Are Climate Advocates Making Kids Anxious for Political Gain?

Problems with the youth climate lawsuits

In a recent post, Breakthrough Deputy Director Alex Trembath wrote about the rash of climate litigation attempting to find the nation’s use of fossil fuels unconstitutional. Nearly all the 1,000+ cases have been dismissed—and rightly so. But a particular subset of the lawsuits is nonetheless telling for the way advocacy in climate change science has had far reaching consequences in society.

Within the subset of cases that use minors as plaintiffs to claim that young people are uniquely harmed by climate change, one claim in particular deserves attention: climate change is causing psychological harm to children, who may suffer from debilitating climate anxiety.

On one hand, the claim matters little. These cases have largely been dismissed because, as the Ninth Circuit found:

"It was beyond the power of an Article III court to order, design, supervise, or implement the plaintiffs’ requested remedial plan [to phase out fossil fuels] where any effective plan would necessarily require a host of complex policy decisions entrusted to the wisdom and discretion of the executive and legislative branches."

On the other hand, however, the specter of “climate anxiety” is not likely to quietly disappear into the night, given the way the idea has pulled even health professionals into the climate advocacy juggernaut.

Climate anxiety in litigation

The graph below looks at select youth climate litigation–that is, cases with youth plaintiffs—from 2015 to 2023 to show the number of instances in which the words “anxiety,” “psychological,” or “mental health” appeared in the originally filed legal complaints. The latter two terms are summed together. Over time, the use of appeals to anxiety and mental health have been on an upward trajectory.

Youth Anxiety 1

Although these complaints have mostly been dismissed, they have each solidified for the public a narrative that climate change has led to concrete injury—a necessary basis for litigation. (What I take to be a standard view on concrete injury requires a litigant to “establish that he has suffered or is imminently threatened with a concrete injury—that is, an injury that is real and not abstract.”)

As further explained in the August 2023 Held decision, one of the few (only?) that went in favor of the youth plaintiffs:

"Plaintiffs’ mental health injuries directly resulting from State inaction or counterproductive action on climate change, on their own, do not establish a cognizable injury. However, Plaintiffs’ mental health injuries stemming from effects of climate change on Montana’s environment, feelings like loss, despair, and anxiety, are cognizable injuries."

Yet, many examples of mental health injuries from climate change misrepresent the human condition and the complicated interaction of society with weather extremes.

In Genesis v EPA, for example, youth plaintiffs alleged “a government-imposed and -sanctioned climate crisis.” The case, which was dismissed, invokes mental health harms as a direct outcome of climate change. The initial complaint records that one of the plaintiffs, 17-year-old Genesis from Long Beach, has seen her life derailed by climate change:

"Genesis experiences climate anxiety and instead of thinking about college, she constantly worries about the climate crisis and how it will affect her future and the future of her four younger siblings. One way Genesis deals with her anxiety is by being in nature, though this becomes more difficult as climate change worsens. The heat and smoke prevent her from even taking walks near her home. In August 2023, after Tropical Storm Hilary, Genesis was unable to take a family trip to the Colorado River, because the route, the I-5 freeway, flooded."

Another plaintiff, Maya, from Los Angeles, has a similar tale:

"Maya’s anxiety around climate change rises to the level of panic attacks, which she manages by engaging in therapy and climate action. Maya feels compelled to adjust her lifestyle and activities, like eating a vegan diet, choosing not to get her driver’s license, purchasing reused items, reducing her consumption, and declining trips involving airplanes, to reduce her carbon footprint."

The claims in these cases are problematic in two ways. First, they imply that absent fossil fuels and (apparently) meat eaters, these young people would not be faced with extreme weather and wildfire. That’s simply not true. Tropical Storm Hilary, for instance, was not the first tropical cyclone to affect California—and with or without climate change, it would have presented disruptive torrential rains. Similarly, much of California is well known for being quite hot and dry in the summer, making parts of the state prone to wildfires. Given California’s more-than-a century of fire-suppression efforts and growth of the wildland-urban interface, fires that break out today are more likely to be problematic than in the past—with or without an extra degree Celsius or two.

Second, if we take the claims at face value, they suggest that the persistent misrepresentation of climate change science is not just tricking the upcoming generation of voters into a cascade of false understanding about climate and society, energy needs, and policy and regulation. But it is also undermining their well-being and crippling their active participation in all that life has to offer.

If access to cheap energy is a reason the United States is so wealthy, and our wealth is a reason we are able to manage our large and incredibly expensive disasters, then shutting down the cheap energy supply on the false impression that it will benefit children is absurd and dangerous. Science should be an important mechanism for democratic accountability and policy prioritization. When science is misrepresented and becomes advocacy-oriented, democracy is unkeeled.

