Since environmental activist Greta Thunberg gave her “how dare you” speech at the United Nations Climate Action Summit in 2019 when she was 17, young people have been drawn into a debate about climate change.
Some report it as a real problem that needs to be considered, others say it’s an existential crisis that threatens civilization and the habitability of the planet, while others still deny it’s a thing altogether.
Ongoing research is showing that kids’ mental health is severely impacted by climate change fears, and there are anecdotes of them not planning to have families of their own out of a fear they have no future.
The debate about the impacts of climate change and what to do about it stir a lot of passions, but is the mental wellbeing of kids being forgotten in the struggle?
Study: Kids ‘Extremely Worried’
A 2021 study in the medical journal The Lancet surveyed 10,000 young people ages 16-25 in 10 countries, including 1,000 from the United States.
The study found that 59% of participants were “extremely worried” about climate change. More than half reported feeling sad, anxious, angry, powerless, helpless and guilty. More than 45% said their feelings about climate change negatively affects their daily lives and functioning. And 75% responded that they think the future is frightening because of climate change impacts.
Are Those Fears Founded?
According to the nonpartisan International Disaster Database, the number of deaths from climate-related natural disasters has fallen 98% since 1920.
Dr. Roger Pielke, professor of environmental studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder, researched the normalized costs of disasters to determine actual trends in economic losses from weather events.
While it’s reported that the economic losses of disasters are increasing, wealth changes over time, Pielke explains. For example, a hurricane hitting Miami beach in 1920 is going to impact a lot less development than one hitting the same area today. The figures on losses need to be normalized to determine any trends.
Pielke’s research showed normalized economic losses from weather events declined from about 0.25% of the gross domestic product in 1990 to 0.19% in 2020.
While neither of these measures indicate anything about trends in frequency or severity of extreme weather, they raise questions about why kids who are living in an age when economic loss is declining and deaths from natural disasters are at historic lows are feeling despondent about their futures.
Our Children’s Trust
Children’s understanding of climate change is modeled by adults and through the media, which rarely include declining deaths and normalized economic losses when reporting on climate change-related issues.
Our Children’s Trust seeks out children whose parents agree to let them participate in lawsuits against states over climate change, making legal claims about its mental health impacts on kids.
While most of their legal actions have been dismissed and haven’t produced much more than media coverage, one case in Montana is going to trial this June.
E&E News reported last month that Montana is one of six states that explicitly recognizes a right to a clean environment. The article profiles 14-year-old Mica, who is one of the plaintiffs in the case and identified in court documents only as Mica K.
According to the complaint filed in the First Judicial District Court of Lewis and Clark County, Mica “has experienced stress over the impacts of the climate crisis” after seeing a documentary about glaciers when he was 3.
“Mica has seen how the glaciers and lakes have been impacted by climate disruption first hand in Glacier National Park and this has a profound emotional impact on Mica,” says the complaint filed by Our Children’s Trust.
Glaciers Still There
Prior to 2020, children visiting Glacier National Park would have encountered signs proclaiming “Goodbye to the Glaciers.” The signs warned that glaciers formed 7,000 years ago and would all be gone by 2020.
When 2020 came and the glaciers were still there, the park quietly removed the signs.
John Mackin, press director for Our Children’s Trust, declined a Cowboy State Daily request for an interview.
“We look forward to presenting evidence of the best available science on anthropogenic climate change via witness testimony from leading climate scientists and experts at the Held v. State of Montana trial in June,” Mackin told Cowboy State Daily.
In his classroom, Dr. Matthew Wielicki, an assistant professor in the Department of Geological Sciences at the University of Alabama, said he tries to give his students a more balanced perspective on climate change.
Wielicki has a Ph.D. in geochemistry from the University of California – Los Angeles and has authored and co-authored more than a dozen peer-reviewed studies in the field of geology.
He once believed that climate change is a serious crisis.
“If you just turn on the news, every few minutes all you hear about is catastrophe,” Wielicki told Cowboy State Daily.
Over time, after hearing of things like glaciers disappearing and coastlines sinking into the ocean — none of which happened — Wielicki began to question the climate crisis.
His students, however, were very committed and very frightened about it.
“I don’t blame young people. They’re passionate, and they think they’re doing the right thing. They want to protect the planet. I get it,” Wielicki said. “I blame the adults who have tricked them into thinking if they don’t do this kind of action that the planet will really go to hell.”
Banned On TikTok
Wanting to give kids a different perspective, Wielicki polled his students on what social media platforms they use and found they weren’t interested in Facebook. They were using TikTok.
So, he started making TikTok videos questioning some of the more alarmist predictions about climate change.
Then he got banned from the platform.
“That just blew my mind,” he said.
Wielicki now actively promotes on his Twitter account that carbon dioxide emissions are impacting climate, but it’s not creating a crisis.
In his lectures, Wielicki said he’s quite open about telling his students not to buy into media hype about increases in extreme weather.
As much as such a claim would be defined as “science denial,” the research on the impact of climate change on extreme weather from the International Panel on Climate Change, a government consortium of the world’s leading climate scientists, is far more nuanced and uncertain than the media present.
“If you really look into the IPCC reports, especially the working assessments, they’re pretty clear that there’s these trends, but it’s a tiny bit here and there. We can’t really assign them with high confidence,” Wielicki said.
Those working group reports are thousands of pages of highly technical documents, and few people can read and digest them all. Very little reporting in the mainstream media on climate events directly comes from any of it, and much of the reporting is flat wrong, said energy watchdog Michel Shellenberger.
