Feelings of anxiety and helplessness around climate change are not just increasing with the passage of time, they are increasing from generation to generation. And with good reason, given the news of the last few months.
In August, the latest report from the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found that the frequency and severity of climate events are increasing in all of the world’s regions, and that some of the changes to our climate are already irreversible. Considering that this news comes on top of previous IPCC calls for net carbon neutrality by 2030 to avoid the most serious effects of climate change, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres called the report “a code red for humanity.”
In September, a survey of 10,000 young people—defined as aged 16–25 years—from 10 countries in both the global North and South found that over 50% of young people felt sad, anxious, angry, powerless, helpless and guilty when asked about the climate crisis. Additionally, 84% reported feeling at least moderately worried.
During the first two weeks of November, world leaders convened in Glasgow for COP26, the 26th annual U.N. Climate Change Conference, intended to coordinate the global policy response to the climate crisis. While many leaders acknowledged the urgency captured by the IPCC report, the promises made at the conference fall short of the targets set out by climate scientists.
In advance of COP26, 18-year-old Greta Thunberg summed up the existential angst of her generation.
“They’ve now had 30 years of blah, blah, blah, and where has that led us? We can still turn this around—it is entirely possible. It will take immediate, drastic annual emission reductions. But not if things go on like today. Our leaders’ intentional lack of action is a betrayal toward all present and future generations,” Thunberg said.
Are these kids just being snowflakes? Scientific support for greenhouse gases, global warming and climate change has been around for decades. The name keeps changing while the reality of the crisis keeps deepening. And, given the familiar cycle which played out over the past few months—a scary report about the impacts of climate change met with pledges from politicians, followed by little meaningful change—it makes sense that the intensity of feelings is increasing with each new generation.
For this article, the Pacific Sun interviewed three North Bay activists working to address the climate crisis: one Generation X, one Millennial and one Zoomer. We also talked to an environmental studies professor who researches the emotional impacts of climate change. Although this is not a scientific sample, the responses they gave help to show how responses to climate change show differences and similarities across generations.
All the experts that the Pacific Sun spoke to for this article had the same advice: Don’t just suck it up, let our emotions drive action. It will help both us and the planet.
The Gen Xer
Natasha Juliana, age 49, is already a legend in Petaluma in both the entrepreneur and climate spaces. Nearly 10 years ago, she founded WORKPetaluma, a coworking space that became a center for networking, community gathering and numerous climate-action initiatives.
Juliana’s reputation for community leadership recently received a massive boost with the award of a $1 million Cool City Challenge grant. Established by David Gershon and the Empowerment Institute, the Cool City Initiative has greenlighted teams in Petaluma, Irvine and Los Angeles to launch programs with the target of transitioning their cities to net-zero carbon emissions by that all-important date: 2030.
Petaluma is by far the smallest of the recipients with a population of roughly 60,000, versus more than 270,000 for Irvine and nearly 3.4 million for Los Angeles. As a pilot program, the call for applications was only open to cities in California. These pilots will provide the proof of concept for expanding the program nationally and globally.
The resulting organization, Cool Petaluma, will be led by Juliana as campaign director. The approach is to organize on a block-by-block basis, with neighborhood “block leaders” facilitating the collaboration between households to make necessary changes to reduce resource use, increase fire resilience and build networks of mutual support for the safety of all—steps needed if the city is to have a chance of reaching zero emissions by 2030.
The “Moonshot Team” which prepared the application is made up of names well-known to anyone organizing around climate change in Sonoma County. Their years of striving for meaningful change to our regional ecological impact might now actually start to pay off.
“This is more powerful than you might think,” Juliana says. “It is common for social movements to look like they have no momentum for a long time, but once they hit a tipping point the curve takes off.”
“We are reaching that tipping point, and it is up to all of us to seize the moment and create a more beautiful future filled with ‘win-win’ solutions that improve our quality of life and restore balance on the planet,” Juliana adds.
Language like “win-win” has motivated the discussion around sustainability and decarbonization, underpinning a kind of optimism, more common in older generations, reflecting a belief that economic and political systems just need to be shown the path forward.
