Climate change is radicalizing young people — here's what that means and how to combat despair

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Sarah Ray, a professor of environmental studies at Humboldt State University in Arcata, California, and author of “A Field Guide to Climate Anxiety: How to Keep Your Cool on a Warming Planet.”

Photo courtesy Sarah Ray

Young people are not coping with climate anxiety well.

Sarah Ray, a professor of environmental studies at Humboldt State University in Arcata, Calif., has had a front row seat to the way climate change has landed on young people and most notably, how the weight of that anxiety has changed over the decade-plus-years she’s been a professor.

Ray wrote a book on what she’s learned: “A Field Guide to Climate Anxiety: How to Keep Your Cool on a Warming Planet,” which came out in 2020.

CNBC is publishing a series of accounts of how climate watchers, leaders and empaths are facing the emotional toll of climate change and finding a way through their anxiety, and this is a piece in that series.

The following are excerpts of Ray’s comments in a telephone interview with CNBC. They have been edited for brevity and clarity.

‘This new generation is radically different’ 

The existential weight that my students were bringing to me personally and into the classrooms to each other was something I had no tools to deal with.

I was seeing a great impatience with doing the work of classes: “Why am I wasting my time in college when this stuff is happening out there?” Very much like what we hear from Greta Thunberg and the youth climate movement. This sense of impatience with the types of activities we do in classes, a real desire for action, a real desire for getting out there, rolling your sleeves up and doing something and fixing these problems. The urgency was totally sunk in. There was a fetishizing of action over thinking or talking or reading.

Economics, politics, law, engineering, science used to be the places where students would go into if they wanted to get into environmental stuff. And they were predominantly white, and they often came in with a nostalgia about wanting to get things back to nature the way it was before “bad stuff happened to it.” And that was the modus operandi of the field.

This new generation is radically different.

Sarah Ray, a professor of environmental studies at Humboldt State University in Arcata, California, with her two kids, ages 10 and seven.

Photo courtesy Sarah Ray

There is a real awareness of the social justice dimensions and the sort of systems change thinking around climate change. The new generation doesn’t think of this as just something that we need to go into science to fix or technology to fix or engineering to fix or even politics or law. There’s a sense of this being a systemic thing that we need all hands on deck to address. We need all the talents, we need all the skills we from the artists, to the creative types, to the imagination people, to the children’s book writers, to the teachers to the parents — in addition to all of the usual suspects that used to be in sort of thinking about the major leverage points of affecting climate change.

It used to be that climate change was sort of imperceptible, abstract, hard to get your head around hard to deal with. It was a communication conundrum. It evaded all of the risk perception, tick boxes that need to be to create a good villain, for people to perceive as a problem — especially for young people for whom the future feels really far away.

No longer is it abstract, or in the future. It is now, and it’s perceivable. And that has been a huge achievement, because by definition, climate change is the least narratable villain in a story. 

And the younger generations don’t even have to shift that. They are thinking in my lifetime, I’m going to be the one who’s going to be beset with the worst of this. And they know from the IPCC reports, and all the successful science communication that’s come out, that the next 10 years is the most important. So they see themselves coming of age, coming onto the political and professional scene of their lives, coming into adulthood, when the most important effects can happen, the most responsibility the most urgency is on them.

They won’t be flying as much. They will refuse things that my generation takes for granted, like plastic and single use containers. They will slowly, hopefully, successfully change how infrastructure works, how their transportation works, how they build their families, how they build their homes, how they live on this planet and walk on this earth. Their lifestyles won’t accept what my generation has accepted as normal.

There’s going to be a real reckoning around reproductive refusal. What’s fascinating about that is environmentalists have long not chosen not to have children as a way to reduce their impact on the planet, but this generation is choosing not to have children because they don’t think their children will have a livable future. That’s a very, very, very different reason to do it.

Environmentalists have long not chosen not to have children as a way to reduce their impact on the planet, but this generation is choosing not to have children because they don’t think their children will have a livable future.

Sarah Ray

Professor and author

The climate movement forever has thought, “We’re never going change capitalism, this is never going to happen.” This real sense of futility of the whole endeavor, and that futility is less, I feel like that is diminished.

The younger generations, are like no, actually Covid has shown us that we can change a lot of stuff. They feel more politically powerful than previous any previous generation before them, except for maybe in the 60s. In the last 50 years, this is the most powerful feeling generation, and they have good reason to feel that way.

Necessity is the mother invention. Desperation is the mother of action. These two things absolutely go together. You can’t have such a politically organized generation and group without such clear and present danger.

For a sustainable future: Focus on what’s working

The story is not already pre-written. The dominant narrative is about inevitability. And that is an excuse for inaction. And I am utterly early against that. My favorite book on this is the newest book by Elin Kelsey, “Hope Matters.”

The story that we can build the future we want has to be the central story with young people. I don’t care whether that’s rose-tinted. I don’t care if that’s Pollyanna to some people. The science is out there on what happens with young people if they think that their future is already written for them, and that is not good. That is not an option for me.

The future of climate communication, the future of climate psychology has to simply be the “both-and” orientation. It’s just going to have to be, because we’re all going to learn at some point that living in doom and gloom narratives is very ineffective, and it makes us literally want to kill ourselves. This is very scary. We’ve gone from nobody caring enough about climate change to people caring so much that they’re nihilistic. We cranked up the urgency and then we’ve like overshot the mark.

It’s not that urgency is a bad thing. Urgency has a rhetorical situation and purpose and audience that is very effective and needs to happen. And we need to keep using urgency where appropriate. So I am not rejecting urgency outright. But for people who do really care a lot, it is not a productive thing.

We are going to be in this for a while. There is some urgency needed, but we need to focus on those fears that we do have control over, and slow down and do the work in a way that is sustainable for ourselves. And simply put that is the recipe for engaging in this work without burning out, without getting overwhelmed.

We need to be clear-eyed about it. I’m not suggesting that we block out everything that we can’t control. Taking in of all this information through the news, social media, all the ways that we have a 24-7 news stream, in general, that negativity bias of media and negativity bias in our psychologies and in our brains does not equate to reality. And it does equate to serious depression and anxiety.

We can be aware of how bad things are, and also how good things are. We can counterbalance the overwhelming negativity of news and our own biases around negativity by consuming and actively seeking out things that are positive. And that’s not about being in denial or naïve, that is about making sure we are consuming, that we’re exposed to reality, which is not all bad.

Also in this series:

Grief and anxiety over climate change drove this 30-year-old to write a letter to his future child

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