people’s feelings about climate change, 45% of 16 to 25-year-olds said climate-related anxiety is affecting their daily lives and ability to function.

Of the 10,000 people surveyed across 10 countries, over half (56%) said they think humanity is doomed, while 77% described the future as frightening. 

The study, published in Lancet Planetary Health, found that eco-anxiety is significantly linked to feelings of being ignored and betrayed by governments. 

Several young people reached out to ITV News to share their experiences of climate anxiety. 

In a recent study, 77% of 16 to 25-year-old's described the future as frightening. Credit: AP

Lucy, 21, from Surrey said the climate emergency has made her think twice about having children, because she’s worried about what kind of world she would be bringing them into. 

While 16-year-old Will from Southport said he feels anxious thinking about how rising sea levels could soon leave his home completely underwater: “It’s really stressful and scary to think that all the memories I have here could be gone forever.” 

In Bangladesh, 22-year-old Arif is already seeing the effects of climate change: “We have seen a drastic change in weather, it goes from hot to rainy then cold all in one day. 

“It shouldn’t be like this and I am very worried about the future.” 

Meanwhile, 19-year-old Vanessa from Thailand said that thoughts of climate change can keep her up at night. 

These feelings have become so widespread, that the term ‘eco-anxiety’ has even made its way into the Oxford English Dictionary. 

Scientists say climate change worsened Europe’s devastating floods in July. Credit: AP

The co-lead author of the Lancet Planetary Health study, Caroline Hickman from the University of Bath, believes climate anxiety is a "rational, healthy response" to what is happening in the world. 

She said: “You should be anxious about climate change. I think anyone who isn’t anxious about climate change is mentally unwell, probably.

“Climate anxiety is not a problem that ought to be fixed, but we do need to help children build the resilience and emotional intelligence to navigate it.”

Hogan remembers feeling anxious about climate change from the age of 11: “Even though I didn’t have the word for it then, it was definitely eco-anxiety that catalysed me into wanting to be an environmentalist.” 

She has now set up Force of Nature, an initiative that works with young people around the world to turn their anxiety about climate change into action. 

Hogan said: “We work with a lot of young people who experience these really difficult climate emotions and don’t know what to do with them. 

“We run programmes to help them feel empowered, and step up rather than shut down in the face of the climate crisis.” 

The organisation has recently seen a spike in interest, with young people seeking support and solidarity: “In the same way that the climate crisis is not going anywhere, neither is eco-anxiety,” Hogan added. 

Organisations like Force of Nature teach young people how to turn their anxiety into activism. Credit: AP

How do you cope with climate anxiety?

Megan Kennedy-Woodward and Dr Patrick Kennedy-Williams are the co-founders of Climate Psychologists, an organisation that provides psychological support for those committed to saving the planet. 

They say that while climate anxiety is not technically a mental health disorder, it can lead to very real mental health problems, including burnout, social withdrawal and sleeping problems. 

To ease feelings of eco-anxiety, the pair recommend that people start with self-care, take social media breaks when needed and talk about their emotions with others. If those feelings become overwhelming, they say, seek the help of a professional. 

For parents with worried children, Kennedy-Woodard says for each negative piece of information your child is exposed to, provide three solution-based or positive stories to accompany it.

“It is so easy to be inundated with negative information, we need to strike a balance,” she says.

Kennedy-Williams also emphasised the importance of putting pressure on governments to take action, rather than placing the responsibility on young people.

He said: “Do what you can in terms of individual action, but remember that this issue isn’t solely on you.

“It can feel like the actions you are taking personally aren’t enough but the world is watching and it is making a huge difference.”

The COP26 climate conference - what you need to know

What is COP26? When and where will it be?

Each year, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) meets at what is called the Conference of the Parties (abbreviated as COP) to discuss the world's progress on climate change and how to tackle it.

COP26 is the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties summit which will be held in Glasgow from 31 October to 12 November.

Who is going?

Leaders of the 197 countries that signed the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) – a treaty that came into force in 1994 - are invited to the summit.

These are some of the world leaders that will be attending COP26:

  • US President Joe Biden, climate envoy John Kerry, climate adviser and former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy, and 10 other US cabinet officials.

  • Australia's Prime Minister Scott Morrison. In the days leading up to COP26, Mr Morrison committed Australia to a target of net zero carbon emissions by 2050.

Prince Charles, Prince William, the Duchess of Cornwall and the Duchess of Cambridge are also attending. The Queen has withdrawn from visiting after being advised by her doctors to rest - she will address the conference virtually instead.

China's President Xi Jinping, Russia's President Vladimir Putin, and President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil are among the leaders that have decided not to travel to Glasgow.

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What is it hoping to achieve?

1. Achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 and limiting global warming to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels - Countries are being encouraged to set ambitious 2030 emissions targets. They are also encouraged to accelerate the phase-out of coal, clamp down on deforestation, speed up the switch to electric vehicles and encourage investment in renewables.

2. Protect natural habitats and communities from climate change disasters

3. Finances for a greener future - In 2009, developed countries were asked to keep to their promises to contribute at least $100 billion (£72.5 billion) per year by 2020 to protect the planet. In 2015, it was agreed that the goal would be extended to 2025.

However, new analysis shows the goal is unlikely to have been met last year and is on track to fall short in 2021 and 2022.

4. Getting all countries and organisations to work together to tackle the climate crisis

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