'Is this the future?' Studies back Sanders’ concern about climate impacts on kids’ mental health

'Is this the future?' Studies back Sanders’ concern about climate impacts on kids’ mental health
WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 01: U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VA) talks to reporters at the U.S. Capitol on May 01, 2023 in Washington, DC. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said the U.S. could default on its debt as soon as June 1 if lawmakers do not increase the debt limit. (Photo by Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images).

United States Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) on Thursday expressed concern about the cognitive consequences of climate change on young people as toxic smoke from hundreds of raging wildfires in Canada chokes the Eastern swath of the country.

"But it's not just social media, as dangerous as that may be," Sanders said at a Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions hearing on youth mental health. "Kids in Vermont — and I've been around to a lot of high schools, some community colleges, in my state, but around this country as well — worry about the kind of future, that awaits them. They wonder if their political leaders in this country and around the world will address climate change or whether the world that they and their kids will grow up in will be increasingly unhealthy and uninhabitable. And I really do wonder, walking here today through the smog and the smoke that Washington DC is experiencing right now, the horror in New York City, yeah, it's a bad day, but you wonder what impact it has on the kids who wonder, 'Is this the future for me?' and what that does to them psychologically."

Indeed, Sanders tapped into a subject that has been extensively studied amid increasingly dire warnings from scientists about the damage that fossil fuels are doing to the viability of Earth to sustain — as Noam Chomsky puts it — "organized human society."

READ MORE: The smoke is proof that no one is truly alone

First, The Guardian exclusively reported on Thursday that "the US experienced its worst toxic air pollution from wildfire smoke in its recent recorded history on Wednesday, researchers have found, with people in New York exposed to levels of pollution more than five times above the national air quality standard."

The paper explained that "the average American on Wednesday was exposed to 27.5 micrograms per cubic meter of small particulate matter carried within the plumes of smoke. These tiny flecks of soot, dust and other burned debris, known as PM2.5, bury deep in the lungs when in inhaled and are linked to a variety of health conditions and can cause deaths."

Next, the British outlet cited another new study which determined that "greenhouse gas emissions have reached an all-time high, threatening to push the world into “unprecedented” levels of global heating, scientists have warned."

Meanwhile, research indicates that Sanders' concerns are justified.

READ MORE: 'No end in sight' to wildfires choking Eastern US with smoke: report

For instance, the Association for Psychological Science published a paper in 2021 showing that "climate-change-related exposures (stressors) and their corresponding developmental impacts can lead to increased mental-health vulnerability through multiple pathways from conception onward." In other words, kids at all stages of growth are susceptible to the negative psychological consequences of disruptions to the biosphere.

Earlier that same year, the University of Bath conducted a study for the Social Science Research Network in which it interviewed ten thousand people aged sixteen to twenty-five, across ten countries, and collected "their thoughts and feelings about climate change, and government response."

The research found that "respondents were worried about climate change (59% very or extremely worried, 84% at least moderately worried). Over 50% felt sad, anxious, angry, powerless, helpless, and guilty. Over 45% said their feelings about climate change negatively affected their daily life and functioning, and many reported a high number of negative thoughts about climate change. Respondents rated the governmental response to climate change negatively and reported greater feelings of betrayal than of reassurance. Correlations indicated that climate anxiety and distress were significantly related to perceived inadequate government response and associated feelings of betrayal."

National Public Radio thusly noted that "there's a correlation between negative emotions, such as worry, and beliefs that government responses to climate change have been inadequate. So the way governments have been addressing — or failing to address — climate change is directly affecting the mental health of young people."

More recently, in April 2022, the American Psychiatric Association revealed five key takeaways from its own investigation:

    1. Kids are upset about climate change – really upset.
    2. For some kids, it can become more than a normal worried response.
    3. Climate change can stress kids out in multiple ways.
    4. Kids’ perspectives vary by developmental stage.
    5. Kids need straight realistic talk about climate change.

On May 30th, 2023, the US Environmental Protection Agency weighed in on the topic, identifying six factors that adversely affect young individuals' mental well-being:

Nonetheless, misinformation continues to abound, especially from right-wing media outlets. On Thursday, Media Matters for America caught three conservative news personalities — Fox News' Sean Hannity, Newsmax's Greg Kelly, and climate contrarian Steven Milloy, a lobbyist bankrolled by the oil industry — trivializing the crisis enveloping millions of Americans.

Watch Sanders' remarks below or at this link.

READ MORE: Why 'we cannot return to ignorance' when it comes to 'our air': professor

The Guardian's full reports are available here and here.

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