He reported in October on how the media in the wake of Hurricane Ian grossly misrepresented the science on the frequency of hurricanes.
Shelleberger showed how reporters for The New York Times, Washington Post, Financial Times and ABC News took from data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and excluded data prior to 1980, which followed a drought in hurricane frequency, to show an increase in the frequency of the storms.
NOAA provides a comprehensive look at global warming and hurricanes on its website, explaining some nuances that need to be considered in examining hurricane trends.
“After adjusting for changes in observing capabilities (limited ship observations) in the pre-satellite era, there is no significant long-term trend (since the 1880s) in the proportion of hurricanes that become major hurricanes,” NOAA explains.
Kids read headlines in The Washington Post that declare “Climate Change Is Rapidly Fueling Super Hurricanes” and think that’s an accurate reflection of the science, he said.
Be Very Concerned
Dr. Gerald Kutney, who describes himself as a commenter on print media and social media on the politics of the climate crisis, believes there is a climate crisis and kids are just reacting normally to a threat to their future.
Kutney authored the book “Carbon Politics and the Failure of the Kyoto Protocol.” He has a Ph.D. in chemistry and is an elected fellow of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society. He was an adjunct professor at the University of Northern British Columbia and taught a graduate course titled “Climate Change & Global Warming.”
Now living in Ottawa, Canada, he has presented several guest lectures at Carleton University on what he calls “climate change denial.”
Kutney told Cowboy State Daily he agrees the science isn’t saying that the world will come to an end or that civilization will collapse because of global warming, but he urges people not to underestimate the threat.
‘A World Global Crisis’
Extreme weather events are becoming more frequent, he told Cowboy State Daily, and they’re going to get worse the longer people continue to use fossil fuels. The urgency to address climate change is especially high, he said, because of the difficulty in reversing the problem.
“The scary part is, the longer we take, the worse it’s going to get,” Kutney said. “People also don’t realize tomorrow – let’s say we stop greenhouse gas emissions from everywhere. Let’s say somehow there was a magic button, we could press it and stop it. The climate crisis doesn’t go away. It stops getting worse.”
He said that even though civilization won’t come to an end, he urges people not to dismiss their fear.
“This is a global crisis,” he said. “It’s one of the most serious crises we have, and it’s probably the greatest crisis the world has ever had that people reacted so little to.”
When it comes to the impact of what he believes is a serious crisis for children, Kutney argues the threat posed is great enough that the answer to their anxiety is to do something more about climate change.
“The problem is that death and destruction from climate change is real, and it’s going to get worse,” he said. “And not only does it affect us, it affects the entire biosphere.”
Kutney argues that if you present a science-based look at the risk posed from climate change, kids see a real threat to their future.
“The messages from science are not what’s scaring kids. What’s scaring kids is what they’re seeing for themselves,” he said. “This is real. And so really what we should be concerned about when we see children that are being scared by (climate change), we should be concerned with why we aren’t doing something to protect them.”
Whether you believe that climate change is a crisis or a more of a concern, most seem to agree that children shouldn’t grow up perpetually despondent about climate change or any problem the future may hold.
Dr. Karen Bartsch, associate dean and professor in the Psychology Department of the University of Wyoming, told Cowboy State Daily how people interact with their children makes a big difference in their lives.
Anything that suggests a lack of predictability about the environment for children is something potentially upsetting, she said.
“We know that children are affected by any kind of contextual instability. So climate change is one of those things, but we probably have some of the same discussions if we’re talking about children who live in a context of war, or children who live in a home where there’s maybe a lot of strife or anxiety about caretakers’ job situation,” Bartsch said.
She explained that decades of research shows that young people in particular filter their reactions to experiences through the reactions of their parents.
“If parents are all very disturbed and emotional about climate change and children observe this, young children will often catch that emotional reaction,” Bartsch said.
Bartsch said that when it comes to problems adults are concerned with — whether that’s climate change, war or family financial concern — it’s best to be candid with kids.
“You never want to lie to your children,” Bartsch said.
However, the problem should be presented in a way they can easily understand and cope with emotionally.
“Here’s what it looks like for a person to acknowledge that they’re upset about it, and then to deal with the problem in terms of problem solving and sort of bring your emotions under control,” Bartsch explained. “Talk about how people who are working on the problem are looking for ways to make it so that the problems are reduced.”
Bartsch called this modeling, and it gives kids a framework to understand problems and deal with the emotions and stress surrounding them in a positive way.
Wielicki is very active on his Twitter account disputing the idea that climate change is a crisis, and he’s had some back and forth with Kutney more than once.
Wielicki is facing an effort to get him to stop disputing a “climate crisis.” People have been emailing the University of Alabama and Department of Geological Science administration complaining that he questions the narrative.
He tweeted that he hasn’t been provided with details on the communications, but they “were not positive emails.”
“This is cancel culture at work,” he tweeted. “No longer can there be dissenting opinions in academia.”
Wielicki said he continues to present a more open dialogue with his students on the issue.
“I think kids are sponges. I think if they’re shown truthful data, in a real context that is honest and allows multiple viewpoints to be discussed, I think they’re very receptive to it,” Wielicki said.
He said it’s not up to the kids to do this; instead, it’s up to adults to foster that kind of open discussion.
“Try not to attack each other, shoot each other down and call each other denialists, deniers or whatever,” Wielicki said. “Because you’re trying to have an open discussion about a very complex, natural system.”