Gen Z Is Increasingly Developing Anxiety About Climate Change

Protect our future climate change protest sign.

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Key Takeaways

  • A March 2021 survey found that 83% of Gen Z youth are concerned about the health of the planet.
  • Concerns about climate change can bring about eco-anxiety, or manifestations of clinical anxiety related to fears about the future of the environment.
  • Mental and physical impacts of climate change serve as motivation to make changes at the policy level, such as going carbon neutral, using renewable energy, and reducing waste.

With the rise of natural disasters and increasing concerns related to climate change, many young people are feeling the effects of eco-anxiety—a persistent worrying related to the future of the planet and its inhabitants.

In fact, a recent survey shows that about 83% of Gen Z Americans—people between the ages of 14 and 24—are concerned about the health of the planet and say that the quality of their environment affects their health and well-being. For one in three, an environmental event or natural disaster—not including COVID-19—prevented them from being able to exercise outside at least once in the past five years. A fourth of all respondents also said that a similar event impacted their ability to concentrate in school.

"Climate change is an urgent public health crisis," Antoinette Mayer, BS, senior director of corporate citizenship at Blue Shield of California, which carried out the 2021 NextGen Climate Survey published this month, tells Verywell. "We really want to hear directly from young people on how climate change affects their lives. Are they optimistic about the future?"

Navjot Bhullar, PhD, professor of psychology at the University of New England in Australia, who researches environmental influences on mental health, tells Verywell that eco-anxiety can lead to symptoms just like those in generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and can worsen when environmental events occur. "Negative emotions are spiraling out because the intensity and frequency of natural disasters are increasing year after year," Bhullar says.

What Is Eco-Anxiety?

Eco-anxiety doesn't yet have a clinical definition or diagnosis, but Bhullar is working with a team of clinicians to develop a scale measuring its impact and symptoms. "The symptoms of clinical anxiety are the same," Bhullar says. "There's a sense of dread or doom and not being able to concentrate, with a physical side of heart palpitations."

Why eco-anxiety happens, Bhullar adds, is one of the questions guiding her research. One hypothesis involves our connection to nature. "Biophilia is the love for nature, and we all have this really strong, innate connection with nature," she says. "And climate change's impacts are disrupting that connection." Because of that disruption, people experience ecological grief, anxiety, worry, and distress. All of these symptoms have implications for our mental health outcomes in terms of developing symptoms of depression, stress, and then PTSD, especially for people who have lost their homes.

Bhullar offers the examples of the Australia and California wildfires, natural processes that spun out of control due to climate changes such as abnormal dryness, high temperatures, and strong winds. "The other day I was reading on social media—someone was saying that are only two seasons in California now: seasonal fires and then seasonal thinking about fires," Bhullar says. "That's a shame. It shows you the distress that communities and people are experiencing. And young people are the ones who are going to live longer. I mean, think about that. Of course they are really worried about the future."

What This Means For You

If you or someone you know is experiencing anxiety and fear related to climate change, experts recommend partaking in individual actions such as connecting to nature, talking with others, and taking part in activism to help soothe these feelings. You can find a list of environmental justice groups to support and donate to as they work to advocate for groups most affected by climate disasters here.

Gen Z and Climate Anxiety

The survey polled 1,200 Gen Zers, ages 14 to 24, from all around the United States in early March. Respondents were spread across cities, suburbs, and towns, with only 9% living in rural areas. Politics were across the board as well, with 35% identifying as liberal, 23% moderate, 19% conservative, and the remaining either other, none, or unsure.

According to the results:

  • Almost two-thirds say that their generation takes climate change seriously, while only a third say that their parents' generation does
  • 86% percent say that the quality of their environment affects their health and well-being, while 69% and 75% say that their physical and mental health has been affected by their environment, respectively
  • About a quarter to a third also expressed having been personally impacted by environmental events, such as not being able to exercise outside or concentrate in school, or even experiencing anxiety, depression, headaches, coughing, and sore throat, as a result
  • The top three environmental issues that concerned respondents were air quality, water pollution, and plastic pollution
  • Lastly, almost two-thirds agreed that race/ethnic background affects health and well-being

These findings, Mayer says, show that Gen Z youth are not only impacted by issues like climate change but are also acutely aware of them.

"Environmental justice is really top of mind for these young people," she says.

