Climate Anxiety


The existential threat posed by climate change is deeply troubling to many young people

Elizabeth Pinsky used to think of climate change as less a near-term threat than one whose effects loomed in the distant future. Then headlines about a 2018 climate report from the United Nations caught her eye. In the report, scientists claimed that if greenhouse gas emissions continue unabated, rising sea levels caused by warming temperatures would likely inundate some global coastlines and intensify droughts and poverty in other parts of the world by 2040. This was far sooner than previously projected. “I immediately thought of my two young kids,” says Pinsky, MD ’06, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital. “I wondered what the world would look like to them. I started realizing these changes might affect their lives profoundly — and that would likely affect mine as well.”

A global survey published in Lancet Planetary Health in 2021 reported that among an international cohort of more than 10,000 people between the ages of 16 and 25, 60 percent described themselves as very worried about the climate and nearly half said the anxiety affects their daily functioning. Since young people expect to live longer with climate-related crises than their parents will, “they feel grief in the face of what they’re losing,” Pinsky says.

As she feared, damage that threatens the planet’s future — and the anxiety that this threat can engender — is affecting the lives of young people. And it has changed her life: Pinsky now works at the forefront of mental health efforts to help young people manage the emotional burdens of climate change.

Anticipated peril

Compared to threats to our physical health from climate change — heat-related injuries, for instance, or the spread of tropical diseases — its mental health consequences are less researched. But emerging studies reveal a mounting toll, especially among young people.