What can we do about eco-anxiety?

The threat of global warming can be scary - especially for children. A young activist and a climate psychology therapist have a conversation about eco-anxiety.

Current issues
By VoiceBox ·


Despite studying a BA in Literature and Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia, Meg Watts would describe herself as a full-time environmentalist with a part-time student gig. If she could ask you do one thing today, it would be to read up on climate equity.

Forget eco-anxiety - schools need to teach climate change

In 2018, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) told us we had 12 years left to prevent global warming beyond 1.5C.

That same year, Greta Thunberg sat down for her first school strike, sparking a global movement of millions of young activists.

In 12 years, scientists warned, we would reach a tipping point - irreversible climate change would ensue, causing a feedback loop with catastrophic consequences.

In 12 years, the youth strikers warned, they would be reaching their twenties and thirties in an unrecognisable landscape of forest fires, pollution-related ill health, and global resource-insecurity. I am one of the young climate activists trying to prevent this reality of environmental disaster through protest, individual action, and education.

According to an NUS survey, only 4% of students feel they know a lot about climate change. I am lucky to be in that 4%. What wasn’t taught to me by my botanist and ecologist parents; David Attenborough documentaries; cli-fi books; and social media, I learnt by studying geography at A-level.

Let’s be honest - it’s a complicated subject. I have an understanding of the intricacies of climate change only because I chose to study geography. But it's important: understanding the difference between ‘enhanced’ global warming (the problems we’ve caused) and Milankovitch cycles (natural fluctuations) helps you to challenge the deniers. A climate education is the difference between a generation of young people who are actively working to prevent increased natural disasters, and a generation who suffer as a result of them.

Some people say that climate education will lead to eco-anxiety. Eco-anxiety is definitely on the rise - but it’s not the real evil. Eco-anxiety is merely a symptom of bigger issues: the helplessness felt by young people when confronted with a future defined by environmental chaos. I would argue that in concealing scientific reality to protect young people, teachers, parents and politicians are actively doing us a disservice. We remain unprepared for (and frightened of) the future that climate change has in store for us.

Information surrounding climate change is only available if you choose the right subjects. Not everyone takes geography beyond year nine - at my school, you could drop it at 14. Even then, geography is not solely focused on environmentalism. But I believe that my two years of study have given me a more accurate understanding of climate change than most major politicians have.

It’s shocking. Just two years of education outweighs our leaders’ understanding of climate change - and that demonstrates just how under-prepared, misinformed and short-sighted our government and society are. Boris Johnson’s environmental policy falls so far short of the radical action required by the Paris Agreement, Greenpeace called it a ‘flop’.

This is the government that decides our curriculum. Climate change barely features in our education system, despite the fact that it is perhaps the most urgent crisis the world has ever faced. 75% of teachers feel they haven’t received adequate training to educate students about it.

How can the next generation be prepared for the future if students and teachers aren't aware of the severity and proximity of the climate crisis to their own lives? How can the next generation of conservationists be galvanised into action? How can the next generation of business owners be taught to prioritise a carbon budget, not just a fiscal budget?

I believe the answer lies in the demands of Teach The Future and other youth groups who are campaigning to make climate and environmental science an integral part of the curriculum. Just as interpersonal relationships and life skills are taught weekly via PSRE/PSHE, climate science needs to be taught through standardised lessons, trips, and visits. This would include lessons on individual action - such as techniques for sustainable living - as well as global sustainable development and cooperation, to ensure climate change is treated as a global issue.

This will be necessary if we are to prepare students for our global future and the challenges we will all face. The science is clear and can be made accessible. Climate change is not optional and learning about it shouldn't be optional either. We must prepare for the realities of climate change - and we must begin by teaching the future.

Caroline Hickman

Caroline has worked in both mental health and children, and family social work teams for several years in South London, qualifying as a Social Work Practice Educator where she supervises students in placements.

Eco-anxiety needs to be addressed

I wish we could forget eco-anxiety but it’s important that we don’t. I will explain why in a minute.

First, I want to address the anxiety, frustration and understandable anger that I hear from young climate activists when they confront their uncertain future and ask adults just how has it come to this? How are we facing this situation, when we have known about the reality of climate change for decades? If I were a young climate activist today I wouldn’t know whether I was more scared of the situation we’re in or furious with adults for the neglect and inaction that has led to it. I would want to ask tough questions, and I wouldn’t want to be fobbed off with excuses or platitudes. I would want honesty.

Having read the International Panel on Climate Chance (IPCC) report, I wouldn’t be able to believe that anyone could possibly see all this and still not take to the streets and ‘DO SOMETHING!’ Still less so when you add in the biodiversity reports from 2018 & 2019, the fires in the Amazon and Australia, the melting of ice in Antarctica, and the death of coral reefs. All these things threaten loss of life, both human and animal.

I can understand that one thing I might do is to look for answers, to help me a) understand all this, and b) start to find solutions. After all, I can’t exactly trust adults or authorities to come up with solutions, can I?

I agree with Meg, the young author here, that climate science and the biodiversity crisis must be part of the curriculum in all schools. As she suggests, that would help prepare young people for the challenges they will be facing. Groups that I’m involved with - including at the University of Bath - are working hard to ensure this happens urgently. We need to equip parents, teachers and schools to address the issues, all over the world.

But (and I’m sorry now to sound depressing, but I will be positive again at the end, I promise,) data, information, and knowledge are not enough to create the change we need. We also have to educate and support young people, parents, and teachers to develop the emotional and psychological resilience that will help them face what is likely to be coming our way, to manage it and to support others through it.

Education needs to be paired with emotional understanding and psychological meaning, in order to build our capacity to tolerate frustration, anxiety, uncertainty and emotionally destabilising situations. Without this, we will continue to look outside ourselves for the solutions to external activism and education, when we need to balance that with the ‘internal activism’ of self-belief, self-reliance and emotional resilience. This needs to be done collectively, because the climate and biodiversity crisis is not an individual problem: it’s collective and global. It is political, economic and cultural; and it is rooted in inequality, injustice and a failure to care for the environment and to value it beyond its economic worth.

So I’m afraid that this all needs to be taught in schools as well.

I have been working with the Climate Psychology Alliance, Greenpeace & the Presencing Institute on a ‘street schools’ project. We’ve been asking young people all over the world what they would like from education to equip them to meet the challenges of the new world as it emerges. They tell us they want lessons in boat-building and vegetable-growing; in how to identify plants that are safe to eat; and how to build eco-friendly houses. But they also told us that they wanted lessons in how to have difficult conversations about the climate crisis with parents and teachers who may not know how to discuss it. They wanted lessons in how to lobby politicians. This sounds like a revolutionary curriculum to me!

What is also needed is for young people to be supported and listened to regarding how they feel about the current state of the world. Their anxiety shows that they are empathetic and connected and compassionate and informed. So, we should be listening and helping them so that this doesn’t overwhelm their emotional and mental health.

Young people need to be given space to talk about how they feel, because they are facing unprecedented changes to the world. And it is our job as parents, educators, or just ‘adults’ generally, to say to them; ‘sorry we have given this to you’ and, then ‘how can we work with you to address this? How can we help?’ That’s our job now: to help future generations, and it’s the least we should do.

This will also help us with our own understandable feelings of sadness, grief, guilt and shame, which can be channelled into support for young climate activists. Our feelings can help us take action rather than becoming a mental health problem to be got rid of. Let’s develop internal as well as external education and activism. Then we might start to get somewhere.

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What can we do about eco-anxiety?

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