Updated at 9:39 a.m. April 11
Sixteen-year-old Sarah Swenson lives a dual reality on Nantucket. The island, famous for its natural beauty, is also imperiled because of climate change.
In Swenson’s short lifetime, a 500-ton lighthouse had to be moved inland because of severe erosion. Sand bluffs have collapsed, and island homes sit precariously close to the ocean’s edge as glacial land mass washes away. Farther away, she reads about floods, heat waves and fires around the globe, including California wildfires that lowered air quality 2,000 miles away in New England.
“There’s a lot of, like, fear and sadness that I feel about climate change. There’s also a lot of anger,” the high school junior told GBH News. “It just feels like a very direct threat to my life and lots of people’s lives.”
Climate change has long been an existential threat, but for many young people, its menacing shadow and governments’ failure to take action to fix it is taking a mental toll. For earlier generations, the fossil fuel industry sowed confusion about whether climate change was real. But there’s no confusion for a younger generation faced with grim facts about a warming planet. And it can cause anxiety.
Psychologists refer to this generational phenomenon in different ways: eco-anxiety, climate change distress or ecological grief. But they all point to a trend that many kids, already stressed out by the pandemic, are carrying an additional psychological burden.
“The existential element to this is really important,” said Kelsey Hudson, a clinical psychologist and Boston University researcher who studies eco-anxiety.
Hudson says a new generation is not only dealing with predictions of the irreversible effects of climate change in their lifetime: They have also been bombarded with images of climate disaster on social media — often while in pandemic isolation.
She says about half of the children and adolescents who come to BU’s Center for Anxiety & Related Disorders mention climate change as a factor behind their visit.
Eco-anxiety is not an official psychological disorder, generally because people's environmental fears are not irrational. A United Nations report released this week said the world is running out of options to hit its climate goals and only immediate sweeping societal transformation can stave off catastrophic warming. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said unless action is taken soon, major cities will be underwater and “unprecedented heatwaves, terrifying storms, widespread water shortages and the extinction of a million species of plants and animals” can be expected.
An international survey conducted last year found nearly 60 percent of young people felt very or extremely worried about climate change — and 65 percent thought governments were failing to make progress.
That hasn't made for a carefree childhood for Swenson and 18-year-old Wellington Matos.
Matos said he was in middle school when he first learned about climate change and how tidelands and low-lying parts of South Boston are at risk. He said he learned that the McCormack Middle School in Dorchester could be flooded in his lifetime as water tables rise an expected 40 inches in the next 50 years, according to city estimates.
“How much of South Boston would be gone in the next decade?” Matos wondered aloud in an interview. “When I leave Boston in the future, what will I come back to? Those are the type of questions that kind of linger in my mind.”
For Matos, who is now a senior at Fenway High School, that led to an interest in environmental justice. He learned marginalized communities, including low-income neighborhoods like his, will likely be most affected by climate change. Residents of those areas often live closer to power plants, incinerators, landfills and highways and have less access to cooling green spaces and to clean water or air. Matos questioned why bike lanes and street cleanings are less common in some neighborhoods than others, disincentivizing people from walking or riding a bike as alternatives to driving.
Many observers predict climate change’s effects will mirror the pandemic and the unfair toll it took on communities of color.
“It gets overwhelming,” Matos said. “And then you lose a sense of optimism in the world.”
"Why aren't we all panicking? Why aren't we treating this like a national disaster or international disaster and like a present threat?"Sarah Swenson, a 16-year-old who lives on Nantucket
Swedish teen Greta Thunberg’s raw panic and outspoken environmental activism were an inspiration to both Swenson and Matos. Thunberg pointed to the anxiety and burden young people feel at the U.N. Climate Action Summit in 2019.
“You all come to us young people for hope. How dare you?” Thunberg said, her voice cracking with emotion. “You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words.”
Knowing how widespread eco-anxiety is, Hudson also wants it to inform how mental health professionals approach working with young people.
“That’s not a question we’re asking about in our intake in many clinics,” Hudson said. “It’s just suggesting that there’s a whole area we’re not evaluating, supporting, providing coping skills around and advocating for kids.”
Hudson is part of the Climate Psychology Alliance of North America, a multidisciplinary group that began forming in 2018 to help people engage in activities related to the mental health effects of climate change. Some projects include spaces for middle and high school science teachers to process their feelings about the big job of explaining climate change, as well as offering similar “climate cafes” for students to gather and decompress.
For some, ecological grief can also be a mobilizing force. Both Matos and Swenson said they pay attention to their mental health, channelling their climate change frustrations and anger into action and activism.
Matos is graduating from Fenway High School and heading off to Union College in New York on a scholarship this fall. He says he’s thinking about studying politics after his experiences working on a climate justice rally with Massachusetts Youth for Climate Justice.
Kris Scopinich, senior director of Mass Audubon, says she sees the ways climate grief is having a very real effect on young people.
“We need to talk about this, we need to acknowledge it ... and at the same time that celebrate that there is still immense beauty in nature,” she said.
Swenson interned for Mass Audubon’s Youth Environmental Stewardship program and founded a youth climate commitee at Nantucket High School dedicated to discussing climate change and taking action. Members recently appeared at a meeting of the Nantucket Historical Association to share how climate change may impact their lives and careers.
“Why aren’t we all panicking?” Swenson said. “Why aren’t we treating this like a national disaster or international disaster and like a present threat?”
Swenson said for teens, handling homework, college applications and relationships is already complicated enough.
Correction: This story was updated to correct what year the Climate Psychology Alliance of North America was founded.