By IOF Program Manager, Rachel Rosner

On December 8th, IOF youth were a panel at the UN Climate Conference, in the Climate Live Pavilion, entitled Anxiety, Apathy and Action: Youth Mental Health in the face of Climate Disaster, moderated by Maiana Nelson who started with a grounding exercise which truly brought the audience in. Maiana shared data from a study in the The Lancet of 10 000 children and young people (aged 16–25 years) in 10 countries on 6 continents which indicated that 59% were very or extremely worried and 84% were at least moderately worried. 

Inspired by the work of Climate Psychologist Renee Lertzman, Maiana led a highly engaging mirroring exercise in which participants completed the sentence “When I think about the climate crisis and my work in it I feel…”

The youth panelists then shared the feelings that arose for them. 

Natasha spoke bravely about the grief and loss she felt when Bellbowl Prairie was bulldozed for an airport runway after she had devoted countless hours to fighting for it, at the age of 15. And how climate grief impacts her work

Katie Stabb talked about her guilt about every little decision from plastic spoons to a vegan diet, until she realized that it was BP that created the concept of a “Carbon Footprint,” pushing the burden onto individuals and taking the focus of the real culprit, the fossil fuel industry.  Of course Katie still strives to live according to her values, but the guilt has abated.  An audience member shared a new study from Oxfam indicating that it would take a member of the 99% 1,000 years to have the climate impact of the top 1%.

Maiana shared how lonely it can feel to be the one who cares about this or is willing to talk about it, and the importance of having a community of support – which these youth have found in It’s Our Future. 

An audience member asked the youth if they felt like they could stay in this work for the long haul given how absorbing it is. Each student echoed the sentiment that they felt that they had no choice – “if not me, then who?” Danica shared that she had been at an exciting event the night before, with Al Gore and others, and was energized. But when she got back to the hotel, she remembered that she had homework to do and proceeded to stay up until 4 am getting it done.  She acknowledged that this wasn’t healthy and her voice cracked a bit in the telling of it.

Subsequently another audience member started his comment “About loneliness…” and he needed a moment to compose himself before he could continue and share about youth climate summits.  The youth were deeply impacted by this moment of vulnerability and how the power of sharing their feelings and stories could impact others.

Danica expressed fear about her future along with anger that the crisis has been allowed to reach this point. Major studies show that a major cause of youth anxiety and despair is adult inaction.  Young people are seeing grave and intense climate impacts. They know what experts say is necessary – an end to fossil fuels, and they are seeing adults in power not doing everything in their power to make it happen.  The cognitive dissonance is profound.

Calls to action coming out of this session:  Find community. Take action. Talk about it.  Adults- take the lead and act with the urgency that the moment requires. 

It’s my great privilege to work with these young people and witness the quantity and quality of work they put into trying to preserve a livable planet, while also navigating school, college applications, extracurriculars and just being a kid. It’s simultaneously energizing and heavy. Often adults will say that they are inspired by the youth. The question is, Inspired to do what? Pledge to take action here, so our youth can know what you are doing or planning to do.