“Adults in positions of power such as teachers and counselors can play a major role in supporting young people in responding to the climate crisis through meaning-focused coping”
The movement for climate justice consists more and more of young people demanding a socially just and equitable transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy (Fisher, 2016). Most recently, sixteen-year-old Greta Thunberg ignited the international school strike movement that culminated in more than one million young people protesting for climate justice (Marris, 2019). Indigenous youth and youth of color from around the world living in frontline communities disproportionately affected by climate change have led numerous protests and advocacy efforts including the Dakota Access Pipeline protests (Wikler & Yakupitiyage, 2019). Organizations such as the youth-led Sunrise movement have led political advocacy efforts and 21 youth activists have sued the U.S. government for a clean and safe environment (Juliana et al., v. the United States of America, 2015). Spurred by a growing sense of frustration from the inaction of older adults in power, youth are no longer waiting to take their cues from adults in responding to the climate crisis. Researchers believe this is a powerful tactic because adults view youth as having more moral authority (Marris, 2019).
At the same time, many youth are struggling to make sense of a future in a world that is in peril. Learning about the climate crisis frequently induces experiences of worry, anxiety, frustration, and hopelessness (Ojala, 2016). These emotional responses can be considered adaptive for their role in promoting pro-environmental behaviors (Verplanken & Roy, 2013). Yet they can also lead to avoidant coping, which is associated with the development of mental health issues (Burke, Sanson, & Van Hoorn, 2018). Alternatively, psychologists describe meaning-focused coping as an optimal strategy for promoting well-being and environmental engagement (Burke et al., 2018; Ojala, 2016). In meaning-focused coping, individuals “draw on their beliefs, values, and existential goals to evoke positive feelings that can help them to bear the worry associated with the threat of climate change, without having to minimize or deny its reality” (Burke et al., p. 35). Examples of meaning-focused coping can be seen in youth-led activism, as described by Greta Thunberg:
I lost a lot of weight, because I was just so depressed. Nothing seemed to matter anymore. But then I started to come back, to become better, to feel better. And a reason for that was because I saw that there are actually things you can do, and I realized that I can do things.… I became a climate activist. And that helped a lot. And I think the more involved I became … the better I feel, the happier I feel, because I feel like I’m doing something important, something meaningful. (Democracy Now, 2019).
Adults in positions of power such as teachers and counselors can play a major role in supporting young people in responding to the climate crisis through meaning-focused coping. Ojala (2016) argues for the potential of transformative and transgressive pedagogical approaches that include a focus on addressing the emotional aspects of climate change, such as anxiety and despair. Teachers and counselors can do this through role-modeling and evoking a sense of hope.
Teachers are powerful role-models when it comes to emotional regulation and expression. In a study of environmental and sustainable education, researchers found that high school students who believed their teachers would not validate their negative emotions concerning social issues were more likely to de-emphasize the threats of climate change than students who perceived their teachers as validating and supportive (Ojala, 2015). In the aftermath of climate-change related natural disasters and other climate change-related headlines, teachers and counselors should create spaces for students to openly process their feelings relating to climate change. Teachers and counselors can engender a sense of hope by drawing attention to the success of social movements throughout human history, discussing concrete pathways towards social change and environmental sustainability, and promoting individual agency by discussing ways students can become involved in advocacy efforts.
In conclusion, climate change presents an existential threat which threatens the livelihood and well-being of future generations. Young people all across the world are already beginning to wake up to this reality and take political action. Teachers and counselors can follow their lead and act as supportive allies and role-models in this fight.
Burke, S. E. L., Sanson, A. V., & Hoorn, J. V. (2018). The psychological effects of climate change on children. Current Psychiatry Reports, 20, 1-8. doi:10.1007/s11920-018-0896-9
Democracy Now. (2019, September). “We are striking to disrupt the system”: An hour with 16-year-old climate activist Great Thunberg. Democracy Now. Retrieved from https://www.democracynow.org/2019/9/11/greta_thunberg_swedish_activist_climate_crisis
Fisher, S. (2016). Life trajectories of youth committing to climate activism. Environmental Education Research, 22, 229-247. doi:10.1080/13504622.2015.1007337
Juliana et al., v. United States of America, F. Supp. (D. Or. 2015)
Marris, E. (2019, September). Why young climate activists have captured the world’s attention. Nature: International Journal of Science. Retrieved from https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-02696-0
Ojala, M. (2016). Facing anxiety in climate change education: From therapeutic practice to hopeful transgressive learning. Canadian Journal of Environmental Education, 21, 41-56.
Ojala, M. (2015). Hope in the face of climate change: Associations with environmental engagement and student perceptions of teachers’ emotion communication style and future orientation. Journal of Environmental Education, 46, 133-148.
Wikler, M. & Yakupitiyage, T. (2019, October). 11 young climate justice activists you need to pay attention to. Vice. Retrieved from https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/8xwvq3/11-young-climate-justice-activists-you-need-to-pay-attention-to-beyond-greta-thunbergVerplanken, B., & Roy, D. (2013). “My worries are rational, climate change is not”. Habitual ecological worry is an adaptive response. PLoS One, 8, 1-6.
About the Author: Alex Hilert, M.Ed. is a 3rd year doctoral candidate in Counselor Education and Supervision at William and Mary. He is currently pursuing research in culturally competent counseling practices and mindfulness meditation.