Climate inaction: young people’s mental health is at risk

Photo by Joice Kelly (unsplash)

I do not want to die. But I don’t want to live in a world that makes fun of young people and animals “.

This testimony is taken from a scientific study published in The Lancet* in December 2021. Nine scientists interviewed cohorts of young people aged 16 to 25 in ten countries (United Kingdom, Australia, United States, India, Philippines, Nigeria, France, Finland, Portugal and Brazil). The survey demonstrates how climate inaction is generating deep distress among youth around the world.


Climate anxiety or eco-anxiety is a healthy physical and psychological response to climate change and the biodiversity crisis. If these notions remain new and complex, the authors of the study agree on this point: it is not a mental illness or a pathology. The origin of this distress is rational when climate change is already a reality for young people around the world.

This form of anxiety can have a “beneficial” effect, point out the authors of the study. It can encourage people who suffer from it to change their behavior in order to respond to the climate crisis appropriately. It can push to action, provided that these anxieties are not too overwhelming.

Emotions in relation to climate change (from the survey).

However, eco-anxiety poses a risk to the mental health of younger people. It is emphasized: “Exposure to chronic stress during childhood has long-term effects and increases the risk of developing mental health problems”. Also, 45 percent of the young people who participated in the study indicate that the apprehension of climate change affects their functioning every day. Young people and children are all the more vulnerable in that they face many stress factors but have few means to act.


In all ten countries surveyed, young people feel distressed about change. The phenomenon is global. Faced with the number of young people declaring themselves “desperate” and “frightened” for the future of humanity, the research team admitted to being “disturbed”. Scientists agree that the concern is justified: according to the Children Climate Risk Index CCRI, one billion children are “extremely exposed” to one or more climate risks such as heat waves, fires, droughts or floods.

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In Pakistan, floods in August 2022 killed four hundred children and displaced fifty million people, reports journalist Fatima Bhutto for The Guardian.**

Photo by Moniruzzaman Sazal (Climate Visuals Countdown)


Climate anxiety can be expressed through different emotions. Five come up among the young people surveyed: fear (68 percent), sadness (67 percent), anxiety (62 percent), anger (57 percent) and helplessness (56 percent). The least expressed emotions are indifference (29 percent) and optimism (30 percent). From these negative emotions come dark thoughts among young people: “Humans have failed to take care of the planet” (83 percent), “The future is scary” (75 percent).

These negative emotions and thoughts seem to be exacerbated by the climate inaction of governments and adults. Indeed, the results of the survey show that negative emotions on the one hand, and the feeling of “betrayal” and “abandonment” by governments on the other hand, are correlated.

In all countries of the world, the response of governments is judged negatively. Young people more rarely declare themselves “comforted” than they declare themselves “betrayed” or “abandoned” by the inadequacy of the response of governments to climate change. The authors even state: “Government failure to adequately reduce, prevent and mitigate climate change contributes to psychological distress, moral harm and injustice. »

Feelings of comfort or betrayal in relation to the government’s response to climate change (from survey)


Thanks to the IPCC (Intergovernmental Group of Experts on Climate Change) we know that the climate drift that is occurring today is caused by the greenhouse gas emissions of the past. However, on a global scale, current greenhouse gas emissions are higher than in the past. So the climate inaction of governments today (we can add that of businesses, consumers and citizens) poses greater physical and psychological risks than we see, to the adults of the future. And these adults of the future are the young people of today.

Currently, we are seeing the effects of climate change both on the natural environments on which we depend, but also on the human systems (agricultural, health, for example) on which we also depend. The study on eco-anxiety comes to note the effects of climate change on the mental health of the younger generations… on which we also depend.

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The inadequacy of the political, economic and even cultural response not only weakens the psychology of future generations, but it also weakens the legitimacy of our time. Indeed, what is the legitimacy of a public action that fails to protect its populations against known, measured and anticipated dangers? What is the legitimacy of a private action which – pursuing its interests – destroys common and vital resources for the life of future generations? In 2050, Canada must have reached the famous “Net-zero” in order to limit global warming to +1.5°C. How to reach this distant and difficult target when part of the population would have grown in fear, anger and powerlessness, nourishing the conviction that governments are incapable of protecting them?

This study of young people’s climate anxiety raises many important questions, some of which are for all of us: do we have the right, as responsible adults, to let our shortcomings in climate action as aggravate guaranteed risks to the health, safety and right to life of generations of children all over the world?

A judicial movement is underway. Associations and young activists are going to court to sue States to demand compliance with emission reduction targets, to have moral damages recognized, or to have those responsible condemned. In the Netherlands (Urgenda case, 2019), in France (the case of the century, 2021), in Canada (EnJeu case, 2022), the requests converge inexorably on this question: is climate inaction a violation of human rights, the right to a healthy environment, the right to life and the right to privacy guaranteed to each individual? In Europe, States have already been condemned.

Photo by Markus Spiske (Unsplash)


“The global scale of this study [résonne] as a warning to governments and adults around the world. It is our responsibility as adults to protect the mental health and well-being of the youngest. According to the authors of the study, there are three particularly urgent needs: (1) to be more receptive to the concerns of children and adolescents, (2) to do more in-depth studies on the impact of climate change on mental health young people, (3) take immediate action to fight climate change.

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More specifically, six steps were proposed in a study published in July 2020***. These include training health professionals on climate change and mental health; improving clinical examinations; developing proven group therapies; supporting families; provide access to care.

On the side of political decision-makers, there are again multiple solutions. Starting by recognizing the fears of young people by listening to them; to respect their right to a viable future and to physical integrity; to place them at the heart of the country’s public policies. The cultural sector also has a big role to play.

Finally, families, educators and teachers can learn about ecological issues to better understand the causes of this anxiety. And learn about eco-anxiety, which would allow them to arm themselves and help their children or students to tame it.

In this sense, EcoNova Education is organizing a free online conference “Eco-anxiety in children and adolescents”, on October 11, 2022, the day after World Mental Health Day. Eco-anxiety is a public health issue at the crossroads of climate change and human rights.

* Climate anxiety in children and young people and their beliefs about government responses to climate change: a global survey, The Lancet,

December 2021, Caroline Hickman, Elizabeth Marks, Panu Pihkala, Susan Clayton, R Eric Lewandowski, Elouise E Mayall, Britt Wray, Catriona Mellor, Lise van Susteren

** The west is ignoring Pakistan’s super floods. Heed this warning: tomorrow it will be you. F. Bhutto, The Guardian

** Ecological grievance and anxiety: the start of a healthy response to climate change? The Lancet, July 2020, Ashlee Cunsolo, Sherilee L Harper, Kelton Minor, Katie Hayes, Kimberly G Williams, Courtney Howard.

Caroline Malczuk is a trained journalist, facilitator at EcoNova Education and in charge of the conference project “Eco-anxiety in children and adolescents”

Aloïs Gallet is a lawyer, economist, co-founder of EcoNova Education and Advisor to French people living abroad

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