Finding salvation in troubled times

Last Year Mission Australia and the youth mental health organisation Orygen joined forces to seek the views of 18,800 young people about the impact of climate change on their wellbeing – the biggest such survey ever attempted in this country. 

Over half of the respondents, who were aged from 15 to 19, identified the environment as a key issue in Australia, while over a quarter reported they were extremely or very concerned about climate change.

This mammoth study reinforced the findings of a global survey of 10,000 young people (1000 in each of 10 diverse countries – Australia, Brazil, Finland, India, Nigeria, Philippines, Portugal, UK, USA) published in the medical journal The Lancet in December 2021. 

The take-home message from that pioneering work was that anxiety about the climate was widespread among the world’s youth and affected their daily lives, an anxiety only made worse by the perceived failure by governments to respond as they should. 

“There is an urgent need for further research into the emotional impact of climate change on children and young people and for governments to validate their distress by taking urgent action on climate change,” the Lancet study concluded.

“Kids’ mental health has never been worse, and fear for the future especially impacts the best informed, and most caring of the kids,” says Tasmanian author and psychologist Steve Biddulph. “Who wants to tell their five year old child that the elephants and lions and so many ocean creatures are all going to die out in their lifetimes?”

Professional concern led Biddulph and others to set up SUFTY (Stand Up For The Kids) last year, seeking to draw on the experience and influence of older Australians to address the twin imperatives of youth mental health and an effective climate response. 

Anxiety in children as in all people can be treated with professional counselling and sometimes medication. But widespread youth climate anxiety can only truly be resolved if and when people and governments, working together, are effectively addressing all the underlying causes.

The Lancet and Mission Australia-Orygen surveys both say that people don’t believe that governments are doing enough to stop global warming. But a new book by Scottish data scientist Hannah Ritchie says there’s reason to look forward to a much brighter future than some dire scientific news might suggest.

With a master’s degree in carbon management and a PhD in global food systems, and as a lead researcher for Oxford University’s popular website “Our World in Data”, Ritchie is no lightweight in this field. I have not yet read her new book, Not the End of the World (though I intend to), but reviews of the book, including a couple in New Scientist, have been strongly favourable. 

“I still have anxiety and worry,” Ritchie says, “but I think it’s now paired with a sense of optimism that we can change things… You need to combine a sense of urgency and worry about the problem with a sense that you can actually do something about it.”

If nothing had been done after the Paris Agreement, Ritchie points out, the world was on a trajectory to 4C of warming by 2100. The present trajectory of 2.5 to 3C is still not good enough, but it is progress, and global emissions will likely peak in the next few years. 

More evidence for Ritchie’s belief that all is not lost: energy from sun and wind is now much cheaper than coal and gas power. Electric vehicles, now common in city streets, are approaching price parity with petrol and diesel vehicles, and there can be no going back to a diesel-only Metro fleet in Tasmania after last week’s introduction of electric and hydrogen-powered buses “on a trial basis”.

It remains true that powerful interests are putting vast resources into blocking much-needed reforms (like the carbon pricing that Ritchie strongly backs), and into persuading ordinary people through greenwashing or other means that the status quo is just fine. And the weather gods may yet lay to waste our best-laid plans.

But this is no excuse for giving up. Things being done now are making a difference. The future in a changing climate will not be unabated gloom but rather a patchwork of contrasting elements – bad ones but also good ones. Whatever the weather, we will continue to find pleasure and reward and joy in the gloomiest places. 

The deepest satisfaction will come from working within our own small circle of humanity to strengthen the ties that bind all generations. The give and take of community will be our ultimate salvation.

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