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Demonstrators in New York at a Greta Thunberg-led climate change rally. Photo/Getty Images

The best way to banish climate-change anxiety

As climate anxiety appears to be on the rise among young people, Marc Wilson explains the best course of action.

It was a funny old week – lots of things happened that I’m only now spotting the pattern behind.

Monday started early with a trip to Parliament to share the stage with psychologist Brian Dixon in presenting the New Zealand Psychological Society submission to the Zero Carbon Bill select committee. That was surprisingly nerve-racking.

Tuesday brought a small rash of emails from enthusiastic opponents of the notion of anthropogenic climate change. One of them was quite intemperate: “This ‘climate change’ crap has got to stop … and you clowns are responsible … stay away from the NZ media,” it warned. That was confusing – what was the media going to do to me if I didn’t stay away? Then the light came on: I was quoted in an article that morning about climate anxiety among young people.

Tuesday also involved a chat over coffee about the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (or SDGs) and the extent to which New Zealand and our schools have adopted the framework. The SDGs are a set of 17 aspirations that target such things as responsible consumption and production, affordable and clean energy and, of course, climate action. But they also include the elimination of poverty, hunger and gender inequality and fostering good health and well-being.

Wednesday included an email reminding me that September 23 was the day of the World’s Largest Lesson. I’d forgotten about that chance for teachers to introduce the SDGs to young folk in their classes, select one goal that made the most sense in the context and work through a discussion that would lead to identifying an action the class could engage in.

Anecdotally, there is an increasing amount of climate anxiety among young people (and some older submitters to the select committee were similarly worried). I have heard of parents being concerned that their children have come home from school distressed at the notion of a dying planet. My clinical colleagues report seeing depressed young people who don’t think there’s much for them to live for if the world is doomed. Some young people are committing to not having children because of concern about the world they would be born into. People who are fatalistic about something are less likely to do anything about it and feel distress at feeling powerless.

This is a problem, and it seems to me an urgent argument to change the way commentators and activist groups go about encouraging climate action. For adult audiences, it made sense to get attention through stories that emphasised the consequences if we did nothing. But I hope the time has passed for that kind of framing and the focus can be shifted to positive action, particularly for young people who’ve been collateral damage in the disaster narrative.

One of the best ways to deal with anxiety (and most psychological distress, in fact) is to do something. It’s not easy, but if you’re depressed, getting out for an hour-long walk is one of the most effective ways to elevate mood. For a young person worried about climate change, such as Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, doing something is the cure for climate fatalism. The SDGs provide a framework for some of this. It probably sounds like common sense, but when talking to kids about environmental challenges, it’s best to do it in a way that they’re equipped for. Messages for seven-year-olds must be different and simpler than those for 14-year-olds. Some sources suggest starting by explaining the carbon cycle, but I’m not sure I would.

There are success stories about how people have responded to numerous kinds of environmental challenges that can be used to show that we can aspire to a better future. And again, it’s common sense, but head for the outdoors and into nature. Most importantly, take action.

This article was first published in the October 5, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.