As young people learn about the impacts of climate change, they have the power to change the attitudes of their parents. Meanwhile, adults who are painfully aware of the existential realities of the climate crisis learn new ways to cope with their growing despair. In Part I of Treading Water, we explore the allure of young activists in the age of eco-grief.
NKwanda Jah stands with local youth.
For nearly 30 years, Jah has spent her summers teaching young people how to be environmental stewards. Through her Environmental Ambassadors program, hundreds have learned about the environmental impacts of pesticides, the basics of energy conservation and the disproportionate levels of environmental toxicity in communities of color.
Jah is the founder of the Cultural Arts Coalition and chair of the NAACP Environment and Climate Justice Committee in Alachua County. She started the ambassadors program after she worked with the City of Gainesville to incorporate local youth in a video promoting recycling in 1990.
The video campaign incorporated a teenage rapper, an elementary-age dance group and young girls practicing Double Dutch jump rope. The video was so successful that Jah said it extended the life of Gainesville’s landfill by at least six years.
Now, she works with a small group of local kids every summer, teaching them about environmental issues. And she’s found that as the kids learn, so do their parents.
“They’re educating their parents,” Jah said. “My kids go home and give [their parents] a perspective that they didn’t have before, and I’d be willing to say that every ambassador has affected their families in some way with the information that they’ve gotten.”
This phenomenon, which Jah has witnessed summer after summer, is called intergenerational learning by educators and sociologists, and recent research has shown that it has important implications when it comes to climate change.
Danielle Lawson, a USDA-NIFA postdoctoral scholar at North Carolina State University, recently published an experimental study in Nature Climate Change that shows how climate change lessons are transferred from child to parent.
“We found that as students increased their levels of the climate concern, parents increase their levels of climate concern,” Lawson said. “So, we were seeing that intergenerational learning transfer that happens.”
The experiment was conducted in middle school science classrooms in North Carolina. Teachers either taught a climate-focused curriculum or their usual science curriculum. The climate curriculum included service-learning projects in the field, which parents were invited to attend. Students were also encouraged to interview their parents about their experiences and observations of environmental shifts in recent years. Parents and students were surveyed before and after the curriculum to see how their climate concern changed or didn’t.
A painfully topical side note: In the midst of the study, Hurricane Michael tore through coastal North Carolina, devastating communities in the region and causing multiple teachers to drop out of the study. A potential symptom of the climate crisis affecting the science itself.
On top of showing that kids influenced their parents’ level of concern, Lawson and her colleagues also noted some interesting trends. After talking with their children, intergenerational learning was found to be most effective with groups who identified as male or conservative. And daughters were the most effective transmitters of climate information, contributing to greater changes in parent concern than sons.
“Kids are clearly empowered to take action now.”
Lawson and her colleagues have a few ideas on why they saw these findings emerge.
One big factor: trust.
Children are not typically seen as an ideological threat by their parents, meaning parents may be less guarded than if they were speaking to another adult.
And, perhaps most importantly, children are less influenced by some of the social and psychological barriers, like politics or cultural identities, that complicate climate concern in their parents.
“Kids are clearly empowered to take action now, and they’re wanting to have these conversations,” Lawson said.
The reality of young people’s sense of urgency for climate action has become more and more evident. This month’s youth climate strike and the arrival of 16-year-old activist Greta Thunberg to the U.S. are prime examples.
In many of displays of climate activism, young people are expressing anger as well as sadness and frustration. Perhaps because they have the most to lose.
Children are especially vulnerable to climate change, both because of their developing physiology and because of their exposure to the outdoors more than many adults through play, according to medical experts.
All children are considered to be uniquely vulnerable, but some young people are especially at risk, namely children with preexisting medical conditions, children from communities of color and children who are economically disadvantaged.
Experts recognize that the psychological impacts from climate-related weather events uniquely impact children as well. The American Psychological Association has found that PTSD, depression, general anxiety and suicide all increase after a disaster. Chronic stress from acute events or slow-moving disasters also have serious impacts, especially for individuals who have limited resources or are experiencing other stressors in their lives.
“While not everyone is yet personally experiencing the world’s ongoing extreme weather events from climate change, the pain of empathic identification with seeing other people or places drowned, burned, flooded or starved brings its own emotional toll, especially for children,” medical experts said in a legal report.
Grief in Green
For young and old, thinking about the enormity and severity of the climate crisis can have profound psychological effects.