However, the idea that those who benefit from the endless economic growth that has created the climate crisis just need to be shown how to “win” the same levels of profit in a more eco-friendly way is losing credibility among critics of the status quo.
“There is no denying that today’s elite may be among the more socially concerned elites in history. But it is also, by the cold logic of numbers, among the more predatory in history,” says Anand Giridharadas, author of the New York Times bestseller, Winners Take All.
So, although Juliana’s efforts make it clear that the need for action is urgent, there is a kind of comfort or ease with which Generation X is able to live while attempting to address sustainability needs through work or volunteerism.
“I grew up as a hippies’ kid during the back-to-the-land movement of the 1970s, surrounded by redwood forests, with a strong connection to the earth underfoot and the Milky Way sky overhead,” she says of her childhood in Humboldt County. “I’ve always been an advocate for stewardship and sustainable living practices, but it wasn’t until … I signed up for Al Gore’s Climate Reality Leadership Corps [that] I really got involved in climate activism in an ongoing and meaningful way.”
This may resonate with many Gen X readers, including this writer. The climate problem has been known to us, we have been upset about it and lately we have taken more action than ever before with regards to it. This attitude is a privilege of perhaps the luckiest generation in the march of human history.
“Gen X has lived a pretty blessed life with plenty of economic ups and downs, but overall we are at the peak of historic human comfort,” Juliana notes. Which sounds good until she adds, “We had running water and reliable power and plenty of food on the grocery store shelves.” Bright when compared to food and shelter security of past historical periods, that is. Dark when measured against the projected near-future water, food and clean-air shortages that haunt those who feel the necessity for action.
Is it surprising that members of the DIY generation—who grew up with punk rock, hip-hop and photocopied ’zines—would believe that we can do it by starting with ourselves?
“The more people can participate in the creation of a positive future trajectory, the more their worldview will change to make it happen, creating a positive-feedback loop,” Juliana says.
A climate activist during her student years at Sonoma State University, Claudia Sisomphou, age 26, first came to the attention of the Sonoma County professional sustainability community with her campaign “Top Ten Simple ways to save your health, money, and the planet” which she circulated via a blog series, posters and a PowerPoint presentation.
Now employed at the nonprofit public energy agency Sonoma Clean Power and president of the Sonoma County chapter of the United Nations Association, Sisomphou has been a regular speaker at sustainability events since her student days. She has earned a reputation for solutions-oriented action and relatable communication of those solutions, but admits that the work can be a struggle. “It’s very easy to get overwhelmed by the severity of the challenges we are facing, and some days I just have to take time and cry about it,” she says. She’s not alone.
“I know people my age who are seriously questioning whether they want to have children, because they are so concerned about the future of our planet,” Sisomphou says, reflecting a growing sentiment that might have occurred to the average Gen Xer, but only in passing.
It is an example of intensifying emotional reaction to our rapidly deteriorating planetary-wide ecological reality, an awareness that is more present to each new generation.
“Growing up [in the North Bay], I never once worried about wildfires,” Sisomphou says. “Now, five to seven months out of the year I am constantly on edge and mentally preparing myself for the possibility of losing my home.”
Readers of this paper are certain to recognize that feeling in response to the increasing impact of wildfires each year. Photos of California burning are among the scariest and most moving images of the acceleration of the climate crisis. Before, examples of climate impacts most often referenced the Arctic or island countries like the Maldives. Now, examples right here at home are more salient, the urgency more clear.
“My advice to others is to do what you can in your own life to both prevent and prepare for the changes that are coming with climate change,” Sisomphou says. She maintains her can-do attitude and solution-oriented thinking, recommending that “[t]hings like learning how to grow your own food, volunteering during local emergencies, being aware of your water usage, eating less meat and dairy, and carefully choosing which products [and companies] you spend your money on, can help you feel part of the solution rather than focusing on the problem.”
The alternative can be crippling despair.
“There’s been a shift in the last six or seven years … where the new generation of students [has been] coming into my classroom with a new level of despair,” says Sarah Ray, an Environmental Studies professor at Humboldt State University, when asked to describe the mental health of her current generation of undergrad students, known as Generation Z, or “Zoomers.”
