“When I see things on the news about climate change, I get really scared. And I don’t know what to do.”

This sentiment was from a child in a youth group I attended in Monmouthshire, pre-pandemic. I remember it distinctly – they were a bit self-conscious about admitting it, but soon, more voices added their agreement – sometimes the bad news about the climate is so bad, so disastrous, that they’re left feeling overwhelmed.

And when you feel like it’s all too much, can anything you do be enough?

This phenomenon has been dubbed “climate anxiety” and it’s especially been linked to children and young people.

This last ‘fact’ can sometimes distract from the issue at hand: indeed, there’s a danger that by deeming it a “young person’s syndrome”, the real and tangible effects that climate anxiety can have on people can be dismissed by saying something glib like, “oh, they’ll grow out of it”.

But surely the point is, if our young people feel like they can’t do anything about climate change, then who will?

And that’s one of the reasons why I’m keen, in my new role, to help to reframe the way we talk about climate change with children and young people, to focus more on the agency we have, the actions we can take to make a difference, not just about catastrophes that can’t be overcome.

I realise that this is a mammoth task. And climate anxiety can hit us all: so many of us will have felt doom, an overwhelming realisation that something truly awful is happening to our planet. Photographs of Sudan, the last male Northern White Rhino, being comforted by his keeper in 2018 as he took his final breath have haunted many of us: knowing we were likely witnessing the extinction of a species.

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That there will be a generation following us that will not see the majesty of these creatures, and that like the dodo, they will exist only in books and our imaginations. In the moment that something so huge hits you, it can make us all feel powerless. Like there’s nothing we can do. Thus, from disaster comes despair.

And we can’t allow this narrative to continue, not least because our very hope of tackling the climate emergency rests on our not allowing it to overwhelm us.

If we focus solely on the scale of the challenge facing us, there’s a risk that normal citizens (of all ages) will distance themselves from the issue.

And therein lies the paradox. The bigger the shock, the more distanced we become.

We need to get better at talking about climate change in a way that also gives us agency.

The way we frame the conversation about human impact on our planet needs to show us tangible ways of reversing that impact, especially when talking to children and young people; less ‘countdown to the end of the world’, more counting all the ways we can make a positive change. 

The media narrative has a role in this, and so does government messaging: but there’s a role for the curriculum in Wales too.

Guidance and support should be given to all teachers in how to address climate anxiety, and to make sure we can all give our children a sense that change is possible. That every action we take now can help to turn things around. Because collectively, we can make a difference.

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