By Rose Troup Buchanan, with Sam Jahan in Barisal, Yasmine Canga-Valles in Lagos, and Robin Simmonds in London
Hong Kong (AFP) Nov 5, 2021
From Bangladesh to Britain to Nigeria, many young campaigners on the frontlines of the global fight for climate justice now face a new problem: the impact the crisis is having on their mental health.
As thousands of delegates converged at the COP26 summit in Glasgow to discuss ways to tackle the environmental emergency, AFP interviewed three youth activists around the world who spoke candidly of their experience of climate anxiety.
In Bangladesh, ranked seventh for countries most affected by extreme weather, activist Sohanur Rahman said he feels overwhelmed with concern over what he sees as a lack of political will to stop the destruction.
"(The) climate crisis is to me a mental stress, trauma and nightmare," says the 24-year-old, who now lives in the town of Barisal and who remembers a 2007 super cyclone that killed thousands of people in the South Asian nation.
"It kills me inside," he says softly, adding that he fears for his parents who live in the village of Nathullabad that was levelled by the cyclone.
- 'Environmental doom' -
The American Psychological Association has described climate or eco-anxiety as a "chronic fear of environmental doom".
As with other forms of anxiety, living with it long-term can impair people's daily ability to function, while exacerbating underlying mental health issues.
Researchers have warned children and young people are particularly vulnerable, as they contemplate a future mired with scorching heatwaves, devastating floods and storms, and rising seas.
A recent report led by researchers at the University of Bath in Britain, surveying 10,000 young people in 10 countries, found that 77 percent viewed the future as frightening because of climate change.
Around half of the respondents told researchers their fears over environmental change were affecting their daily lives.
- Fear, anxiety, anger -
Speaking to AFP in London, activist Dominique Palmer said: "I'm looking at the future, and what we face in the future, and there is a lot of fear and anxiety. And there is anger.
"Young people, myself included, feel betrayed by world leaders," the 22-year-old said at a climate protest ahead of the COP26 summit.
To deal with her anxiety, she campaigns.
"Sometimes it can feel quite hopeless until I am back and organising with my community," she said.
In Johannesburg, clinical psychologist Garret Barnwell showed sympathy and understanding for the young people facing difficult emotions over the crisis.
"It's a reality that children are facing this changing world. They're experiencing fear, anger, hopelessness, helplessness," Barnwell said.
The pressures of climate change also amplify pre-existing social injustices, he said, so younger generations are not only concerned about the environment but also, for example, healthcare access.
Yet despite this, when young people articulate their fears to adults such as teachers, often they find their feels are "invalidated", Barnwell added.
He welcomed the growing global awareness of climate anxiety, adding that while therapy can be helpful ultimately what is needed was political action.
- 'We bear the burden' -
But in the eyes of many young activists, that concrete action is lacking.
At the COP26 summit, dozens of countries this week joined a United States and European Union pledge to cut methane emissions.
The initiative, which experts say could have a powerful short-term impact on global heating, followed an agreement by 100 nations to end deforestation by 2030.
But a simmering diplomatic spat between the United States, China and Russia over their climate action ambitions showed the fragile nature of the talks.
"The previous COP, COP25, really sort of brought out this eco-anxiety I felt," said eco-feminist Jennifer Uchendu, 29, in Lagos.
She said she believed climate anxiety was especially an issue for younger people growing up in nations disproportionately affected by climate change.
"We bear the burden of climate change, even though we contributed the least to it," she said, a frown creasing her face.
Uchendu said that rather than bury her fears, she tries to accept them as valid.
"It's OK to feel overwhelmed," she said.
"It's OK to be afraid, scared and even anxious in the face of something so big and so overwhelming."
Francisco Javier Vera, the 12-yr-old climate activist with a big impact
The bespectacled school boy has become something of a sensation in his native Colombia, where he has earned a following for his charismatic championing of the environment and human rights.
Francisco, who stands just 1.4 metres (4 feet and six inches) tall, does not think his youth should diminish his voice.
"Regardless of what people say, that boys and girls are the future, I believe we are the present, we are the present and we have an opinion and a voice as citizens," he told AFP.
"But they don't allow us to express it."
He speaks quickly and passionately, with dramatic gesticulation to emphasise his point: there are few other children at the COP26 venue.
- Thinking big -
Francisco became an environmental activist at the age of nine, in March 2019, when he saw images of wildfires scorching across the Amazon and the forests of Australia.
Inspired by the Swedish activist Greta Thunberg and by Pakistani education rights champion Malala Yousafzai, he announced to his parents that he wanted to found a movement.
"When I arrived home that night, he had already compiled a whole database of contacts for people in the neighbourhood," said his mother Ana Maria Manzanares, a social worker.
She has since quit her job to devote time to supporting her son.
His father, a lawyer, initially objected fearing repercussions, but relented and ended up buying his son a megaphone.
Francisco began small.
He and six friends gave a speech outside the mayor's office in Villeta, his small town in the department of Cundinamarca, about 90 km from Bogota.
Francisco, who has an eloquence beyond his years, was already accustomed to public speaking, having given a talk to older children about the astrophysicist Stephen Hawking when he was eight.
"Many people ask if I have been trained to speak in this way, or to improve my vocabulary, but I think the most important thing is to let your ideas flow," he said.
His group has grown, with about 400 children now involved, organising Friday civic action, like litter picking.
By December 2019, just months after he decided to become an activist, he was delivering a speech to the Colombian Senate against fracking and single-use plastics.
The unruly legislators drummed on their chairs to show their disapproval, he said.
Nevertheless, Francisco is increasingly invited to take part in events with figures such as the Timorese Nobel Peace Prize winner Jose Ramos-Horta.
- 'A totally normal boy' -
He has skipped school to travel to COP26, but said he preferred "to miss a week of class to be with all the presidents of the planet".
"Greta said if we have neither a present nor a future we will not be able to study, so this is a priority," he said of the climate change conference.
He is attending the gathering as a "goodwill ambassador" for the European Union's Euroclima+ programme, which promotes sustainability in Latin America.
Speaking at COP26 "is very different from living where climate change is happening," he said, adding that even during his short life he has seen biodiversity loss in the lush Villeta waterfalls region.
World leaders must focus "not only on climate but for a dignified life, an education, health, human rights", he said.
"It saddens me that politicians do not listen to citizens."
His mother acts as a "containment barrier" against the avalanche of people who approach him.
He has received death threats online for asking for connectivity for all children so that they could study at a distance.
"In Colombia one always knows that this is a possibility", said Ana Maria.
Francisco does not want to talk about the threats, but he said the response from allies was a chance to "see that you have support".
When he grows up he wants to be a politician.
But in the meantime he said his hobbies include playing basketball with his friends and loves video games like Minecraft, and Assassin's Creed, like "a totally normal boy".
COP26 sees push to speed up carbon-cutting vows
Glasgow (AFP) Nov 4, 2021
With science warning that only swift action can avoid cataclysmic global warming, countries already feeling the lash of climate change are demanding that the timetable for updating national carbon-cutting pledges be radically accelerated. Currently, the nearly 200 nations that submitted voluntary emissions reduction schemes under the 2015 Paris Agreement have agreed to update those plans every five years, a process described as a "ratchet mechanism". The first set of revisions came due at the en ... read more
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