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Politicians have an obligation to address the source of young people’s anxiety about climate change, not belittle their fears as “alarmist”, argues social researcher REBECCA HUNTLEY.

As Australia continues to lag behind the rest of the world in committing to lower carbon emissions, several Coalition MPs have instead been focused on urging our Prime Minister to expand the school chaplaincy program to help address mental health problems among Australian children caused not by climate change and their government’s inaction, but by “alarmist” climate activism.

When I published my first book over 15 years ago, all about ‘Generation Y’, my research showed that the top issues for young people were housing affordability, mental health, and climate and environment. It seems not much has changed in nearly two decades. Nor has the tendency for some in politics and the media to characterise younger Australians as entitled, lazy, selfish and narcissistic. And yet, when these young people take to the streets to urge our leaders to act more quickly and decisively on climate change, they are told they are being alarmist or disruptive. To care less about the planet and focus more on their studies.

Witnessing the first student climate strike back in December 2018 brought about a profound transformation in me, personally and professionally. As part of the generation in power, it was as if those young Australians were speaking to me. We need you to listen. We need you to act.

And I did. Immediately, I divested my superannuation. I bought offsets for my car. I joined and donated to many climate groups. And I decided in my professional life to work almost exclusively on research on climate change and energy transition.

There is a growing body of evidence that concern about climate change is making the already high levels of anxiety in young people far worse.

Since, I have met hundreds of young Australians who are turning their despair and frustration into action. They want to be part of the solution to these issues but are often discouraged because they do not feel they have power to make change.

If we review all the Australian data on attitudes to global warming, it’s clear that a generational wave of worry, frustration, anger and momentum for change is building. Australians under 25 are much more likely to be concerned about climate change than their parents or grandparents. People who are dismissive about the science make up around 9% of the wider population but only 1% of those under 25.

Young Australians will put climate front and centre of their lives as consumers, voters, employees, citizens, students, parents and patients. Whatever activity they engage in, service they access, product they buy, or job they take on, climate change will be a consideration.

Researchers looking at the psychological impact of climate change on children have found both direct and indirect effects from knowledge about global warming that put children at risk of mental health issues. More than that, climate change is fundamentally altering young people’s sense of ‘self, identity and existence’.

A review of all the academic literature on youth attitudes to climate and environment published in the last four years shows that children from primary school onwards have a complex and well-developed understanding of these issues. By the time young people have finished school, they associate environmental issues with fear for the future. And there is a growing body of evidence here and overseas that concern about climate change is making the already high levels of anxiety in young people far worse.

I am not the only one who has been ‘schooled’ by those students, inspired to think about the world differently.

RMIT researcher Blanche Verlie has found that young people, caught between knowledge about climate change and the pressure to strive for individual success, may be the most susceptible to the negative effects of despair. “Climate change challenges the beliefs that … if you work hard, you will have a bright future [and that] adults generally have children’s best interests at heart.”

A quick scan of students’ handmade protest signs – with slogans that range from the serious and angry to the humorous and profane – confirms that our young people understand exactly where the source of their anxiety lies, and no amount of pastoral care is going to provide any comfort.

“We’re missing our lessons so we can teach you one.” “We’ll do our maths when you do your job.” “This can’t wait till we’ve finished school.” “There are no jobs on a dead planet.” “You’re burning our future.”

As Verlie says, these striking students “are deeply anguished about what a business-as-usual future might hold for them and others. [Their] signs proclaim: ‘No graduation on a dead planet’. … This is not hyperbole but a genuine engagement with what climate change means for their lives.”

I know I am not the only one who has been ‘schooled’ by those students, inspired to think about the world differently. We have a lot to learn from the students of today and the citizens of tomorrow. We are obliged to take them seriously. More than that, we are obliged to support their calls for action.

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