From Climate Anxiety to Climate Action: The Impacts of Climate Change on Youth

What is Climate Anxiety?

Climate anxiety refers to the emotional and psychological distress that comes from heightened concern about the effects of climate change and is rooted in an uncertainty about our collective future. As extreme weather events and climate emergencies become more frequent, there is an increased sense of hopelessness and despair regarding our ability to live in a world that sometimes seems doomed. Those feelings of hopelessness, distress, and despair are normal reactions to the severe environmental degradation and harm inflicted on communities facing the effects. They indicate empathy and deep care for our environment, families, and communities.

Climate Anxiety is Rising in Youth

Climate anxiety has become widespread among youth and children in countries around the world. This is for a variety of reasons, including a greater public acceptance of and more frequent discussions around climate change in media, more frequent extreme weather events, an increase in global news cycles reporting extreme weather disasters, and a sense of powerlessness in the face of the political, economic, and social systems that are meant to solve global problems such as climate change.

Children and youth are experiencing the effects of climate change in their own communities, and are increasingly aware of the harmful impacts of climate change and of the planet they are inheriting–through no fault of their own.

Growing climate anxiety in youth partially stems from the perception of inadequate government responses. There is a desire for governments and world leaders who lack a sense of urgency, refuse to focus on long-term environmental sustainability, and deny the severity of the climate crisis to take more action in addressing the crisis.

Why youth are particularly susceptible to climate anxiety

Feeling stressed, anxious, cautiously optimistic, or other complicated and potentially contradictory emotions in the face of climate change is normal at any age. However, young people are especially prone to complex and sometimes overwhelming feelings about the changing climate due to its direct connection to their present and future well-being.

These anxieties are important for young people and their caregivers to look out for. While anxiety is a normal feeling in the suite of human emotions, it must also coincide with healthy coping mechanisms. These can look different for each person but can include things like movement, socializing with friends, talking about feelings with a counselor, or journaling. If a young person is having trouble coping with feelings of grief and anxiety around the climate crisis, the adults in their lives need to take action to help young people find ways to feel better.

Adults must first understand that climate anxiety is “an emotionally and cognitively functional response to real existential threats” and then be willing to listen and validate the fears that the young people in their lives experience. Instilling a sense of agency and hope into the conversation is important to show young people that climate change is a solvable problem.

Photo collage of youth volunteering at various environmental events.
Students from NYC public schools participating in NWF’s Resilient Schools and Communities (RiSC) program have planted 50,000 beach grass culms at Coney Island Creek Park since 2021. Credit: Teri Brennan Photography

What can you do to get involved/take action?

Engaging in individual and collective action strengthens social-emotional resilience, can help regulate climate anxiety’s distress, worries, and hopelessness, and allows youth to focus on building the future they want to see. It is important to note that hope can also be a byproduct of the climate crisis and allow for dreaming up ways to demand change.

Healthy examples of action in response to climate anxiety can include things like taking action in your community to make it a more environmentally resilient place, becoming a more engaged citizen by writing to legislators, thinking deeply about which companies you choose to support, starting youth-led climate movements, advocating for more climate education in our schools, contacting local representatives, protesting, utilizing the power of social media campaigns and educational content creation, or volunteering with local environmental groups.

There are many ways youth can engage and get involved. No matter how large or small, taking steps and working towards mitigating environmental harm can help alleviate climate anxiety and build hope for the future.

A group of young people march over a grass field holding posters and banners. They are all wearing blue t-shirts.
Students participate in a blue line action as part of NWF’s Resilient Schools and Communities (RiSC) program, June 6, 2023. Credit: Alex Nawrocky

Check out these resources to learn more about the impacts of climate anxiety and ways to address the challenges associated with it.