56 Percent of Young People Think Humanity Is Doomed

A major study of 10,000 young people across 10 different countries lays bare the scale of climate crisis-related anxiety felt around the world.
September 14, 2021, 5:00am
Fifty-Six Percent of Young People Think Humanity Is Doomed
Children play on melting ice at the village of Napakiak on the Yukon Delta in Alaska, in April 2019. Photo: MARK RALSTON/AFP via Getty Images

Lichen, an 18-year-old living in Hawaii, used to worry about the end of the world, but lately that doesn’t feel all that distant. Now, they’re simply worried about what’s next. And it’s a worry that is affecting nearly half of the world’s young people.

According to what its authors say is the world’s largest ever study into young people’s fears about the climate crisis, 45 percent of 16-25-year-olds said climate-related anxiety and distress is affecting their daily lives and ability to function normally.

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Almost 60 percent of the 10,000 young people surveyed across 10 countries attributed this to their national governments, who they said were “betraying” them and future generations through their inaction. Fifty-six percent of people surveyed said they agreed with the statement that humanity is doomed, while 75 percent said they believed the future was frightening.

The study, published today in Lancet Planetary Health and led by academics and professionals at the University of Bath, Stanford Medicine Centre for Innovation in Global Health, Oxford Health NHS Foundation Trust and others, found that people from countries more directly and immediately impacted by climate change tended to be more worried about the future. Ninety-two percent of young people in the Philippines said they felt like the future was frightening, compared to just 56 percent in Finland. 

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But young people in the UK and the U.S. had less faith in their governments than countries like Nigeria and India. Only 28 percent and 21 percent of young Brits and Americans thought the government could be trusted when it came to the planet – whereas 51 percent of Indians had faith in the authorities. 

The report’s authors say that climate anxiety is an “inescapable stressor,” and that unpredictable and extreme weather patterns are likely to further add to psychological distress.

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For Lichen, watching the wildfires in their father’s native Australia was “really scary”, and that when they were younger left them feeling a kind of “raw fear.” 

“I’d just zone out something thinking about it,” they told VICE World News via Instagram. Now, they want to pursue environmental journalism – action that they say makes them feel better. 

A volunteer rests as flames rise from a wildfire in Mugla province in Turkey last month. Photo: YASIN AKGUL/AFP via Getty Images

A volunteer rests as flames rise from a wildfire in Mugla province in Turkey last month. Photo: YASIN AKGUL/AFP via Getty Images

But for Malika, a 15-year-old from Lebanon, climate anxiety has exacerbated her mental health problems. She remembers contracting a virus as a child from swimming in one of Lebanon’s polluted rivers; it’s one of many memories she recalls as she thinks about the anxiety disorder diagnosis that she received last year, and how much worrying about the planet is part of it. She feels like the school projects on climate change that she is doing aren’t enough. “I felt like I’m doing something just very small, I don’t have that influence in the world,” she told VICE World News via Instagram. “So I was always and I’m still anxious about what’s going to happen in this world. Are we going to die of climate change? After we die, will people suffer?”

The co-lead author on the study, Caroline Hickman from the University of Bath, said: “Our children’s anxiety is a completely rational reaction given the inadequate responses to climate change they are seeing from governments. What more do governments need to hear to take action?”

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Some politicians are trying to address climate anxiety directly, on top of actual climate action. Last month, Coalition MPs asked the Australian Prime Minister to fund climate change chaplains in schools. 

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But posts on social media suggest young people aren’t necessarily always identifying what they’re experiencing as climate anxiety. In the Global North, young people from Portugal were the most worried out of the countries surveyed, having experienced a dramatic increase in wildfires since 2017, but just looking at Instagram alone, there are few Portuguese-language posts on the topic; #ecoansiedade only has around 100 posts and #ansiedadeclimatica even fewer. #Ecoanxiety in English only stands at 14,000 posts itself, which seems small when #anxiety stands at 18 million. 

On TikTok, however, #climateanxiety has 370,000 views. Alaina Wood, a TikTok creator and sustainability scientist, says she is worried about content she sees on the app, particularly the trend of spreading climate nihilism to the TikTok sounds of Bo Burnham's dystopian Inside film. “Young people have seen this climate nihilism videos and believe it is too late to do anything about the climate crisis, so they often decide to stop pushing for climate action,” Wood said. “I’ve made numerous videos discussing climate anxiety and debunking climate nihilism, and I receive daily comments thanking me for putting a name – climate anxiety – to how they feel.” 

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So what could be signs of climate anxiety? Megan Kennedy-Woodward and Dr Patrick Kennedy-Williams are the co-founders of Climate Psychologists, an organisation that provides psychological support and communication tactics for those committed to saving the planet. “Climate and eco anxiety blanket over a wide range of emotions that the climate crisis can provoke,” Kennedy-Woodward said. “Guilt, anger, grief, despair.” 

Kennedy-Williams added: “It can result in social withdrawal, sleep or concentration issues, to name a few. Clinically speaking, for younger children we aim to support parents to have meaningful and productive conversations with their kids.” 

Kennedy-Woodward recommends that young people lean into self-care, and take social media and climate information breaks when necessary, to alleviate climate anxiety. If you are feeling like it is too much, she advises speaking with a healthcare professional. 

But the authors of the study are eager for governments to realise the impact that their lack of climate action is having on young people, rather than expecting young people to handle it alone.

“Public discourse should encourage the expression of feelings that 60% of young people in this survey have described as being ignored or dismissed,” wrote the study’s authors. “We argue that the failure of governments to adequately reduce, prevent, or mitigate climate change is contributing to psychological distress, moral injury and injustice.”

If you or anyone you know have been affected by the issues raised in this story, please use the following resources for help and support. In the UK and Ireland, the Samaritans phone lines are open 24/7, at 116 123. In the US, if you are experiencing anxiety and are in need of crisis support, please call the Crisis Call Center’s 24-hour hotline at 1-775-784-8090.