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Two thirds of UK young people feel betrayed by government on climate crisis

The uncertainty of the planet's future means thousands of young people are hesitant to have children, a global study on climate anxiety has revealed

School pupils hold signs on London streets to protest the climate crisis

School pupils take to London streets for the global climate strike in 2019. Image: Garry Knight/Flickr

Nearly two thirds of young people in the UK feel the government is betraying them and future generations by failing to act urgently on the climate crisis, according to new research.

Globally, young people are experiencing climate anxiety so severe that it is affecting their daily lives and ability to function, the study of 16-to-25 year olds showed, painting an already “horrific picture” of how the climate crisis is affecting wellbeing.

The research suggests “for the first time” that psychological distress among children and young people is linked to government inaction, said Caroline Hickman, co-lead author on the study.

“Our children’s anxiety is a completely rational reaction given the inadequate responses to climate change they are seeing from governments,” said Hickman, an academic at the University of Bath and member of the Climate Psychology Alliance.

Around 72 per cent of young Brits believe “the future is frightening”, while nearly 40 per cent said they were hesitant to have children because of the climate crisis.

Meanwhile 57 per cent of UK respondents said the government was betraying them “and/or future generations”.

“This study paints a horrific picture of widespread climate anxiety in our children and young people,” added Hickman. “What more do governments need to hear to take action?”

Researchers from institutions around the world surveyed 10,000 young people in ten countries, including the UK.

Around 55 per cent of young people globally believed they would have fewer opportunities in life than their parents did, while nearly half said they had talked with others about climate change but felt ignored or dismissed.

Young people in the global south – set to be the earliest and worst hit by global warming – displayed the highest levels of climate anxiety.

Portuguese youth were the worst impacted in the global north, which researchers linked to a dramatic increase in wildfires since 2017.

Beth Irving, a 19-year-old climate activist from Cardiff, organised her city’s climate youth strikes in 2019. 

Responding to the findings, she said: “When I was 16, I went through phases of feeling utterly helpless in the face of this immense problem, and then would launch myself into organising protests or changing things within my school.

“To put so much energy into something and then see so little real life impact was exhausting.

“I had many occasions where I would hide myself away and think ‘none of this is enough’.”

Irving called on people in power to take “palpable” action. “It’s so damaging to put this problem on the shoulders of young people,” she said.

The study, under peer review in Lancet Planetary Health, investigated the psychological impact of an uncertain future on young people in the US, Australia, France, Portugal, Finland, Brazil, Nigeria, Philippines and India, as well as the UK.

“It’s shocking to hear how so many young people from around the world feel betrayed by those who are supposed to protect them,” said Dr Liz Marks, another co-lead author on the study.

“Now is the time to face the truth, listen to young people and take urgent action against climate change.”

Governments could face a global youth mental health crisis as well as the climate emergency if they do not take bold action to protect the futures of young people, according to analysts. They warned that the current impact of climate inaction on mental wellbeing could potentially amount to a violation of international human rights law.

Recent research by UNICEF showed at least one billion children are being put at “extremely high risk” in the climate crisis.

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