Why climate change makes young people think twice about having kids
In this interview from ‘Health Beat’, Bhekisisa’s monthly TV show, South African climate justice activist Kumi Naidoo explains what climate anxiety is — and what we can do about it
Almost four in 10 young people between the ages of 16 and 25 told researchers in a 2021 Lancet Planetary Health study that they feel “hesitant to have children” because of climate change — 75% said they found the future frightening.
This sense of foreboding and futility about the future is called eco-anxiety, which is fuelled to a large degree by worry about the world’s changing climate — and the sense that there’s not enough being done about it.
“It is psychologically devastating to feel climate and ecological catastrophe closing in every day while watching those in power not only failing to act but actively making things worse by expanding the fossil fuel industry,” says Nasa climate scientist Peter Kalmus in a Guardian op-ed.
More than 80% of young people who participated in the Lancet study said they think humans have failed to take care of the planet. It makes them angry and disillusioned with their governments, they said, and the feeling of betrayal by decision-makers is driving even more anxiety.
The health-related consequences of the climate crisis, particularly those relating to mental health, are being taken increasingly seriously at this year’s UN climate conference, COP28, where influential politicians, scientists, policymakers and business leaders are taking stock of the world’s progress with climate goals in Dubai.
Countries are, for instance, asked to sign a declaration on climate and health, and a $300m commitment by the Global Fund for HIV, TB and Malaria, $100m by the Rockefeller Foundation and £54m by the UK government have been announced to specifically deal with the health-related repercussions of climate change.
The more down I feel, the more I want to try to see how I [can] be active, creative and energetic to educate people about the crisis we’re inKumi Naidoo
Sixty-five health ministers are attending the international meeting.
The general goals that countries have to meet relate to some of the 17 sustainable development goals, to have all people live in peace and prosperity by 2030, which the UN adopted in 2015.
One of these goals, though they’re not legally binding, focuses on taking urgent action to combat climate change and its effects by cutting down on the amount of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane put into the air.
This means generating electricity from solar energy or wind instead of burning coal and gas, relying less on petrol and diesel to fuel vehicles, burning less waste, and farming crops and livestock in a more sustainable way.
But a June progress report showed that countries, including South Africa, are cutting carbon emissions too slowly. If we don’t step up, a “climate cataclysm [is] looming”, experts say, because we won’t be able to keep the global temperature rise below 1.5°C.
South Africa’s youth delegation to COP28 has issued a statement urging decision-makers to provide “mental health support for those grappling with the trauma as a result of environmental devastation caused by climate change”.
Research shows that standing up and making their voices heard as part of a group can help young people to deal with the negative emotions, anxiety and worry they feel about the state of the environment and buffer them against developing serious depression.
The South African climate justice activist Kumi Naidoo agrees. “Participation is the best antidote I know for addressing the sense of anxiety,” he told Mia Malan in an interview for Bhekisisa’s monthly TV show, Health Beat.
Naidoo is a former executive director of Greenpeace International.
Mia Malan (MM): What is climate anxiety?
Kumi Naidoo (KM): The reality we face is what the science has been telling us for decades: we need to get off [burning] fossil fuels — oil, coal and gas — because that’s what’s driving climate change. If we continue to behave as we are, we won’t be able to prevent what scientists call “irreversible, catastrophic, runaway climate change”. Climate anxiety is the sense that the window of opportunity to prevent the worst of climate change is small — and that it’s closing fast. It hasn’t completely closed, but it’s like [we’re at] five minutes to midnight.
MM: How will that anxiety impact young people?
KM: Young people, sadly, are paying the price for earlier generations’ failure to do the right thing. I was [part of] a march around the UN [headquarters] in 2019 [with hundreds of thousands of] people. Two sisters, probably 14 or 15 years old, were holding a sign saying “Sorry, Mama, you’re not going to be a grandma”. Lots of young, informed people around the world [are] now saying: “Wow, if this is where the world is going, is it responsible to even be thinking about having kids?”
MM: What does a seemingly constant fight against powerful people or getting arrested mean to climate activists like yourself, and your state of mind?
KM: If we continue on the path we’re on — continuing to warm up the planet, to destroy our soil, destroy our water sources — the end result will be that we won’t be able to grow food and survive. We will be gone [as a species]. We need to protect our children and their children’s futures. Taking part in peaceful civil disobedience and risking arrest is not what gives me and many activists anxiety, because we have made a moral choice that there are certain things that are worth standing up for. The anxiety and the depression come from sitting in meetings with heads of government, powerful CEOs of corporations, [who] will agree with you when you present the science [on climate change] to them, and then when they walk out of the door, it’s business as usual. With climate, the science is very clear: we’ve got till 2030 to get emissions to peak and drastically start coming down. Sometimes it’s very hard to look at the facts and look at what’s happening around the world, and constantly be able to stay optimistic.
MM: How do you cope on such days and what are your support systems to keep your mental health?
KM: The more down I feel, the more I want to try to see how I [can] be active, creative and energetic to educate people about the crisis we’re in. That’s the best sort of way of dealing with mental health for me. Participation is the best antidote I know for addressing the sense of anxiety. If you do something positive — even if it solves just a piece of the problem — it gives you confidence that [by] coming together [with others], you have power and capability to make a difference.
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