Raja Abastado, age 15, is a Sonoma County high school student and Petaluma Climate Action Commission Youth Member. Abastado’s responses in the interview for this article provide a stark contrast to the plucky win-win, solution-oriented response to the crisis presented by the previous generations’ respondents.
“I became an activist because I was tired of seeing the land, the forests and the towns and cities in Sonoma County and the area around it burning,” Abastado says. “I was tired of packing my evacuation bag each year when the fires came. I was tired of evacuating each year only to return and find the land and forests burned and houses gone, destroyed by the fires. I was tired of seeing the government not doing anything to help. I was devastated by the situation we were in. Climate change causing fires and storms, serious droughts, and the government doing nothing about it.”
That immediacy of existential anxiety might be expected from a child in Europe in 1939, as the continent teetered on the edge of war. But this kid lives right here in California, right now.
Ray observes that her students are “coming of age in this moment when these forecasts on climate are worse than they have ever been, in conjunction [with] how climate change is clearly being connected to all these [equity and justice issues].”
It is a situation that Ray was not trained for. “Professors all across the country were all being told, ‘Oh, the mental health of young people is getting worse and worse and worse. We need to have more resources in our counseling and psychology services.’ But no one was talking about how that was spilling over into classrooms and whether or not the climate crisis had anything to do with that.”
“Climate change is scary,” Abastado says. “It is a huge problem made up of so many other problems. People have not always understood how serious climate change is and even now people do not understand … . The impact that climate change has on the [mental health of fellow students] is huge. Many people see how large the issue is and become depressed.”
“People can be devastated and paranoid by what will happen if we do not stop climate change,” they continue. “Many people get scared and guilty, and others feel anxious and afraid, but most of all many people feel powerless.”
“When Greta Thunberg came on the scene and the whole climate strike movement happened and we saw her crying and yelling at the people at Davos … a lot of people were really shocked by the intensity of her emotion around that, but it wasn’t at all shocking to me,” Ray says. College and high school teachers across the globe had already seen it.
Ray and her colleagues started asking, “Hey, what’s the emotional story that’s happening with this generation? Because they’re not able to get up in the morning, much less come to class, much less graduate and go fix all these problems.”
Ray wants to emphasize that these are more than just kids having feelings; there are real, measurable mental-health impacts. She “would even go as far as to say that young people are suicidal because of [climate anxiety].”
Zoomers are growing up in a situation where they know action needs to be taken, but they feel powerless to do anything to significantly alter the future they are inheriting. In fact, they are acutely aware of their contributions to climate change, especially here in the West where resource consumption is 5 to 20 times higher than other parts of the world—the areas that suffer first and most from the climate crisis.
These impacts of daily life are in direct conflict with young people’s moral attitudes toward taking care of the environment. As Abastado puts it, “[Zoomers] are the people with the best chance to stop climate change. We are the people who can wake up the government and hold them accountable for their actions and force them to start taking serious action.”
It is clear that the climate crisis is one of the chief drivers of anxiety and depression among many youth and adults. Worry about the future of life on our planet can trigger suffering regardless of which generation a person was born into. Yet, that very worry might be the motivating factor that is necessary for change. According to these experts, taking action now not only helps to address climate change, it is also an antidote to feeling powerless.
Local Youth Climate Action
In recent years, climate action has increasingly been led by young people. Here are some youth-led actions and organizations with links for more information.
Sunrise Movement (sunrisemovement.org)
Perhaps the most well-known youth organization, Sunrise organizes training, phone banks and canvassing on a weekly basis. The nationwide group has “hubs” in Sonoma and Marin counties.
Fridays for the Future (fridaysforfuture.org)
Inspired by Greta Thunberg’s school climate strikes, F4F strikes have been reported throughout the world. In 2019, North Bay youth strikers met with Rep. Jared Huffman.
Youth vs Apocalypse (youthvsapocalypse.org)
Born in Oakland, YVA leads direct actions featuring protest art throughout the Bay Area, with a focus on those communities that will be affected first and most.