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How do we empower youth in face of the climate crisis?

 

Whether you are a parent or a guardian, a teacher or a school administrator, if you have children in your life, you might hear them talking about climate change.  Whether it’s wildfires or floods or tsunamis and tornados, these events are happening with increasing frequency all around us. Climate change may once have been an abstract concept or foreign idea, but it is now our reality.

Young people are more aware than ever of the threats to the planet’s future and are getting involved politically (Sunrise Movement). Maybe you’ve even experienced anxiety about the Earth and our climate yourself. According to one study, almost half of Americans are very concerned about climate change, but only 14% think others around them are very concerned (EcoAmerica).

A lot of us are feeling it: worry and stress about the potential doom of the one place we all have to call home, Planet Earth. The media is reporting on it, too, with NPR calling climate change the “greatest threat to public health” today, even amidst the pandemic. And although there is some fear-mongering in the media, a lot of the images and videos we see from around the world are realistic and accurate portrayals of the devastating impact that climate change is having every single day. It can be even more frustrating when you feel that some people around you aren’t experiencing the same level of concern about the environment that you are.

The psychological impact of stress from climate change is real. Youth are and will continue to be disproportionately burdened by the upcoming effects of climate change. One study says that newborns will on average live through 2.6 times more droughts, 2.8 times as many river floods, almost 3 times as many crop failures, and twice the number of wildfires as people born 60 years ago (Study: Climate change is disproportionately affecting children). Children who face multiple inequities or whose families have generational trauma are even more vulnerable (Triple jeopardy: Children face dark future of climate disasters). This is undoubtedly stressful for both the youth who must cope with it and the adults who recognize the struggle ahead for the next generation.

When toxic stress is unaddressed, especially in children, it harms them, their families, and society as a whole. The climate crisis is an adverse childhood experience, and in fact, it makes up a whole category of ACEs. When we talk about the climate crisis we are talking about sea levels rising, record storms, severe droughts, food scarcity, and bigger tsunamis, to name just a few. Handouts_3RealmsACEs_EN_630x420

The toxic stress caused by the relentless nature of climate change is sometimes referred to as eco-anxiety. The American Psychological Association defines eco-anxiety as “the chronic fear of environmental cataclysm that comes from observing the seemingly irrevocable impact of climate change and the associated concern for one's future and that of next generations.” We can address this anxiety through both discussion and action to raise community resilience.

If you notice fear or concern in the young people you come into contact with, it is important to tell them that their fear is real and valid, and not diminish their feelings. Opening a discussion can allow them to voice their feelings and concerns. If they have questions about the environment or climate change that you can’t answer, you can connect them with your local librarian to find relevant and age-appropriate reading materials. If you’re able, you can help them process their feelings. If they are in extreme distress about the environment and the future of the planet, it might be helpful to get a professional counselor or therapist involved to work through the more complex feelings.

When we talk openly about climate change and its sources, we give ourselves and those around us space to hold their feelings and to brainstorm possible solutions. However, action is just as important as discussion, so we must remember to organize for the future and not just agonize about it.

Age-appropriate action and education are a must. For younger children, education about weather and the seasons is a good place to start for general understanding. Maybe they’ve heard adults talking about climate change and are overwhelmed by or curious about what they’ve heard. It can be helpful to break down climate into weather and other components to help them learn and understand.

If there are older children in your life, you can talk to them about policies in your area or how to get involved locally. You can come up with a plan to volunteer with different environmental clean-up groups in your neighborhood, or go even simpler: For those able, my favorite way to take immediate action is to grab an empty bag and latex gloves and do my own local trash pick-up close to home. Walking around your neighborhood has multiple benefits: physical exercise, spending time outside, and cleaning up. If you go with a youth or a friend, you also benefit from spending quality time together. Although this doesn’t have a global impact, it’s a simple action that makes a big difference in your local ecosystem. Creating positive childhood experiences together like this is a powerful way to help the youth in your life stay hopeful and feeling empowered.

Taking collective action, such as volunteering or lobbying for different causes, builds resiliency within yourself, your family, and your community. Focus on what you can do, like composting, eating locally grown foods, planting native seeds, and creating less waste. When we create resiliency—our own and in the youth around us—we are equipping ourselves to respond to all potential threats, including environmental stressors.

If a youth in your life wants to take action, there are a number of youth-centered groups working to fight climate change all around the world:

  • The Sunrise Movement: This is a youth movement to stop climate change and create millions of good jobs in the process. We’re building an army of young people to make climate change an urgent priority across America, end the corrupting influence of fossil fuel executives on our politics, and elect leaders who stand up for the health and well-being of all people.
  • Fridays For Future: a youth-led and -organized global climate strike movement.
  • SustainUS: a youth-led organization advancing justice and sustainability by empowering young people to engage in advocacy at the domestic and international levels.

We know climate change is coming and although we are working to prevent it, we know we are still going to feel some of its effects—in fact, we already are. Through our efforts to stop climate change, we are working to both improve the health of the planet and prevent the traumatic stress that climate change is causing in children and ourselves. Especially when we know that some of the damage to Earth is irreversible, it’s important to remember that there is still hope for the future of our planet. We all have the potential to bring about positive change and we should feel empowered in that knowledge.

Let’s act, together on climate change.

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Unlike today's children, I don't have to face so many bleak decades of extreme weather and its consequences. I still find hope for humankind, though mostly in environmentally conscious and active young people, especially those approaching or reaching voting age. In contrast, the dinosaur electorate who have been voting into high office consecutive mass-pollution promoting or complicit/complacent governments for decades are gradually dying off thus making way for voters who fully support a healthy Earth thus populace.

Mass global addiction to fossil fuel products by the larger public undoubtedly helps keep the average consumer quiet about the planet’s greatest polluter, lest they feel and/or be publicly deemed hypocritical. Also, relatively trivial politics diverts attention away from some of the planet's greatest polluters, where it should and needs to be sharply focused.

Meanwhile, if the universal availability of green-energy alternatives will come at the profit-margin expense of traditional 'energy' production companies, one can expect formidable obstacles, including the political and regulatory sort. If something notably conflicts with corporate big-profit interests, even very progressive motions are greatly resisted, often enough successfully.

Some great points! Thanks for reading, Frank.

Unlike today's children, I don't have to face so many bleak decades of extreme weather and its consequences. I still find hope for humankind, though mostly in environmentally conscious and active young people, especially those approaching or reaching voting age. In contrast, the dinosaur electorate who have been voting into high office consecutive mass-pollution promoting or complicit/complacent governments for decades are gradually dying off thus making way for voters who fully support a healthy Earth thus populace.

Mass global addiction to fossil fuel products by the larger public undoubtedly helps keep the average consumer quiet about the planet’s greatest polluter, lest they feel and/or be publicly deemed hypocritical. Also, relatively trivial politics diverts attention away from some of the planet's greatest polluters, where it should and needs to be sharply focused.

Meanwhile, if the universal availability of green-energy alternatives will come at the profit-margin expense of traditional 'energy' production companies, one can expect formidable obstacles, including the political and regulatory sort. If something notably conflicts with corporate big-profit interests, even very progressive motions are greatly resisted, often enough successfully.

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