Helping Students Cope with Climate Anxiety

We asked veteran youth pastor and Rooted Steering Committee emeritus Dave Wright to examine the effects of climate change anxiety for our teenagers. In this article, he will examine the stress Gen Z feels about climate change; in a follow-up Dave outlines the gospel hope we can offer students through study of God’s Word. 

“I love God’s creation and it devastates me that we are on the brink of destroying it.”

“In class we learned that what we are experiencing is called ‘anticipatory grief’ because the environment as we know it will be gone.”

“I fear that the world is going to end in my lifetime.”

These are just a sampling of the statements that I have heard from students in recent years about climate change. The levels of anxiety are not only observable in conversations, they are also being revealed clearly in studies on Gen Z.

Today’s students often feel terrified when it comes to climate change. We find ourselves with a new diagnosis in our society, one that affects younger generations more than older ones. Climate anxiety, sometimes called eco-anxiety, is described by the American Psychological Association as “a chronic fear of environmental doom.” Panic and/or anxiety attacks due to climate change fears are commonly reported by mental health professionals. Additionally, rates of anxiety, depression, and suicide among teenagers are at their highest levels in two decades.

How do we best serve a generation that is fearing the worst for the environment? Or even worse, fearing an apocalyptic future? Can we even approach this overly political and highly polarized subject?

Our best chance comes from teaching Scripture effectively, so students grasp biblical truth before applying it to an anxiety-creating topic. Before getting into Scripture though, let’s look at where climate anxiety stems from and what we know about it.

Anxiety stems in part from generational differences.

Cleveland Clinic psychiatrists Brian Barnett & Amit Anand wrote in Scientific American about how different generations are reacting to climate change. “Young people are a demographic of particular concern, since a recent national survey revealed that climate changes makes 57 percent of American teens feel afraid and 43 percent hopeless. There is an extensive generational gap in climate change concern, with younger individuals being more likely to believe climate change will pose a serious threat in their lifetimes. Young people also report more functional impairment secondary to climate anxiety than older people. Their worries are especially alarming in light of growing suicide rates among adolescents and young adults, with a tripling of the rate among people aged 10–14 during 2007–2017.”

Generational differences also mean our students have family members who think very differently about climate change. This perhaps compounds the anxiety. Often students are explicitly taught that their parents and grandparents won’t understand, and it is up to their generation to lead change. The burden young people feel is often intense.

Anxiety stems from the media affirming that such response is to be expected.

Online rhetoric on the subject is very intense and spreading anxiety rapidly. Bill McKibben in The New Yorker suggests that “Climate Anxiety Makes Good Sense.” He writes, “The Earth is rushing toward irrevocable tipping points. We’ve already passed some—there’s no plan afoot to refreeze the Arctic. And clearly things will get much worse before they (possibly) start to stabilize; we’ve raised the temperature a degree Celsius already, and the most optimistic thinkers on the planet reckon that we might just be able to top out at 1.5 degrees. All of which is to say that we are right to be anxious.”

Eva Andrews writes, “Anxiety seems like a very popular thing to have right now. Many of us feel out of control, and we like to yell about it on the internet, as Julie Beck recently pointed out in The Atlantic: “I am scared! I don’t know what’s going to happen! I can’t sleep!” (The yelling, as Beck noted, does nothing to assuage your anxiety — but does a good job of spreading it to your audience.)”

Anxiety stems from our inability to discuss these concerns.

Many students today don’t know how to process emotions nor discuss fears. The prefrontal cortex that controls much of behavior and emotion is not fully developed before the age of 25. Making matters worse, the polarizing nature of the subject makes it feel unsafe to open up in many places.

Andrews says, “A portion of environmental psychologist Renee Lertzman’s work is devoted to what she calls “environmental melancholia,” our unconscious sadness over ecological loss and degradation. And in the great American WASP tradition, we have no earthly idea how to talk about those feelings. So we don’t!” She notes that Michael Apathy, a psychotherapist who treats environmental anxiety, says he’s seeing in some of his younger patients “a real terror and despair that the picture of our individual and collective future is just so, so dark.”

Anxiety stems from conflicting views from reputable sources and much misinformation on both sides.

“This message of ‘We’re all going to die, how dare you say there might be something we can do’ … that’s just not supported by the science,” says Kate Marvel, a climate scientist and mathematician at Columbia University.

Michael Shellenberger, founder of Environmental Progress, says “no credible scientific body has ever said climate change threatens the collapse of civilization much less the extinction of the human species. There is a plenty of middle ground between climate apocalypse and climate denial.”

Bjorn Lomborg, author of “False Alarm: How Climate Change Panic Costs Us Trillions, Hurts the Poor, and Fails to Fix the Planet” assures us that fears of a climate apocalypse are unfounded. Global warming is real, but it is not the end of the world. It is a manageable problem. Yet, almost half the population believes climate change will extinguish humanity.

Equipped with a better understanding of the anxiety and its sources, we can begin to think about how the gospel brings peace to our hearts and minds. The next article, coming Friday, will offer a way forward in our teaching to students who fear for their future.

Dave Wright is the Coordinator for Student Ministries in the Anglican Diocese of South Carolina. He previously served churches in suburban Chicago and Cheshire England. Dave has written extensively for a variety of youth ministry publications, contributed to The Gospel Coalition blog and authored a chapter in the book Gospel Centered Youth Ministry. He blogs occasionally at

More From This Author