How school children are coping with 'eco-anxiety' as they worry about climate change

3:09 pm on 18 September 2019

RNZ joins more than 250 media organisations from around the world in the Covering Climate Now (CCN) initiative by committing to heighten climate coverage in the week leading up to the UN Climate Action Summit on 23 September 2019.

Primary school age children say they're worried about climate change, and want to do their bit to tackle it.

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Pupils at St Francis de Lanes school in Island Bay have revealed concerns for humans, animals and forests. File photo. Photo:

An Australian study has found that nearly 90 percent of children are worried about climate change. Nearly 70 percent of the children said they thought about climate change issues every day.

Eco-anxiety is the term used to describe the fear of global warming, and the worry that not enough is being done to stop it.

Children at a school in Wellington had similar concerns.

A pupil at St Francis de Lanes school in Island Bay said: "I feel worried, not just for the animals, but for us, because with climate change, ice bergs are starting to melt, and that means sea levels will rise."

Another said: "We need to take care of our forests because our forests provide a home and some food for our native birds."

"Mist" over young people's future

Niki Harré, associate dean of sustainability at the University of Auckland’s school of psychology.

Niki Harre. Photo: RNZ / Susan Strongman

The overwhelming response from the kids in the school was one of anxiety, or eco-anxiety.

Associate Professor in Psychology at the University of Auckland Dr Niki Harre described the anxiety as a "mist" over young people's future.

"I think what eco-anxiety is like for most young people is this other dimension," she said.

"So it's like a film or cloud or mist over the future, that just makes it that bit harder to leap into it with enthusiasm."

Making a change

But pupils at the school are looking to reduce their own plastic waste and change how they travel because of their concerns.

St Francis de Lanes school has also taken part in a week-long programme organised by the social enterprise, Squawk Squad.

Squawk Squad is a social enterprise that aims to connect and engage a country in the protection and growth of our native bird life.

Owain John, who is the "Chief Squawker" for Squawk Squad, said children are all too aware and conscious of the dangers of climate change.

"I think kids are definitely concerned - they know that it's their future, and they know that the status quo isn't going to work any longer.

"The good thing about kids is that they are more naturally optimistic about the future. And so a lot of the feedback we're getting is the kids saying "Yes, I will make a difference", or "Yes I will change my lifestyle."

"I think there is a lot of optimism among kids, but that is shadowed by concern as well for the future."

Giving up meat for the cause

Seven-year-old Lara, from Eastbourne, said she learned about climate change on the news, from her parents, and at school. She talked about it with her friends and they discussed what they should be doing to help stop it.

Her mother, Karen, said six weeks ago, Lara was beginning to feel very stressed about it. So to combat that anxiety, they made a list of things they could do.

"We came up with some simple things we were gonna do," Karen said.

"So we figured out we'll go through our recycling bin, see if there's waste we can cut down. We also saw if we could reduce amount of plastics and throaway stuff.

As a result of making the list, the eco-anxiety faded.

"Just having those small conversations, that was really reassuring for the kids," Karen said.

Both Lara and her brother Rowan, who's nine, came up with ideas on how to change their habits to become more sustainable.

"What should be better for us to do, is for everyone, when they're on a long trip, to go on buses and trains," he said. "There's a lot of people that can fit in it, and it's kind of the same thing as a car."

They have even swapped meat for vegetables.

"When mum told us that our friend was doing meat-Free Mondays, we decided we should eat more veggies instead of eating meat so much," Lara said.

Dr Harre said searching for solutions was a great way to turn anxiety into action.

"One of the things that I think is really important as an older person working with younger people, who've got eco-anxiety, to me by far the best way to turn it into something into how young people feel, and for the planet as a whole, is to take action.

"So the solution is to move through that fear into some kind of action. Because as soon as you start doing something, you get with a group of people, you're out there, you're moving, you're being covered by the media, that all generates a sense of hope."

Children currently are taking action, on an unprecedented scale, across the world.

Millions are expected to take part in a global school strike this Friday, but for New Zealand, action is planned the following week.

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