Climate anxiety: how can you help your children?

The climate crisis is even scarier from a child's perspective; six out of ten say they feel betrayed by their governments. And forty percent of young people worldwide are hesitant to have children.

Sixty percent of young people between 16 and 25 are very or extremely worried about climate change. Seventy-five percent call the future 'frightening,' and 56 percent believe humanity is 'doomed.' These are some of the findings in a study among 10,000 young people in many rich and developing countries worldwide.

The levels of anxiety appear to be most significant in nations where government climate policies are considered weakest. In addition, the researchers at the University of Bath and five collaborating universities found that the anxiety of the youth was related to perceived government inaction, with 58 percent saying governments were betraying them or betraying future generations. The results have been released on a pre-publication basis and will, after a peer-review process, be published in the journal Lancet Planetary Health.

A billion kids are at “extremely high risk”

If these numbers are shocking to you, and they should be, a UNICEF report published last month provides some context to understand these perceptions of young people better. The report states that almost half the world's 2.2 billion children are already at "extremely high risk" from the impacts of the climate crisis and pollution. In addition, UNICEF presented the Children's Climate Risk Index (CCRI), which uses data to generate new global evidence on how many children are currently exposed to climate and environmental hazards, shocks, and stresses. 

The report, 'The Climate Crisis is a Child Rights Crisis,' helps understand where and how children are uniquely vulnerable to this crisis. Today's children will soon be adults in a more uncertain and dangerous world, where the fragile natural balance that has been a foundation for the development of human civilization will be lost. 

And it gets worse

The climate crisis has already become a children's crisis, and worse is in store. Climate change creates a water crisis, a health crisis, an education crisis, a protection crisis, and a participation crisis. In all these ways, it is infringing on the children's rights outlined in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.

The numbers of children that are already exposed to threats like heatwaves (820 million), water scarcity (920 million), or air pollution (2 billion kids) show the impact of the climate crisis, the nature-loss crisis, and the pollution crisis on a scale that is hard to imagine. An estimated 850 million children are exposed to at least 4 of these overlapping climate and environmental hazards, shocks, and stresses.

The Children's Climate Risk Index is the first comprehensive analysis of climate risk from a child's perspective. It ranks countries based on children's exposure to climate and environmental shocks, such as cyclones and heatwaves, as well as their vulnerability to those shocks, based on their access to essential services. Young people living in the Central African Republic, Chad, Nigeria, Guinea, and Guinea-Bissau are the most at risk of the impacts of climate change. According to the UNICEF report, it threatens their health, education, and protection and exposes them to deadly diseases.

The report found that approximately 1 billion children live in one of the 33 countries classified as "extremely high-risk." These children face a deadly combination of exposure to multiple climate- and environmental shocks with a high vulnerability due to inadequate essential services, such as water and sanitation, healthcare, and education. The findings reflect the number of children impacted today, and these figures will likely worsen as the impacts of climate change accelerate.

The latest climate report

The climate crisis will worsen is also the conclusion of this week's annual 'United in Science' report, written by the World Meteorological Organization, the UK's Met Office, and involving the IPCC, and others. It concluded that annual global mean near-surface temperature is likely to be at least one degree Celsius warmer than pre-industrial levels (defined as the 1850–1900 average) in each of the coming five years and is very likely to be within the range 0.9 °C to 1.8 °C.

A closer look at these 33 'extremely high-risk' countries reveals that these countries collectively emit only 9 percent of global CO2 emissions. It shows the disconnect between the countries that produce greenhouse gas emissions and the countries where children are enduring the most significant climate-driven impacts. At the other end of the spectrum, we find that the ten highest emitting countries collectively account for nearly 70 percent of global emissions. Only one of these countries is ranked as 'extremely high-risk' in the index.

UNICEF is calling on governments, businesses, and relevant actors to:

  1. Increase investment in climate adaptation and resilience in key services for children. To protect children, communities, and the most vulnerable from the worst impacts of the already changing climate, critical services must be adapted, including water, sanitation and hygiene systems, health and education services.

  2. Reduce greenhouse gas emissions. To avert the worst impacts of the climate crisis, comprehensive and urgent action is required. Countries must cut their emissions by at least 45% (compared to 2010 levels) by 2030 to keep warming to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius.

  3. Provide children with climate education and green skills, critical for their adaptation to and preparation for the effects of climate change. Children and young people will face the full devastating consequences of the climate crisis and water insecurity, yet they are the least responsible. We have a duty to all young people and future generations.

  4. Include young people in all national, regional, and international climate negotiations and decisions, including at COP26. Children and young people must be included in all climate-related decision-making. 

  5. Ensure the recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic is green, low-carbon, and inclusive so that the capacity of future generations to address and respond to the climate crisis is not compromised.

What can you do?

If you have children or work with children, they may have asked you questions about climate change. Looking at the numbers of climate anxiety amongst young people, you should take these signals seriously. The Guardian spoke last year with Dr. Patrick Kennedy-Williams, a clinical psychologist from Oxford, who in the past few years noted that climate researchers increasingly asked for help and requested his expertise in treating anxiety, depression, and trauma. 

He says parents should prepare themselves for conversations about climate change with their children so that they can respond helpfully. Fully shielding young people from the reality is the climate crisis is counterproductive. Instead, parents should help their children to feel empowered to take action. Even small activities can make a difference. He sees tackling climate anxiety and tackling the climate crisis as intrinsically linked. 

It brings to mind Greta Thunberg, who was struggling with climate anxiety and became an inspiration for tens of millions of young people worldwide when she started her school strike for the climate. Her activism has helped put the climate crisis higher on the political agenda, and I remember reading that it has also enabled her to become more confident. 

Greta is not alone; a nationally representative survey of over 1,300 US adults found that Americans who report being more familiar with Greta Thunberg feel more confident that they can help mitigate climate change as part of a collective effort. They are also more willing to take climate action. 

What are your experiences in dealing with climate anxiety with (your) children?

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Photo by hossein azarbad on Unsplash (Three girls)

Photo by Joshua Lanzarini on Unsplash (Water running)

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash (Parents for future)

Photo by Carlos Roso on Unsplash (Book Greta Thunberg)