Climate emergency is causing widespread anxiety in young people

The future of life on Earth may well be decided in this decade.

At the UN climate summit COP 26, omens suggest that too many minds are fossilised in lifelong mores to grasp the urgency of climate change. Our ragged democracies cannot cope with complexity and have failed to recognize that climate stabilization is now a young versus old issue. The young march to protect their future, the old work to protect their current way of life and assets.

A study in Lancet Planetary Health of 10,000 young people aged 16 to 25 across 10 countries, found “widespread psychological distress” which related to government inaction. Of those surveyed, 75 percent thought the future was frightening and 56 percent said they thought humanity is doomed. Many suffer from intense forms of eco anxiety. One 16-year-old said, “It's different for young people — for us, the destruction of the planet is personal.”

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“I don't want to die, but I don't want to live in a world that doesn't care for children and animals,” another young person said.

The deep understanding they displayed is truly remarkable for those bearing the disruptive burden of the COVID-19 pandemic on education and the psychological damage imposed by an invasive social media.

By contrast, a parallel survey of adults by Kantar found that 62 percent saw the climate emergency as a major environmental challenge to the world, but showed inadequate personal willingness to make lifestyle changes, partly because of the indolence of governments and other powerful players

The sobering fact is that today’s children will need to emit eight times less CO2 over in their lifetime than their grandparents, if global warming is to be kept below 1.5 degrees Celsius. Even with current pledges, a child born in 2020 will endure an average of 30 extreme heatwaves in their lifetime, even if countries fulfil their current pledges. That is seven times more heatwaves than someone born in 1960. They will experience twice as many droughts and bushfires and three times more floods and crop failures.  Girls and women will suffer much more displacement and violence.

The urgency for action to reduce emissions before 2030 for any hope of limiting temperature rise to 1.5 degrees was paramount in speeches at COP26. Thereafter the task may become too demanding to deliver net-zero emissions by 2050. A reduction of 50 to75 percent is necessary by 2030. The U.S. has pledged 50 percent emissions reduction. High targets depend on cessation of fossil fuel use particularly methane because of its potent action over the next few decades.

The U.S. and the EU (but notably not Australia) along with over 100 other countries has signed the pledge to reduce methane by 30 per cent by 2030.

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Commitments to transition away from coal usage have been rendered inadequate by the inclusion of the word ‘unabated” meaning that carbon capture and storage must be used, a method largely unsuccessful so far. By including commitments on retaining forest and reducing transport takes the world only 9 percent of the journey to the 1.5 degree limit.

In addition, there is a credibility gap between intent and reality even in many Western countries exhorting action: for example, the U.S. deal to sell to China 4 million tons of liquefied natural gas (LNG) annually for 20 years, and the U.K. plan to continue extracting oil and gas for as long as possible.

The EU remains heavily dependent on Russia for gas having neglected the need for a faster transition to renewable energy.

Australia has the highest greenhouse gas emissions per capita in the world from coal power, nearly double those in China — and yet, resolves to continue expanding coal and gas as long as there are buyers.

Essentially, we have to recognize that our democracies are no longer capable of resolving complex problems like the climate emergency which requires urgent and drastic action. The emergency can be likened to war requiring national sacrifices. Are we able to reduce emissions quickly as occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic?  Western governments would fall if their policies reduced affluence.

Our democracies are also inadequate because they are unrepresentive, and government systems have come to place power and party before people.

Speaking to young people in Glasgow, former President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaBiden on Bob Dole: 'among the greatest of the Greatest Generation' Moving beyond the era of American exceptionalism The bully who pulls the levers of Trump's mind never learns MORE said, "Vote like your life depends on it, because it does." This presents a problem at forthcoming elections for young people who recognize the need to deliver effective emission reductions before 2030. They are not represented: in the U.S., the average age of Congress members of the House is 58 and in Senate is 64 — and much the same in many other Western democracies.

The most vivid contrast at COP26 was between the youthful speakers addressing street crowds and the older, mainly white, men occupying the conference podium. These country leaders, in the words of Greta ThunbergGreta ThunbergLet's plan for human ingenuity in our fight against climate change Energy & Environment — Beyond COP26 Greta Thunberg dismisses COP26 pact: 'The real work continues outside these halls' MORE, offering “blah, blah, blah.” Her speech and those of many other young activists delivered to enthusiastic supporters were based on an understanding of science and the urgency. The scientific knowledge of the emergency in many 15-year-olds is far better that of many elected officials

Two-party systems build adversarialism even in dire crises and collaborative and consultative approaches are rejected. Frequently, vital reforms are weakened to retain party unity.  Americans will recognize this problem with the actions of Sen. Joe ManchinJoe ManchinTrump haunts Biden vaccine mandate in courts IRS data proves Trump tax cuts benefited middle, working-class Americans most Overnight Energy & Environment — Presented by ExxonMobil — Dems press drillers over methane leaks MORE (D-W.Va.) among others — those elected often who seem to develop their own career structure with dependence on vested interests — rather than developing expertise to act on a compelling problem.

All politicians must recognize that when they make decisions based on party, power and vested interests, they are then responsible for ill health, injury and death in thousands of children. They have a duty to read and act on the “countdown on health and climate change” in the medical journal The Lancet.

Against this depressing background what hope is there for the children of the world, those suffering climate change starvation in Madagascar, those seeing inundation of their homes in the Pacific islands and for those in the West suffering anxiety from the failures of their governments?

President BidenJoe BidenChina eyes military base on Africa's Atlantic coast: report Biden orders flags be flown at half-staff through Dec. 9 to honor Dole Biden heading to Kansas City to promote infrastructure package MORE has the formidable task of leading the world knowing that to date the performance of the U.S. on climate action is poor. The U.S. ranks 52 out of 64 countries on four criteria: greenhouse gas emissions, renewable energy, energy use and climate policy, as assessed by the Climate Change Performance Index.

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The announcement on Nov. 11 of a U.S.-China Joint Glasgow Declaration on Enhancing Climate Action in the 2020s encourages hope because it takes place against a background of alienation on other issues.

Many other initiatives are open to the president and his climate crisis team. Most importantly he could recognize the compelling interest and needs of the young by regularly meeting their leaders in different U.S. states. Both sides would learn from each other and the initiative could spread to other nations.

David Shearman (AM, Ph.D., FRACP, FRCPE) is a professor of medicine at the University of Adelaide, South Australia and co-founder of Doctors for the Environment Australia.