Students in Brittany Jefferson’s class can rattle off facts and opinions about deforestation, corporate greed, rising tides, warming temperatures, and the unequal plight of poorer countries as soon as the topic of climate change is introduced.
And most of them are just 10 years old.
“Because of global warming, and the amount of gas that we use, and the animals that we kill, and all the trash that we're putting in the ocean, we're just taking everything,” says a fifth-grader named Jack at Citizens of the World Silver Lake charter school.
That doesn’t mean these students are sanguine about ecological collapse.
“It makes me feel overwhelmed,” says Hayoon, one of Jack’s classmates. “If I was in the next generation, I would just cry and eat ice cream all day.”
With greater knowledge comes greater anxiety. And while it’s important to LA Unified School District administrators to educate kids about the warming world – this year the LAUSD board passed a resolution committing to incorporating climate literacy into existing curriculum – that leaves teachers grappling with how to inform children without traumatizing them.
“They don't have faith in the people powerful enough to make systemic changes,” says fifth-grade teacher Jefferson. “And so they're just like, ‘Yeah, the world is burning. And so we're gonna burn eventually.’ And so that's something that I am working to combat.”
Kids like Jack and Hayoon are part of a cohort “that is experiencing much higher levels of anxiety than earlier generations,” says David Bond, a licensed clinical social worker and trauma specialist from Blue Shield of California. It was different for their parents, Bond says, who might think, “‘Well, somebody else is going to figure that out.’”
“For young people,” he continues, “they are the ones who have to figure this out. And also there's a sense [that] older generations aren't doing enough to mitigate the harm that we have done to the environment. So there's a sense of anger and frustration at older generations as well.”
Citizens of the World Silver Lake fifth-grader Sawyer is ready to prove the point.
“I feel like we take it a bit more seriously than some adults because we actually care about having this earth, not having it turned into just like a wasteland,” he says.
But that doesn’t make Sawyer hopeful. “Eventually, this is just going to end up in a way that kills us all.”
Lucy Garcia with Climate Reality Project, which helped spearhead LAUSD’s climate literacy effort, knows this is a problem. She believes one way to combat anxiety is talking about it in the classroom. When it’s ignored, she says, “That's where the trauma is worsened. So the most important thing is to be able to have them see that we are working on it, that we need their help … [rather] than to ignore it. Because they see it anyway – this is the age of the internet.”
Bond agrees that climate anxiety and the internet can create a problem for kids, because social media can become a place for teenagers to air their stress and anxiety publicly, which encourages doomscrolling.
Teacher Blossom Shores at Van Nuys Middle School says her best antidote to climate anxiety is teaching kids about solutions that are working.
“They're more perceptive than we realize,” she says. “Yes, we want them to understand the gravity of it, but we don't want them to have dystopian reality fears. … It's so important for them to feel empowered.”
When Shores recently gave a climate talk to a class of Van Nuys Middle School sixth-graders, it started with some bleak statistics. But when she got to the back half of the presentation and started talking about the exponential growth of wind and solar energy, some students were more than ready to jump on the optimism bandwagon.
“Now there’s a chance that global warming doesn’t get worse,” says one student named Luciana.
Her classmate Tyler was glad to see some of the good news, but says it still doesn’t outweigh the bad news.
“It hasn’t done so just yet, but I hope it will in the future.”