COP26, Youth, and the Failure of Governments

As international leaders gather in Glasgow, Scotland for the COP26 climate summit, which U.S. climate envoy John Kerry calls “the last best hope for the world to get its act together,” perhaps the most important thing they can keep in mind is a landmark study issued in September that underscores the deep anxiety, distress, and anger that young people are experiencing about climate change and government inaction to deal with it. 

In New York City, ahead of COP26, activists unfurled a giant banner in front of the United Nations headquarters. Photo by Rainforest Action Network licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

The survey—the largest global investigation of its kind—asked 1,000 16- to 25-year-olds in each of ten countries how they felt about the climate crisis and government responses to it. The results found that 59% of respondents said they felt “very worried” or “extremely worried” about climate change and over 45% of them said their feelings about climate change negatively affected their daily lives. Thirty-nine percent indicated they were “hesitant to have children.” Underlying the distress of young people was the perception, in the words of the report, “that they have no future, that humanity is doomed, that governments are failing to respond adequately, and with feelings of betrayal and abandonment by governments and adults.

Caroline Hickman, a researcher in climate psychology at the University of Bath and one of the authors, acknowledged in an NPR interview ​that they were aware children and young people around the world were upset about climate change. “What we didn’t realize was quite how frightened they were,” she said. “We didn’t realize the depth of the feeling. And we didn’t realize how that was impacting on their thinking and their daily functioning.”

The sad fact is that young people have substantial cause to be worried. Greenhouse gas emissions reached a new record high last year and a U.N. emissions gap analysis—what U.N. secretary general Antonio Guterres called a “thundering wake-up call”—released just before the opening of COP26 demonstrated that commitments made under the Paris Agreement will fail to keep the global warming under 1.5C this century. Indeed, it concluded that the world was on track to heat up about 2.7C, which would have disastrous consequences. Another U.N. report found that fossil fuel production planned by the world’s governments “vastly exceeds” the limit needed to keep the rise in global temperature to 1.5C.

As might be expected, the survey of young people revealed some variation from country to country. The largest proportion of respondents who felt “very worried” or “extremely worried” lived in countries extremely vulnerable to climate destabilization: the Philippines (84%), India (68%) and Brazil (67%). But even young people from the wealthier nations included in the survey (Australia, Finland, France, Portugal, the U.K., and the U.S.) expressed a great deal of concern. Sixty-five percent of young Portuguese, for example, indicated high degrees of climate anxiety.

Especially troubling is the revelation that an overwhelming majority of those surveyed believed their governments were not telling them the truth about the effectiveness of the measures they were undertaking on climate change. A news report in Nature succinctly summarized the findings: “65% of respondents agreed with the statement that governments are failing young people, 64% agreed that they are lying about the impact of actions taken, and 60% agreed they were dismissing people’s distress. Only 36% agreed that governments are acting according to science.”

Pause for a moment to consider the meaning of these data: most young people in the world believe that their governments are deceiving them about the most critical issue of our time, an unprecedented crisis that threatens the very future of human civilization. Don’t be surprised if a lot of these youth show up in Glasgow to express their frustration and anger about this situation. In fact, let’s hope they do. It may be the only way to finally get politicians and policymakers to pay attention and take the steps necessary to head off runaway climate chaos.

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