Levels of eco-anxiety are rising among the young, but the planet’s future is brighter than many think
A few days ago, I received an email from my local council offering “climate anxiety” therapy for those worried about global warming. It was too interesting an invitation to refuse. A “climate psychologist” convened the group and asked for their feelings: afraid, angry, helpless and guilty were the main words offered. Such anxiety is natural, he said, but can be remedied by “distancing” oneself from negative climate news. He didn’t quite say how such a feat could be achieved.
For children it would mean avoiding school, where much of this is now built into the curriculum. It would also mean avoiding television or radio news, seldom short of climate gloom. This week, for example, the BBC announced that the planet is “predicted to pass the 1.5 degree global warming threshold in the next few years,” a tipping point after which terrible effects become irreversible. This was followed up by a guest saying how global warming would be worse for Europe than Bangladesh. But the balancing good news – of which there is plenty – was never mentioned.
We’re now familiar with the lack of scrutiny or perspective when the subject is discussed. Some newspapers tell writers to avoid neutral phrases like “climate change” and instead say “emergency”, “crisis” or “breakdown”. Politicians have tended to compete with each other to see who can ring the alarm the loudest. Ed Miliband wanted to decarbonise electricity by 2030; Theresa May made Britain one of the few countries in the world with a legal target to hit net zero by 2050. But just how much would this cost? No one was really told.
Now, the bill is beginning to land – and reality beginning to bite. Dutch farmers recently drove tractors into The Hague to protest against its green diktats. In Germany, where the war in Ukraine has brought a new energy realpolitik, wind turbines are being dismantled to make way for an expanded coal mine. Sweden’s 27-year-old environment minister has been quietly diluting the green laws she inherited. Emmanuel Macron – famously chastened by the gilets jaunes – last week called on the EU to stop its barrage of green legislation, saying that enough is enough. We might just have passed Peak Green.
It’s all moving quite quickly. Last autumn, Germany signed an EU target to ban the sale of internal combustion engine cars by 2035. It now opposes the idea, as does Italy, Poland and Czechia. That’s not to say the green agenda is collapsing under the pressure of public scorn: it’s simply being subjected to the kind of scrutiny that was never applied in the first place. How much will it cost? What will it achieve? Germany’s transport minister has been making a good argument: what’s the point in electric cars if the power that drives them comes from burning coal?
Rishi Sunak has been quietly dialling down the green agenda he inherited from Boris Johnson, using the language of net zero while adding his own dose of realism. He has created the “Department for Energy Security and Net Zero” – the first part of the job being the most important. So he has authorised new drilling in the North Sea and even the opening of a new coal mine in Cumbria, both projects over which Johnson prevaricated. His recent energy security speech was given in a fusion research centre in Oxfordshire: a nod to his hopes for technology, not diktats, to make the green running.
The Tories are trialling a new, more optimistic “bright green” message emphasising technology, progress and achievement. Britain has cut carbon emissions faster than any G20 country since 2010. Quite a feat. Factor in imports and we’re the second-fastest. UK carbon emissions per head are now at their lowest level since the invention of the traction engine in 1859. The average British household uses a quarter less energy than 20 years ago. All stunning achievements that are getting harder to ignore.
Sadiq Khan is running into trouble with his Ulez zone, similar to those in Bristol and Oxford, because it’s hard for him to deny that the air is cleaner than any time in living memory. I turned 50 last weekend. In my lifetime, nitrogen oxides levels have fallen by 78 per cent, PM10 levels by 75 per cent, PM2.5 by 81 per cent and sulphur dioxide by 98 per cent. If the Mayor of London regards this as a crisis, I’m not quite sure what word he’d use to describe the last couple of centuries.
There has never been a better time to be young, be old or to bring children into the world. But successive opinion polls show that eco-anxiety is all too real: we’ve somehow managed to rear a generation who are anxious and alarmed about a future where they can expect to live a longer, healthier life than any generation that has come before them.
As with the Project Fear advertising during Covid, we need to ask if there are side effects to the one-sided barrage of negativity or how it must feel to be a sixth-former subjected to years of classroom alarmism. Even the brightest minds can be affected by this. I was at an Oxford seminar earlier this month where a student said she had decided not to have children so as to not burden the planet. A logical conclusion (not having a child easily outweighs all other carbon-saving lifestyle changes) but a rather depressing one.
The case for optimism is not just based on the pace of progress and the certainty of more innovation to come but on the basic economics of it. Reports envisaging high sea levels for Bangladesh also assume the country will end up as rich as the Netherlands is today, therefore able to build more flood defences. This is its best hope. Getting richer needs more people, so humans remain more of a solution than a problem. This is why climate-related deaths have fallen by about 90 per cent over the course of the last century: wealthier countries can better prepare for natural disasters.
In my climate therapy session, one attendee used a rather rebellious word to describe his feelings about the future: “optimistic”. It’s a very defensible position, with an ever-mounting base of evidence to support it. As the dark-green agenda fades over Europe, the case for rational eco-optimism is waiting to be made.