From climate anxiety to climate action: how to empower your students

This blog was written in collaboration with SubjectToClimate.

“Recognising that emotions are often what leads people to act, it is possible that feelings of ecological anxiety and grief, although uncomfortable, are in fact the crucible through which humanity must pass to harness the energy and conviction that are needed for the lifesaving changes now required”

Ashley Cunsolo, “Ecological grief and anxiety: the start of a healthy response to climate change?”

Ecological collapse. Social collapse. Mass extinction. Existential threats. If you spend much time thinking and reading about climate change, you likely encounter concepts such as these, and they likely take a mental toll. These are overwhelming ideas for anyone to grapple with— let alone a child.

It’s no surprise, then, that young people are often gripped by climate anxiety and climate grief. In fact, climate anxiety disproportionately impacts the young. Researchers have proposed several possible reasons for this discrepancy— such as youth being more likely than adults to be alive for worsening climate impacts, youth having less power than adults to stop climate change, and youth being uniquely vulnerable to stressors because they are still developing mentally, physically, and socially.

Whatever the reason or combination of reasons, we know climate change takes a severe mental toll on children and teenagers. The climate crisis can elicit many different responses, including anxiety, fear, anger, depression, grief, and suicidal thoughts. A 2020 survey of 2,000 youth between the ages 6 and 16 found that “73% were worried about the state of the planet, 19% have had a bad dream about climate change, and 41% do not trust adults to tackle the challenges presented by climate change.”

Climate anxiety impacts children younger than you might expect. Dr. Patrick Kennedy-Williams, a psychiatrist who works with many patients suffering from climate anxiety, recalls, “‘What I was most surprised by is how young the awareness and anxiety starts. My own daughter was just six when she came to me and said: ‘Daddy, are we winning the war against climate change?’”

So, you’re an educator, and you want to help. How can you support young people through the frightening reality of our ecological crisis? While this can feel like a daunting task, age-appropriate climate education can help. Arm yourself with facts so that you can answer your students’ questions. (Earth Warriors and SubjectToClimate both have plenty of resources to help with that! Of SubjectToClimate’s resources, the Social-Emotional Learning ones may be particularly helpful.) As you tackle this heavy subject matter, two points are particularly important: validating your students’ emotions and directing them towards action.

Validating Emotions

A healthy response to children’s climate anxiety begins with an acknowledgement that such fears are based in reality. Young people today face a very real danger. Whatever solutions we implement, there is no question of whether this generation will be impacted by climate change— only of how severe those impacts will be. Ashlee Cunsolo, PhD, who researches climate change and mental health, argues that “ecological grief and anxiety are reasonable and functional responses to climate-related losses” and that “What is needed are accessible and safe spaces to explore these difficult emotional reactions.” When teaching your students about climate change, you can encourage them to discuss the feelings it brings up, reminding them that it’s normal and okay to feel sad or scared.

Sometimes, being open about your own emotions can help your students feel more comfortable expressing theirs. “Be honest with your students,” says SubjectToClimate Chief Content Officer Dan Castrigano. “If you feel any of these things, like fear or anger or shock or sadness, share that with them. Show your vulnerability, and I think they’ll appreciate that.”

However, validating emotions does not mean uncritically encouraging defeatism or paralyzing fear. As psychiatry professor Steven Taylor points out, “Anxiety evoked by the threat of climate change can be either adaptive or maladaptive. Adaptive anxiety can motivate climate activism… Maladaptive anxiety can take the form of anxious passivity.” While it is important to assure students that any emotions they are experiencing are okay, it is equally important to challenge defeatist thought patterns by encouraging your students to act.

Directing Students Towards Action

The problem of climate anxiety cannot be divorced from the problem of climate change. That is to say, young people’s well-founded fears about the climate crisis should not be treated as a purely psychological concern. Your students’ climate anxiety has its roots in the real state of the world, and so can only truly be addressed by fighting for a livable planet. As Dr. Kennedy-Williams puts it, “the cure to climate anxiety is the same as the cure for climate change – action.” Indeed, a study by the Brookings Institute recently found that when enough educators encourage climate action, it can lead to a substantial reduction in emissions.

Anxiety and despair can stem from young people’s feelings of powerlessness in the face of the climate crisis. It is helpful to remind your students that they are not, in fact, powerless. Tell your students that they have immense capacity to make change when they organize within their communities to fight for what they believe in. Point your students towards specific, meaningful actions they can take to address the problem, whether that’s attending a protest, starting an environmentalist club, or creating an art piece. For younger children, advises the Guardian, it is best to “keep it local and tangible.” (Teenagers, on the other hand, may get more out of becoming “connected at a wider level”). Either way, projects that are community-based rather than individual can be particularly impactful, as they can help young people to build solidarity with others around an important issue.

Climate change can be a hard subject to teach, because it involves telling children about difficulties and injustices that they will have to contend with (if they have not already). However, our climate crisis is also a crucial topic for students to grapple with. What’s more, climate education presents an opportunity to teach young people about the remarkable power that communities have when they band together to enact change. As you teach, let your students grieve— but then push them to channel their sadness, fear, and anger to agitate for a better world.