The survey results are also in line with preliminary findings from the Youth Development Instrument (YDI), Hasina Samji, PhD, an epidemiologist at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, tells Verywell. The YDI, a well-being survey of 16-year-olds in British Columbia, Canada, found that more than 70% were worried about the consequences of climate change and felt that the threat should be taken more seriously. And for Samji, the NextGen survey goes a bit further. "Findings [showing that] the environment affects their physical and mental health underscores how our health is inextricably linked to the planet's health," she adds.

Worries related to the environment, especially without respite or hope, can contribute to serious anxiety symptoms and disorders, Bhullar says, referencing the recent wildfires around where she lives outside of Sydney. "I have lived through that period where air pollution because of the wildfires was so bad for days, that there was a haze in the air we were breathing," she says.

During this same period, Bhullar drove through a nature reserve area, which, after the fires, looks like a "ghost town" full of black and charred tree trunks. "It's quite distressing to observe that," she adds. "And it's just not happening somewhere, in a completely different country. It's happening here, every single year."

Hasina Samji, PhD

We need to make space for young people at tables discussing climate change and impacts on people and the planet.

— Hasina Samji, PhD

Samji stresses the need for action—whether it be reducing harmful commercial fishing practices or understanding stresses related to climate change. In September 2020, she and colleagues published a call to action, highlighting the need for mental health professionals, policymakers, and advocates to work together. "Young people may be at greatest risk of eco-anxiety and would bear the greatest costs of inaction," Samji says.

Looking Toward the Future

Unrelenting environmental events, such as annual wildfires, hurricanes, or floods, can lead to anxiety flare-ups, especially if there's no hope for change. The survey did, however, poll Gen Z youth on what they see for the future.

About half said they feel better about the health of the planet since President Joe Biden took office, while 60% believe that his administration will "take steps to meaningfully address and combat climate change."

These findings, Mayer says, motivate Blue Shield of California's climate goals, or "NextGen Goals," for the future, which includes becoming carbon negative by 2023, achieve energy efficiency through renewable energy, and achieving zero-waste operations by 2025.

These goals parallel some of the Biden administration's projects, which include cutting all greenhouse gas emissions from power plants by 2035. Still, scientists and business leaders say that changes need to be made sooner.

Mental Health Impact Should Drive Change

In light of increasingly occurring and daunting climate events, many are taking action, whether it be through composting in their homes, activism, or advocating for policy changes. While individual actions can do good, Bhullar says, what the Earth and eco-anxiety are really going to need is that last piece, too: changes in policy. "There are individual responsibilities that we are doing, like recycling," she says. "But the barriers are at a systemic and structural level."

As the world has seen with COVID-19—governments and organizations working internationally with guidance from scientists to develop a vaccine—if it can work in the same way to lessen the effects of climate change, Bhullar says, then we will see relief. That involves doing what is right, and worrying less about who is "right," she says.

"It is about thinking about what is right for the planet and for all of us on this planet, including us and other species," she says. "But also for our future generations, because that is our responsibility—leaving a habitable planet for the continuation of our species. So it's not about being right or just short-term thinking. If governments can do that for a global pandemic, we have seen things can change."

While anxiety can lead people to a catatonic state, so paralyzed by fear that they can't act, Bhullar says that spreading awareness of eco-anxiety and the mental health impacts of climate changes propel that international effort forward.

"To me, the message is of hope via action, because it's making us feel uncomfortable and we have to do something about it," she adds.

Samji adds that the most vulnerable for eco-anxiety and climate change can also be the most resilient agents for change. "We need to make space for young people at tables discussing climate change and impacts on people and the planet," she says. "It is imperative that we find ways to create and sustain this space and develop creative ways to engage young people to mitigate the impacts of the climate crisis on their well-being."

5 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. World Resources Institute. 4 Things to know about Australia's wildfires and their impacts on forests.

  2. Blue Shield of California. NextGen climate survey: 2021 survey report.

  3. Wu J, Snell G, Samji H. Climate anxiety in young people: A call to action. The Lancet Planetary Health4(10), e435–e436. doi: 0.1016/S2542-5196(20)30223-0

  4. National Public Radio (NPR). How does the Biden administration plan to reach its clean energy goal.

  5. Associated Press. Business leaders urge Biden to set ambitious climate goal.

By Sarah Simon
Sarah Simon is a bilingual multimedia journalist with a degree in psychology. She has previously written for publications including The Daily Beast and Rantt Media.