These feelings of despair, hopelessness and apathy are being reclassified as their own category of emotional experience called ecological grieving, or eco-grief.
Though the term “eco-grief” is linked to an emerging field that acknowledges the existential seriousness of climate change, the idea of mourning for natural spaces is not new.
“I think it is related to something that we’ve talked about for a long time, particularly in the context of genocide,” said Anthony Greene, assistant professor of clinical psychology at the University of Florida’s Counseling and Wellness Center.
The origins of eco-grief are seen in environmental tragedies throughout history and across countries, such as the trauma felt by First Nations for the loss of the lands of their ancestors.
In today’s eco-grief, Greene said the pattern is the same regardless of your age. The key element of grieving the world is understanding what will be lost, either by seeing it firsthand or by becoming educated.
“It’s a very similar phenomenon across the generations,” Greene said. “Those who are exposed to the information, those are the ones who are impacted by it emotionally.”
Greene has witnessed eco-grief manifest in clients who are directly involved or aware of environmental issues, particularly students enrolled in environmental and journalism studies.
However, he says eco-grief is far from widespread. For those who are not faced with manifestations of the climate crisis on a regular basis, the easier path forward is to deny there is an issue rather than learning to cope with the reality of it.
The process of grieving for the environment can be remarkably similar to grieving for a loved one, marked by five emotional stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.
“You have to process the grief to get there,” Greene said, “and if most of the population is at this point of denial, then they can’t even acknowledge the grief to process it to get to where they can react.”
10 Steps to Acceptance
But for those who are unashamed to admit their emotional turmoil, new approaches to cope and move forward have emerged.
“I created the program that I need,” Schmidt said. “I suffer from anxiety and depression, and I care deeply about what’s happening in the world, so I wanted to know how I can sustain myself. When I started talking to my community members, I noticed they were struggling, too.”
Combining graduate research, the curricula of similar programs and their own personal experiences, Schmidt and Lewis-Reau designed a community-based program that brings together small groups of people who are grieving the environment.
“Overwhelmingly people feel change,” Schmidt said. “People feel more connected to the other people in the group. They feel inspired to take action. These waves of despair because the problem is so big, those aren’t going to stop coming, but we learn how to manage them.”
The lack of climate optimism in Americans has been well documented by researchers. A survey from the Yale Program for Climate Change Communication found that while 42% of Americans believe that humans could reduce global warming, only 4% believe that our species will successfully meet the challenge.
“All of us are without a roadmap. Our species hasn’t faced something like this before.”
Whether it be child-to-parent or person-to-person, the act of openly talking about the emotional upheaval that comes with considering the global effects of climate change can lead to a process of acceptance.
“It’s not that our helplessness or hopelessness completely disappear, it’s just that it becomes shared amongst a group, and it no longer has power specifically over you,” Schmidt said. “And that has been so powerful for creating connections and knowing you’re not alone.”
To affect widespread change, Schmidt hopes that the community building that happens through the Good Grief Network will expand, forging connections and promoting resilience.
“We know that we’re going to see more storms. We know we’re going to see droughts and floods and all these things that are terrifying,” she said. “These are going to be our new normal. So, what we have to do is come together as a community, and that’s first and foremost.”
Schmidt admits that she doesn’t have all of the answers, but she has personally felt a sense of relief by connecting with others around issues of eco-grief.
“All of us are without a roadmap,” Schmidt said. “Our species hasn’t faced something like this before, and so I think also the acknowledgement that it’s okay to not know alleviates some of the pressure people are feeling.”
What’s missing in this movement, says Schmidt, is a focus on youth. Helping young people mobilize could be the key to saving our species.
“We really need to help kids in this transition,” she said. “They’re young, and they have ideas and they’re capable of changing because they’re not so stuck in our paradigm.”
Photos courtesy Kristen Grace, Nkwanda Jah, Danielle Lawson, LaUra Schmidt, U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Geological Survey and Anders Hellberg.
Young people are suing their policymakers for violating their constitutional rights. Their complaints allege that governments have known about the dangers of climate change for 50 years, yet have continued to promote fossil fuel energy systems, which contribute heavily to climate change. In Part II of Treading Water, we examine how such lawsuits are contributing a new legal landscape for the rights to a stable climate.
Today’s youth have already become disillusioned with our power structures. Loss and trauma will define their coming-of-age stories, and they are holding their leaders accountable for action on the climate crisis. They are the ones who stand to lose everything. In Part III of Treading Water we echo the urgency and stand by the most important crisis of our time.