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.
Nevertheless, in a few cases Marks is open to speculating about specific nations. Young adults in the Philippines lead the rankings in anxiety, with 92% saying they fear the future. Marks notes, “The highest levels of worry were in places that are more exposed to extreme weather events already.”
Governmental responses ... ‘a betrayal’
Young people’s feelings about their own government’s response to climate change evoked scathing criticism from around the globe.
The authors indicated that young people feel that governments are lying to them, betraying their generation, and failing to protect them. These feelings are held by more than half of the people surveyed. Only around one-third of young people think that governments are acting in line with climate science, and nearly 70% say governments can’t be trusted.
Marks clarifies that the survey questions were asking both about one’s own government, and also about other governments around the world. “In certain countries and cultures, it may be perceived as more dangerous or less acceptable to criticize your government directly,” she says.
Furthermore, the global response to climate change can’t be carried out by a single nation, Marks explains. “Because if all the other governments don’t respond well, we’re still facing quite a catastrophe,” she says.
“Young people in particular are really tuned into what’s fair,” she says. When people witness grave problems firsthand, the governments’ lack of action and dismissal of science is a bitter blow.
“Experiencing that is a betrayal,” Marks says.
Parsing results by nation
Finland scored considerably higher confidence in government response compared to most other nations. Marks speculates that wealthy nations with robust social support systems may feel more secure in an unpredictable future. In Finland, “it’s very possible that there are fewer people that are going to be vulnerable,” she said.
At the other end of the scale, young people in Brazil expressed the least confidence in governments in all but one category, and again Marks offers two possible explanations, suggesting first that “it could be a cultural phenomenon, rather than the action of the Brazilian government per se.”
But she also explains how direct, lived experiences are powerful. As Brazil’s rainforests are intentionally set ablaze, “It’s having the smoke from the fires in the Amazon – it’s having to close your windows,” she says. “This is not just climate change; but might also be experienced as government betrayal.”
The only nation to eclipse Brazil’s negative outlook was the U.S., which ranked the lowest in trust of government, with only 21% of those surveyed saying that governments can be trusted. This may reflect the dour national discord, or may be influenced by a cultural willingness to criticize one’s own government. American and Brazilian youth were the least likely to feel that governments are taking their concerns seriously, with 79% saying that governments are falling short.
Marks looks forward to further research that will tease out specific differences around the world. Until then, she says, “The broad message is regardless of which government, levels of trust are pretty low across the board.”
Results are ‘devastating’
Amid the traditionally emotionless prose of a scientific publication, one sentence in the study stands out in sharp contrast: “Whilst researchers do hope for ‘significant’ results, we wish that these results had not been quite so devastating.”
Marks elaborates on that sentiment, “This is devastating because it’s the reality,” she says. “I think it is sad.”
As her tone shifts from researcher to counselor, Marks offers advice for framing negative emotions in a way that’s productive, rather than demoralizing. First off, anxiety is not unwarranted. “This is a very rational, normal response” if you follow what the science is telling us, she says.
“Our concern for the world is an indicator of what we care about,” she explains, noting that anxiety can reflect one’s kindness, compassion, and empathy. In a way, feeling bad can be sort of a good thing.
Marks uses an analogy to grieving: “If you lose someone you love, the grief that you feel is the other side of the coin of the love.”
“And if someone you love is unwell, she explains, you don’t just tear your hair out with worry. “You do everything you can to help.”
Start by listening
For those wanting to help ease the emotional burden on young people, Marks has a concrete recommendation: “Young people don’t want to be seen as victims here,” she says. “They do want to be listened to.”
But there’s a twist. “If we’re going to be able to listen to the young people, we’ve got to be okay at feeling our own emotional response to climate change as well. This will help us hear what young people are saying without being overwhelmed by it.”
“The emotional work is part of the action we need to take,” Marks says .
Being alone with these emotions is especially difficult for young people, “but together, they can feel this sense of hope, and empowerment, and engagement,” Marks continues. She notes that activism is one way the younger generation is using collective experiences to grapple with their uncertain future.
“This isn’t work one can do on one’s own,” says Marks. By definition, global climate change is a collective problem, but the solutions are collective, too, and there are myriad ways to work for a better, cleaner future. Marks advises that contributing to solutions that benefit one’s own community can build a sense of connection and engagement.
“If we respond as adults who do potentially have a bit more agency – so those of us who can vote; those of us who can influence our workplace, or divest from fossil fuels – there is an influence that we can help to share.”
From anxiety to action
“We’re social creatures, aren’t we?” Marks asks rhetorically. “One of the reasons we’ve been successful as a species is because we work together. We have this ability to collaborate. We’re a community looking at it from different ways. And because it’s a global issue, we need everybody’s perspective if we’re going to solve it.”
Talking with Marks has a calming effect. She has a gentle knack for taking a depressing dataset and outlining specific ways to build hope. “It’s hope, grounded in action,” she says; a phrase she returns to throughout the conversation.
Although Marks recognizes the gloomy outcome from this study, the larger point is clear to her: “This is a call to action,” she says.
“When governments and communities have faced crises, we’ve seen it is possible to act quickly and effectively,” she says. “So there is that sense that we can come together to act with some urgency and make the dramatic changes that we need.”
“It’s not too late to change the ending of the story. That’s where the hope comes from. That’s what’s engaging all of the people who are active in this arena,” she says. “We’ve got to act now.”