Eco-Anxiety’ experienced by young people is creating a new level of distrust in the government
Written by Camryn Garza
“I oscillate between feelings of fear and anxiety,” said Jorge Wunch, a senior at the University of Texas at Austin. “It’s understanding what is in your control and what is out of your control.”
Researchers are increasingly studying the effects of climate anxiety on young people. A 2021 study from The Lancet Planetary Health, a science journal, linked the emotional impact of climate change in young people to anxiety over government inaction. Faced with the uncertainty of the future, psychologists and young people alike are attempting to address the newfound concept of “eco-anxiety.”
“The fate of the planet rests in so few people’s hands and they’re not doing more? It’s just utterly maddening,” said Dr. Anna Graybeal, a licensed psychologist working from Austin, Texas.
According to the Lancet study, 83% of respondents aged 16 to 25-years-old feel as though people have “failed to take care of the planet.”
“There are some really powerful people who could do more that aren’t,” Dr. Graybeal said. “Probably because at some level they literally care more about their own bottom line than they do about the wellbeing of the greater good.”
The study, which surveyed 10,000 people across 10 countries, including the United States, was the first of its kind to investigate the correlation between eco-anxiety and government response to climate change.
Scientists realize the stress of climate anxiety causes feelings of worry and anger in young people. On top of these feelings are “relational factors” that can create “an additional layer of confusion, betrayal, and abandonment because of adult inaction towards climate change.”
“I do lack faith in our political infrastructure,” Wunch said. “If there’s anything that I lack faith in it’s not humanity, it’s not people but it’s the forces that shape people.”
Wunch, who co-founded an environmental activism group at UT called Students Fighting Climate Change, said he feels most betrayed by the way the overall structure of government fails to represent public interest about climate change.
According to Pew Research Center 65% of American adults feel the federal government is doing “too little” to reduce the effects of climate change.
Both Dr. Graybeal and Wunch said that part of the solution to tackling climate change also falls on the responsibility of the people.
“I don’t think that typecasting someone as the enemy is productive in creating a future that works for everyone,” Wunch said.
Dr. Graybeal suggested that the struggle with handling the climate crisis stems from “basic human psychology principles.” She said that tackling the issue can come down to the ability of people to act together.
Often, when it comes to addressing climate change people tend to fight each other rather than the issue itself.
“You know, we can tend to get really polarized,” Dr. Graybeal said. “We can tend to blame the other. Especially when the scale of what we have to do is so enormous, all that kind of sticky human behavior stuff, how we are in groups, makes it really hard.”
Realizing that climate change is a common threat may allow people to join forces to attack the problem.
“It’s like we need climate change to actually be a force, an actual enemy. Then we could all band together,” Dr. Graybeal said. “Then we might do more to confront it.”
Dr. Graybeal suggested that to mobilize climate action people must acknowledge the severity of climate change and the extreme emotion that comes with that realization.
“They have to feel really scared and they have to feel really helpless, really angry,” Dr. Graybeal said. “In general, if people can avoid feeling uncomfortable feelings like that they will.”
With no clear solution in sight, some young people say the climate crisis can easily intensify feelings of anxiety to the point of overwhelming distress.
“I feel like with climate anxiety it has just put people on sort of a time limit,” said Samid Mirza, a recent graduate from UT Austin. “It’s like you have to achieve as much as you possibly can during a set time limit, and you don’t even know what the set time limit is.”
According to the Lancet study, about 75% of young people agreed that the “future is frightening.”
“It’s like people have very low expectations for how the planet is going to be,” Mirza said. “That makes me anxious because I want to live a normal, stable lifestyle.”