The youth climate litigation is a symptom of this faltering. Even if the cases continue to be dismissed, addressing them through due process (as is fundamental to our system of government) legitimizes and spreads the narrative that the United States is committing intergenerational injustice. This narrative has already spread from early childhood to college classrooms.

Lost in all this is the far more productive narrative of society, science, civic engagement—the narrative about the politicization of science and the complex social underpinnings of the disasters and their inequities.

The business of climate anxiety

In the graph at the start of this discussion, all the cases shown were prosecuted by Our Children’s Trust. In Held and Juliana, psychiatrist Lise van Susteren gave written testimony about the psychological harms of climate change, anxiety in particular. In her testimony for Juliana, van Susteren blames the federal government for the psychological impacts of climate change on children, who will “suffer anticipatory anxiety from their knowledge of future harm.” For some of those children, she argued, “the focus of their lives will be on running for the safety of higher ground—literally and figuratively.” For them, “their deepest and most gripping emotions are directed at the federal government for the abject injustice of being abandoned to a ferociously uncertain future.”

This is a curiously dramatic misrepresentation of politics in American democracy. But it isn’t unusual for expert to offer an opinion—however curious—that is convenient for a party in a lawsuit. Attorneys do not pick experts at random; they choose them for their ability to support an argument.

But the testimony opens an interesting window into a complicated world of climate change advocacy, research, and clinical psychology.

Van Susteren is a co-founder of the Climate Psychiatry Alliance. It is a professional organization that trains and works with “climate-aware” therapists to help them recognize “that the climate crisis is both a global threat to all life on Earth and a deeply personal threat to the mental and physical well-being.”

The Climate Psychiatry Alliance also works to turn out the vote. By partnering with an organization called VO+ER, which pairs the healthcare system with the voter registration process, a scheme promoted by the American Medical Association, among others. On the surface, getting as many people to vote as possible is a beautiful thing. Considering the situation a bit further however, one can easily imagine therapy sessions becoming opportunities for therapists to instruct patients on how to vote or in the least, how to advocate. That certainly seems to be suggested in the flier advertising the CPA- VO+ER partnership shown below.

Youth Anxiety 2
Climate Psychiatry Alliance

Van Susteren is also listed as a member of the executive committee of Climate for Health, a program of ecoAmerica. The entities are focused on politicizing the health care system and using medical professionals to advance preferred climate policy. For instance, Climate for Health works to mobilize student nurses in part by embedding climate content into the nursing curriculum. The value of nurses, the website explains, is in their being “the most trusted profession in the country.” Numerous medical professional organizations are signed on as partners of Climate for Health.

Van Susteren homed in on the use of mental health professionals as advocates in a recent opinion piece in the research journal, Child and Adolescent Mental Health. She wrote: “This aggression against children, who are already known to be suffering deeply, must be called what it is: a form of child abuse.” She called on mental health professionals to work their powers. Mental Health Professionals “are uniquely qualified to address the perils of climate instability and the need for rapid change. We ‘do’ behavioral change for a living – we get science, we get suffering, we get urgency… As health professionals we can do what others cannot. People listen to us.”

Recently, the prestigious British Medical Journal ran an article on how to communicate about climate change with patients. Among their recommendations, the authors suggested referring climate anxious youth to a climate-aware therapist. Clinicians, the authors wrote, “may wish to educate interested patients about what they and other community members can do collectively to influence local, provincial, and national government policies in ways that will protect human health, air quality, and the climate.”

Luckily for overwhelmed practitioners, there’s ClimateRx, another ecoAmerica program, which provides them with a nifty QR code doctors can give patients to guide them to online information about climate advocacy concurrent with a QR code linking them to VO+ER, of course.

Several of the authors of the BMJ piece are deeply engaged in climate change advocacy and climate litigation. Lisa Patel, for instance, is listed as on the Board of Directors at Our Children’s Trust. Stefan Wheat is listed as an advisor to ClimateRx. John Kotcher and Edward Maibach are affiliated with Center for Climate Change Communication, a research advocacy group housed by George Mason University. The group has partnerships with the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication producing regular polling reports on how Americans think about climate change, how much they worry about it, and rates of anxiety. They’ve also partnered with Climate Central to recruit TV weathercasters and journalists to report on climate change by giving them information and graphics. Some of this work with Climate Central can be found in the Genesis complaint.

Dangerous games

At the core of all this are children—children climate advocates are now using as pawns in their dysfunctional game of climate politics. With climate advocates’ efforts having done little more than set back their own decarbonization efforts over the last 40 years, it makes sense that they’d try on a new (and more sympathetic) face.

The next generation’s future is now caught in the warped politics of misleading messaging, spurious litigation, strategic lawfare against the oil industry, and a rejection of any pragmatic solutions that address environmental and humanitarian concerns. And their path to a sustainable, healthy, and wealthy future will be made all the more treacherous with the health sciences having jumped aboard the sinking ship of climate change advocacy.