By Kevyn Burger
April 19, 2019
While “climate grief” has many young people mired in worry about a warming planet, others are taking action.
Helen Meigs thinks about climate change. A lot.
“It’s always in the back of my mind,” said the Macalester College sophomore.
Concern about climate change isn’t rare on campus. In fact, she’s convinced it’s widespread.
“My whole generation wonders if we’re getting cheated out of a full future, and we can’t put it out of our minds,” she said. “It’s an anxiety-inducing situation.”
That anxiety has a name: climate grief.
In 2017, the American Psychological Association recognized the complex mental health burden in people who have experienced losses from natural disasters associated with climate change. It also found evidence that the warming planet is churning up an emotional stew of anxiety, depression and pervasive dread.
Young people, in particular, seem susceptible to the psychological toll from the steady stream of bleak scientific studies and reports of melting glaciers, rising seas and extreme weather events.
“Those of us who work in the climate change world see young people mourning the losses that are coming,” said Sarah Goodspeed, youth and policy manager of Climate Generation, an advocacy group founded by Minnesota polar explorer Will Steger. “These reactions are real and valid.”
California social scientist Renee Lertzman concurs. Lertzman studies the mental health and emotional components of environmental degradation. She likens the climate-related stress now plaguing teenagers and 20-somethings to the oppressive Cold War fears that gripped young baby boomers, many of whom came of age under the threat of nuclear annihilation.
“It’s on that emotional continuum, the feeling that the world is heading into a very uncertain, chaotic place and the impact is potentially devastating,” she said. “It’s a painful place to be.”
Lertzman said that pain can prompt some young people to embrace activism, while others can become mired in what she calls “environmental melancholia,” an underlying sense of sadness.
“In my research, I find those people who experience helplessness and hopelessness,” she said. “They feel like it’s already too late and there’s not much an individual can do to change what’s coming.”
Christie Manning, a research psychologist and assistant professor of environmental psychology at Macalester College in St. Paul, said that such a response is understandable.
“Anxiety is a normal reaction to what we read in the data on climate change,” she said. “If you see frightening things coming, fear and worry are a logical response to it.”
Those in the emerging field of environmental psychology are trying to determine the best ways to deal with such fear and worry.
While it’s now known how to effectively comfort those mourning a death or other significant loss, research into how to support those who are experiencing climate grief is just getting underway.
So far, it seems that banding together and taking action are promising.
“We know there are incredible emotional benefits to being part of a community that’s engaged in finding solutions,” Manning said.
She’s seen firsthand how fear has been a galvanizing force for some young adults. “Students I’m working with feel a sense of urgency. They have a mission, a sense of purpose and determination,” she said. “A great antidote to despair is action.”
Hustling to be heard
Shahad Geer is doing what she can to stave off despair. While the St. Paul teen admits that she finds climate change “frightening,” she said it’s given her a sense of immediacy.
“It sounds cheesy, but it’s a life or death situation,” she said. “We have to make a change and make it quick.”
That’s why the Roosevelt High School sophomore was among a coalition of high school activists who visited Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz days after his inauguration to push for climate action. One of their proposals sought his support to move Minnesota toward 100% renewable energy. Walz has since set a goal for the state’s electrical utility companies to generate carbon-free power by 2050.
Geer got interested in the science of climate change when she wrote a research paper on the subject in eighth grade. Now she’s active with the Youth Environmental Activists of Minnesota (YEA! MN), one of the statewide youth-led networks convened by Climate Generation. It is one of several grassroots organizations working in the state to mobilize high school and college students on the issue. It seeks to guide students to make lifestyle changes to reduce their carbon footprint, but also prepares them to take action as a way to manage their feelings of distress.
“It’s giving us a voice,” Geer said. “It helped me learn how to lobby and how to talk to political leaders. We’re very worried, so we’re hustling our butts to be heard.”
Goodspeed said, “The research shows that when [young people] take power even on a small scale within their homes, schools and communities, they can turn their grief into action. It’s how those emotions are channeled that will determine the long-term mental health effects for them.”
She said she sees a strong sense of responsibility in young people pushing public policy at the state and local levels aimed at blunting the effects of climate change.
“They are prepared to take action to protect their world. They have bold ideas that an older generation doesn’t think can be achieved,” she said.
Taking the lead
In December, Meigs traveled with other Macalester classmates to Washington, joining 1,000 college students canvassing congressional offices. They staged sit-ins and lobbied the incoming Democratic majority to prioritize the Green New Deal, which promotes a broad series of environmental and economic changes.
“We have to put climate change at the forefront of the political agenda, make it part of the national conversation,” Meigs said. “Our generation is taking the lead and taking matters into our own hands.”
An international studies major with an environmental studies concentration, Meigs is planning a career that will follow her passion.
“Some days I’m motivated to do well in school so l can get a job that can make a difference. Other days I think, what does my GPA matter when we are headed for climate catastrophe?” she said. “I want to work to delay or stop climate change.
“Nothing else really matters if we don’t do that.”