You Had Nuclear War. We Have the Climate Crisis
All Generations Should Empathize with Climate-Anxious Youth
“There is a sacredness in tears. They are not the mark of weakness, but of power. They speak more eloquently than ten thousand tongues. They are the messengers of overwhelming grief, of deep contrition, and of unspeakable love.” – Washington Irving
“Do the students roll out nap mats and curl up in the fetal position with their blankies and pacifiers while listening to her lectures?”
Professor Jennifer Atkinson
This was just one media reaction to Professor Jennifer Atkinson at the University of Washington on the topic of climate grief: dealing with the anxiety and psychological effects that arise as we come face to face with climate change. Her students, meanwhile, filled every single seat in the class during registration.
Clearly, the concept of a class taught on coping with climate grief is too much for some to handle. But what’s braver than confronting grief and loss head-on, rather than burying it, next to your own head in the sand?
With May marking Mental Health Awareness Month, there is no better time to acknowledge the pent-up fears of young people, 84% of whom expressed at least “moderate worry” towards climate change in a 2021 Lancet survey. Over 45% reported that their climate worries negatively affected their daily life and functioning. There is something poignant and credible about children witnessing what I call “The Once Was” — a favorite animal, a snowy season, a sandy stretch of the Outer Banks — that flourished once and simply is no more.
Climate change is nothing short of depressing. A slow, invisible, existential threat, pushing humanity closer towards 3ºC warming and a chain reaction of irreversible tipping points. In the face of so much despair towards rampant wildfires, melting Arctic ice, extreme weather, and loss of biodiversity across the planet, it takes courage to actually be afraid—to deviate from nihilism, denial, or mockery—and to openly discuss the psychological toll of what is a slowly-unfolding apocalypse. Within the most climate-sensitive states, even outdoor stress-relievers like running or skiing backfire — jarring reminders of how wildfire smoke feels in a runner’s lungs, or how rapidly ski slopes retreat with each coming season. This invokes a newfound vocabulary: we may feel blissonance (the eerie feeling of enjoying gorgeous 75 degree weather alongside the dissonant realization that it’s the middle of January), or solastalgia (nostalgia or homesickness for an altered place you’ve never left).
What’s even more depressing is how nay-sayers are so quick to mock and scorn the most earnest expressions of grief and fear from youth today. “Snowflake” at best, “brainwashed” at worst. Many of those nay-sayers belong to older generations and enjoy comparing youth’s fragile mental states to the supposedly hardened, stoic character of their own upbringing.
But is it really true to say that older generations never experienced existential fear of their own?
During the Cold War, the fear of nuclear attack was so imminent that students practiced hiding under their desks in Duck-and-Cover drills. With a charming turtle mascot, Duck-and-Cover drills were carefully designed to “warn, but not frighten” students in the 1950s. In the 1960s, after the thermonuclear Cuban Missile Crisis, President John F. Kennedy received a note from a 9-year-old reading “I am 9 years old. I don’t like the plans you are planning. I am too young to die.” If this sounds familiar, it’s because children and youth today have written similar pleading letters about whether or not to bring kids of their own into the world. Studies later revealed that “fear of nuclear annihilation” scarred students throughout the Cold War.
A dismissive soul in the 1950s might have asked, “Do the students roll out nap mats and curl up in the fetal position with their blankies and pacifiers while listening to world officials contemplate mass-destruction through nuclear warhead strikes?”
In the same way it would have seemed insensitive to mock a Nuclear Fallout Anxiety class during the Cold War, it is a harmful choice to use scornful language like “pacifiers” and “fetal position” to mock kids who are— rightfully—freaked out about climate change…and the way world officials talk about it.
All generations of youth have had to face existential challenges. Members of older generations all know what it is like to grow up feeling scared as a teenager for one reason or another— an imminent nuclear war, the AIDS epidemic, a financial crisis, or just the anguish of being young and uncertain. These are all starting blocks from which we can build empathy as climate activists. For Rachel Carson, a model of empathy and environmental action, there were two existential issues that intertwined — nuclear war and the massive use of toxic chemicals. Carson feared for the planet and its people. At its core, Silent Spring is a book about loss.
My book, Growing Up in the Grassroots, also discusses loss. It offers three key lessons on eco-anxiety:
- Climate change is not ‘going’ to happen, it’s happening now.
- It takes courage to confront anger and anxiety towards what we’re losing on this planet. Repressing or denying planetary change is what’s “wimpy.”
- Loss is powerful because it is universal.
- But loss doesn’t always feel universal.
In March of 2023, I went to a lifechanging conference where climate mental health was discussed. At the Aspen Ideas: Climate Future Leaders Summit in Miami Beach, hundreds of young people gathered and devised collaborative climate solutions with a wide range of environmental professionals.
In attendance was Vice President Kamala Harris, who has worked extensively (while often overlooked) to advance climate action. One of my colleagues approached her with an earnest question about climate mental health in young people. On stage, the Vice President referred directly and sympathetically to their conversation. Harris publicly understood and underscored the importance of heeding young people’s climate worries.
The media was quick to react. Fox News pounced: “Progressives Want You to Have “‘Climate Anxiety’” (a scornfully dismissive headline from a platform that is hypocritically bent on “protecting our children”).
We were aghast, but not surprised, at the headline. In fact, we were glad we had aggravated our way to national news discussion. We want to end eco-anxiety by solving the problem. If commentators find that to be some kind of joke, we invite them to showcase their character and let the world know.
It is denial that is wimpy. Anyone can try to shoo away data or statistics, but there is no ignoring someone else’s personal grief. It is impossible to even quantify grief, and yet, it is a sentiment we all share. The thought of losing family members, losing a home, or losing a favorite animal to a natural disaster is universally horrifying regardless of opinions on climate change. Up to 50% of children report symptoms of PTSD after experiencing a natural disaster.
After Hurricane Katrina, 50,000 students stopped attending school in Louisiana, and after Hurricane Floyd struck North Carolina, student achievement scores dropped by 5-15% across schools.
I want to ask anti-climate pundits: Would you laugh at a child shaking during a 100-year storm? Would you laugh at a young adult losing a parent during Hurricane Maria, or a grandparent to lung disease after living next to a coal-fired power plant?
These questions are not pointed at all Boomers—especially not the ones who for decades have fought as environmental and social justice activists. They are simply directed at those who find it self-enlightening to scorn and mock the earnest fears of young people who listen to scientists. A wise mentor’s words have stuck with me: you are never too old or too young to give a damn.
But it was my recent mentor, Dr. Jennifer Atkinson, who offered me a simple statement to deal with the double standards of the world surrounding youth anxiety: Climate grief isn’t snowflake, it’s badass.
As young people come of age in a moment of destabilization, inheriting an uncertain world and a shared burden of grief, I hope we will live by that phrase.
After all, enough snowflakes will cause an avalanche.
RCC Presidential Fellow – Joy Reeves – Duke University
RCC Presidential Fellow Joy Reeves is completing a Master’s degree in Environmental Management at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment. Passionate about climate advocacy and scientific communication, she is the author of Growing Up in the Grassroots: Finding Unity in Climate Activism Across Generations (2020). Joy was previously an RCC Stanback Fellow and has held positions at the League of Conservation Voters, the Student Conservation Association, and the Wright Lab at Duke University, where she conducted research on the effects of saltwater intrusion and sea level rise on the coast of North Carolina. During her undergraduate career at Duke, she received her degree in Environmental Science & Policy with a minor in Visual Media Studies, as well as a Udall scholarship for environmental leadership and public service.