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Within scope: why climate change is an issue for children and families policy, right now

Published

12 Nov 2021

‘Climate change is not a separate problem, to be left to the scientists, diplomats or activists. Rather, it is a systemic factor that is likely to play a determining role in the success of future efforts to provide effective social supports to families and communities.’ EIF evidence director Tom McBride reflects on the likely impact of climate change on the structures surrounding early intervention, and its impacts upon young people’s mental health in particular.

Cop26, which some have billed as the last chance to save the planet, is drawing to a close, and armies of negotiators, politicians and activists will be leaving Glasgow. Over the coming weeks, the commitments made will be scrutinised, with experts across the world expressing views on whether they are sufficient to avert climate disaster and how likely it is that they will be delivered upon.

There is little doubt that climate change is one of the most pressing – if not the most pressing – issue we face. Yet it is tempting to think of it as separate from the issues which EIF grapples with, unrelated to questions about how we make better use of evidence to improve the life chances of children and young people. However, in my view is it time to take seriously the notion that climate change is a key macro issue that should be seen as within, rather than beyond, the realm of children and family’s social policy. If we care about outcomes for children then we must care about trying to minimise the impact that climate change will have on the planet they will inherit.

We need to recognise that climate change and the responses which are put in place will massively alter and constrain the economic and social structures in which we work. Viewed this way, climate change is not a separate problem, to be left to the scientists, diplomats or activists. Rather, it is a systemic factor that, like poverty, is likely to play a determining role in the success of future efforts to provide effective social supports to families and communities – and which, as with impacts of poverty, will undermine or weaken even our best efforts if left unaddressed and unaccounted for.

We need to recognise that climate change and the responses which are put in place will massively alter and constrain the economic and social structures in which we work.

We must also recognise that climate change is likely to be having a direct impact on the health and wellbeing of children right now, through the toll it exerts on their mental health. Data continues to emerge on the health impacts of climate anxiety, but the statistics show that young people are more aware of and concerned about climate issues than older generations, and that for younger people it is a dominating issue: in the UK Children’s Commissioner’s recent Big Ask survey, climate change was the second-most often cited worry about the future. Those of us who grew up before climate change became such a defining geopolitical issue owe more to these children than to dismiss or undermine their legitimate concerns about the future of the planet.

This climate anxiety was brought to life in a recent event hosted by the Association for Child and Adolescent Mental Health (ACAMH), through a panel of young people from several different countries of the global north and south. Discussing their experience of ‘eco-distress’, they described feeling a lack of control and helplessness in the face of the climate change, feeling overwhelmed, intense frustration, and anger at global injustice. They also described a distinctive experience where learning more and trying to reason through the problem, which might typically help to reduce anxiety around an issue, instead increases those feelings of anxiety, anger and helplessness.

Other speakers drew the distinction between direct impacts of climate change on mental health – for example, in the PTSD suffered by those who experience adverse climate events – and its indirect impacts, or so-called eco-anxiety. This reflects, in their words, the ‘moral dissonance’ between young people’s expectations of global action and their perceptions of recognition or urgency in the social or political response, threatening to undermine trust and diminish hope for the future.

While evidence on the prevalence and nature of eco-anxiety is still emerging, on a global level both direct and indirect impacts are more likely to be experienced by vulnerable people and communities, reflecting a relative lack of power to act decisively and effectively to address the issue themselves. This demonstrates a common theme of the discussion: that eco-anxiety is better understood as a societal problem of accountability and empathy, rather than of individual pathology. In this respect, the lesson is that while effective mental health support may help to build resilience or address the symptoms of anxiety related to climate change, the underlying causes and solutions are and must be social rather than individual.

Early intervention is a societal effort to provide additional support for the children, young people and families who need it. We must recognise that climate change will change the political and social conditions that we work in. And, at the same time, we must recognise that we have a duty to find ways to address the particular impacts it may be having on children and young people, particularly from communities – local or global – who are most vulnerable to its effects.

About the author

Tom McBride

Tom is director of evidence at EIF.