Children and young people fear Government no longer cares about climate change, says RCPCH report

Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) has published a report detailing children and young people’s first-hand experiences and understanding of climate change, revealing a staggering rise in eco-anxiety among younger generations.

The report titled ‘Preserving the world for future generations: Children and young people’s perspectives on how to tackle climate change’ was produced by RCPCH to provide a thorough insight of how children and young people, both in the UK and internationally, perceive and comprehend climate change. It showed that children both in the UK and globally, are experiencing “eco anxiety” or “eco distress” fuelled by climate change concerns. Eco anxiety, or eco-distress, is defined as a chronic fear of environmental doom, a worry for what might happen if the world does not take action to avert disaster in time. The report, which represents the views of over 95,000 children and young people globally, outlines a number of reoccurring themes such as eco-anxiety, frustration and fear with inactivity from world leaders and inequalities people face in experiencing the effects of climate change.

 The findings include:

  • A survey showing that 49% of UK participants aged 16 to 25 were either very worried or extremely worried about climate change.
  • Globally, 75% of international respondents in the same survey considered the future frightening, with 83% believing that humans have inadequately cared for the planet.
  • Moreover, 55.7% of children and young people in that survey thought humanity was doomed, and 54.9% anticipated fewer opportunities than their parents due to climate change.
  • When asked about how climate change is impacting health in an RCPCH &Us workshop, children and young people pointed to mental health as the most common answer. Key concerns included:
  • Climate change impacting mental health and increasing eco-anxiety.
  • Adults putting pressure on young to fix climate change and the impact this has on mental health.
  • Thoughts and feelings of anxiety, stress, anger, hopelessness, and a lack of motivation because of climate change. 
  • Fear of losing homes and lives because of climate change.

Young people in the UK also expressed anxiety about floods in their local areas as well as the wider impacts that ice melting will have on the environment, highlighting the connection between climate change and its impact on their mental health. Young people from Northamptonshire noted that “climate change is affecting the next generation” and that there is a “lack of caring about climate change”. Other young people from Northamptonshire stated that “climate change has been normalised”. It is clear that inaction from Government on climate change issues is causing children considerable stress and worry for their futures.

However, children and young people within the report were found to have a very clear understanding of climate change as a whole and a desire to be embedded within climate change working groups and campaigns. The children and young people surveyed had a range of solutions that they felt could not only tackle climate change but also improve the lives and health of the general population. These included greater access to green spaces, protecting water sources, improving public transport and infrastructure, making cities flood resilient, and improving access to affordable housing, health services, education, and waste management services. Young people also noted the important role that healthcare professionals play in supporting young people in a changing climate, from implementing sustainable practices in healthcare, to education and advocacy.

 RCPCH concludes that is imperative that the voices of young generations are heard and listened to by decision-making authorities as the future planet will be inherited by today’s young people. The College also calls on Government to recognise and act upon the mental health challenges posed by the climate crisis, particularly the rise eco-anxiety amongst children and young people. There must be accessible mental health services which address climate-related stress and anxiety so that children and young people are supported to cope with these challenges. 

RCPCH President, Dr Camilla Kingdon, said:

This report confirms that the climate crisis is taking a profound toll on the mental health of children and young people. It’s understandable that young people feel scared, and angry, especially after our government’s recent roll back on its net zero targets. It is fundamentally unfair that young people must fix the mistakes of adults, especially if adults in positions to make lasting, sustainable change choose not to.

Overall though, I find myself profoundly moved by the contents of this report. It sheds light on a topic of immense significance - how children and young people in the UK and across the world perceive climate change. The report highlights the keen level of understanding young people have about the climate crisis and even how best to approach it. I was heartened to read about these children’s passion for stamping out pollution, protecting biodiversity and the provision of safe, sustainable housing and health services. Their solutions are thoughtful, wise, and very workable. These children deserve to be heard and to be placed front and centre in the minds of policy makers and world leaders. 

Chair of the RCPCH Climate Change Advocacy Group, Dr Katie Knight, said:

It’s no wonder that children are scared for their futures in a changing climate; as paediatrician I’m scared for them too. My profession works tirelessly to protect the health and wellbeing of children and currently, climate change is the biggest threat to our children’s future. Children born today will face disproportionate increases in floods, heatwaves, droughts and crop failures. Climate change also worsens air quality and pollution, which has disastrous effects on heart, lung and brain health. We’re seeing the start of this now, and already children are being unequally affected. Though it’s been said many times, it bears repeating – the climate crisis is a health crisis.

As such, the role of health professionals in this work will be a vital one. The children in this report understand this and have identified several ways in which the healthcare sector can support them. We must listen.

A whole system approach is needed, one which focuses on mental health support, collaboration with local and national charities and organisations, additional resources and support for families who are most subject to the inequalities exacerbated by climate change, and advocacy on a local and national level. However, healthcare professionals cannot do this important work alone. We call on our government to recognise and respond to this and create meaningful change. They must act and give our children a future to be hopeful for.

As a young person who is part of the RCPCH &Us Climate Changers group stated:

RCPCH understands that young people can help fix the climate change emergency and they have committed to help us along the way. The fact that [the] College is also taking a note of the ideas and perspectives of young people is great as it allows our voices and opinions to be heard and it makes children and young people feel like they are truly making a change.