Intergenerational action can help overcome a climate of fear

Graham Duxbury
Wednesday, July 3, 2019

As we witness heatwaves across central Europe, freak hail storms in Mexico and simultaneous drought and flooding in India, even the most hardened climate change deniers are struggling to avoid the conclusion that something's up. 

More than 90 local authorities (and rising) have now declared a climate emergency, matching the ‘legacy commitment' made by Theresa May.  All we need to do now is figure out what a climate emergency means, who the emergency services are and what we need to do to avoid or prepare for the worst.

For a young person full of hopes and aspirations for the future these questions are doubly important. As we ratchet up the rhetoric in order to focus minds and galvanise action - now with talk of a 12-year window to avoid the most catastrophic effects - we need to be conscious of the impact on those who stand to be most affected.

I've witnessed the effect of this change in public discourse on inquiring young minds in my own family. The questions are natural, and tough for a parent to deal with sensibly. What's going to happen? Who's doing something about it? What can I do? Going plastic free at Glastonbury is one thing but how should children respond when they hear that the Amazon rainforest is being cleared at a rate of one football pitch per minute or that sea ice in the Antarctic has disappeared at an alarming rate in the last four years.

Building awareness and a desire for change is great, but if we don't at the same time help young people understand how they can help bring about that change we risk fostering frustration and impotence.

Research released by Mind this week shows that three in five young people of the 12,000 surveyed said they'd experienced mental health problems or were close to someone who has. Many point to exam stress, cyber-bullying and appearance pressures as the root of their anxiety. We need to avoid adding to this list with the existential threat of a warming climate.

Psychologists point to the fact that feeling trapped and powerless in a stressful situation can be a common precursor to more serious mental health issues. The Manifesto for Health Creation, developed by the New NHS Alliance, points to the importance of feeling ‘in control over the circumstances impacting on your life' to wellness and calls for more ‘power-shifting' so that people and communities can make decisions about the things that affect them and their environment.

Our experience over many years is that, when given the right tools and support, young people seize the opportunity to deliver practical environmental change, and do so knowing that however insignificant their actions might seem in isolation, they're part of a wider movement focused on constructive solutions.

Our job is to make sure there are sufficient practical outlets for this energy. For example, if schools are worried about pupils striking over climate change then one answer is to devote Friday afternoons to ‘green community' actions - developing and delivering campaigns and projects on air pollution or plastics.

If the incoming prime minister wants to ‘heal rifts' in our broken society post-Brexit, then supporting inter-generational community action on climate change is not a bad place to start. One of the great things about youth is the optimism and sense of possibility that comes with it. Given the gravity of the issues we're facing those are going to be precious commodities that we should protect.

Graham Duxbury is chief executive of Groundwork

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