Elizabeth Marks describes herself as “a psychologist who works on difficult problems.” Her past research aimed at helping people cope with challenging health conditions, apt training, it appears, for taking on climate change issues.

A few years ago, she altered the course of her research. “I really needed to do something in my working life that aligned with my values,” she said, describing her recent efforts to study people’s emotions around climate change. She has a reassuring tone and she’s a terrific listener – attributes one would hope to find in a psychologist.

Climate anxiety has become a sadly familiar topic, and as with many aspects of climate change, the problem has shifted from an abstract notion to a symptom many are now experiencing personally. Wildfire smoke chokes the sky, even at great distance from the fires themselves. Streets and subways fill with floodwaters, and the power grid falters under pressure wrought by extreme weather.

As the reality of climate change becomes increasingly evident, Marks says, “a lot of people will feel some level of distress.”

Marks is a lead author on a recent study, “Young People’s Voices on Climate Anxiety, Government Betrayal and Moral Injury: A Global Phenomenon,” in pre-print in The Lancet. The paper sheds new light on climate anxiety, measuring  how  teens and young adults feel about governmental responses to climate change. Young people across the globe expressed an unequivocal admonishment of governments’ tepid actions thus far to address climate change.

The pre-print phase means the paper still is undergoing the peer review process. Results from this work are consistent with public opinion research recently published by the Pew Research Center, showing young people are more concerned about climate change and are more motivated to take action on climate than older adults.

Among those surveyed by Marks and her coauthors, young people in the U.S. expressed the lowest levels of trust in government, and American young adults overwhelmingly said that their climate concerns are not being taken seriously enough.

“Young people in this study are really, clearly telling us how they feel,” says Marks. “I think the most important influence they can have is for us to listen to them.”

‘The future is frightening’

The researchers surveyed 10,000 young people, aged 16 to 25 years, in 10 countries. They  gauged how people feel about the future, how well humanity has cared for the Earth, and if governments’ responses have been honest, sufficient, and aligned with climate science.

‘This is devastating because it’s the reality … I think it is sad.’

The first set of questions measured ‘climate-related distress,’ and the authors found that an astounding 83% of young adults feel that people have failed to care for the planet, and three-quarters are frightened by what the future will hold. Around half feel that they’ll have less opportunity than their parents and fear their family security will be threatened. “Humanity is doomed” is an emotion shared by more than half of these young respondents.

Marks points out that the survey was taken before the 2021 summer floods, fires, heat waves, and extreme drought reverberated through many parts of the globe.