Majority of young people distressed about climate change, even during pandemic


Image of young people protesting climate change.

New research looks at young people’s thoughts and feelings about the dual challenge of climate change and COVID-19 pandemic.

The study published today in Lancet Planetary Health is led by Climate Cares, a collaboration between the Institute of Global Health Institute and the Grantham Institute at Imperial. The extensive survey was constructed by a panel of researchers with relevant experience in environmental psychology, public health, mental health, neuroscience, environmental science and science communication backgrounds and adapted with the input of a Young Person’s Advisory Group.

Researchers found that while young people reported disruption and concern for their future due to both the issues of climate change and COVID-19, climate change was associated with greater distress overall, and especially in young people with low levels of generalised anxiety.

Surveying over 500 people aged 16-24 in the UK from August to October 2020, the study asked young people about their thoughts and feelings about climate change and the global pandemic, as well as the range of impacts on their lives, their sense of agency to respond to each crisis, and their mental health and wellbeing. This makes it the first research to explore and compare these two pressing global crises on young people’s mental health.

The researchers found that the pandemic was more associated with feelings of isolation, loss and grief for young people in the UK, while climate change was more associated with anger, disgust, guilt and shame.

"Our study emphasises the importance of leaders taking urgent action on the climate emergency, and doing so in a way that meaningfully listens to the concerns and desires of young people." Dr Emma Lawrance Institute of Global Health Innovation

Dr Emma Lawrance, Mental Health Innovations Fellow and lead at Climate Cares said: “Even in the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in the UK, young people were at least as concerned about the climate crisis.”

“Our study emphasises the importance of leaders taking urgent action on the climate emergency, and doing so in a way that meaningfully listens to the concerns and desires of young people. Climate education and mental health support, for example, must help young people cope with the compounding stressors they face while enabling appropriate opportunities for action."

Impact on daily life and sense of agency

The study measured both negative and positive impacts of COVID-19 and climate change on the participants' lives. The researchers also asked respondents about psychological distress, their wellbeing, and how strongly they felt a wide range of emotions when thinking about the two challenges.

Overall participants reported more disruption to their lives from the COVID-19 pandemic relative to climate change. The former impacted their social lives, study, leisure and holiday plans. 77% of participants reported the overall impact of the pandemic was ‘moderately severe’ to their lives, whereas more than half reported that climate change had little or no effect on their personal lives.

The researchers also measured the respondents' sense of agency, which is a psychological term used to describe the extent to which someone feels they are able to influence the course of events by one's actions. This involved asking young people about their awareness of the actions they could take in response to climate change and COVID-19, their feelings of control in being able to make changes to the problem, and their sense of responsibility to act.

Young people felt more guilty about their own contributions to climate change than the COVID-19 pandemic, less capable of acting on climate change and less sure their actions around climate change would have an effect. The researchers say this highlights the need for clear information in this area that doesn't place responsibility solely on individuals while highlighting where actions can make a difference.

Researchers found 37% of participants were worried about the future in general because of the COVID-19 pandemic, whilst 52% worried about the lack of action on climate change.

Feelings of distress

The research also found that feelings such as anger, concern, shame, guilt and disappointment were all significantly more prominent in response to climate change, while COVID-19 was associated with stronger feelings of isolation, anxiety disconnection and frustration.

Young people with high levels of generalised anxiety tended to feel more distressed about both issues, suggesting these young people are particularly vulnerable to multiple sources of added stress. For those with low levels of general anxiety, climate change caused more distress than the pandemic.

Dr Ans Vercammen, Honorary Research Fellow, Imperial College London and co-author said: “While we found that young people who experience generalised anxiety might be more predisposed to climate worries; we found no evidence of climate distress being linked to dysfunction in day-to-day life. In fact, feeling distressed and having a sense of agency appear to go hand-in-hand to some extent."

“This fits the idea that distress about climate change is an adaptive and proportional response to a real threat, and not something that we need to 'treat or fix' as such.”

She added: “Nevertheless, more research is needed to understand at what point that distress might tip over into something less productive, and how we can support young people in developing coping strategies to protect their mental health in uncertain times.”

"Creating support systems for eco-anxiety will be an essential part of ensuring continued and sustainable climate action into the future." Sacha Wright Research and Curriculum Coordinator at Force of Nature

Sacha Wright, Research and Curriculum Coordinator at Force of Nature, a movement which works with leaders across business and education to empower young people to turn their eco-anxiety into agency said:

“Many young people feel the burden of shouldering the responsibility of climate action, which can lead to feelings of overwhelm and burnout; at Force of Nature, we have seen hundreds of young people from around the world express the crushing uncertainty of inheriting a future they didn’t create.

“Creating support systems for eco-anxiety will be an essential part of ensuring continued and sustainable climate action into the future. Health care providers will be an essential part of these systems, but must exist in tandem with community-led and context-relevant support networks.”

Psychological responses, mental health, and sense of agency for the dual challenges of climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic in young people in the UK: an online survey study’ by Emma L Lawrance et al. is published in The Lancet Planetary Health.


Meesha Patel

Meesha Patel
Faculty of Medicine Centre

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Global-health, Mental-health, Climate-change
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