Why young people are anxious about the climate crisis

As of the posting of this article, COP27 is still underway in Egypt. World leaders are going back and forth about the role of their nations in the growing climate crisis. Of course, the biggest question, can we slow the warming down enough before we hit the 3 degree celsius increase that scientists are warning us to avoid at all costs.

It should be no surprise that young people are especially struggling with anxiety about their future since they’re the ones who are going into a very unknown future world.

We’ll hear from GenZer John-Paul Mejia. He’s juggling college and a full plate of environmental activism. He’ll help explain that anxiety and what his generation is trying to do about it. But first, we talk with one Florida International University professor about the current push by local governments to make the necessary changes to protect our future. She also tells us about the anxiety she sees in her students, but also to the interesting ideas they have for the future. Let’s begin by meeting Tiffany Troxler.

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PE2072: What led you down the path of science?

Tiffany Troxler: I, fortunately, had the privilege of growing up on the Gulf Coast of Florida. And my dad was an avid fisherman, and he coaxed me with powdered donuts and chocolate milk early in the morning to get me to go out on the boat. That really spurred my interest in the environment. Those observations of beautiful sunrises, plentiful fish, beautiful mangroves, and just clear water inspired me to think more about what was underlying the beauty I had the privilege of experiencing as a young person.

PE2072: When was the first time you heard the phrase climate change?

Tiffany Troxler: I can only imagine it popped up in my undergraduate work at Tulane University. The impact of climate change hit me when I worked with the IPCC and the task force on greenhouse gas inventories. And this was in 2010. You’re in this room with most governments worldwide, and they’re all working together, trying to negotiate how to solve this climate crisis and just the immensity of all of those individuals and delegates in the same room trying to work through these complicated issues. And what a challenge we have now and will continue to have ahead of us.

PE2072: As a scientist, what do you think of how we should view the future? 

Tiffany Troxler: It’s interesting because, working more in the sort of urban climate change field, we as scientists try to work closely with people on the ground trying to develop policies and projects that help reduce the impacts of climate change. And one research activity that we engage in together is trying to envision the future and use that as a tool to step back from what the future could be, sort of itemizing the steps that would help us get there. And so I’ve had the excellent opportunity to think about all kinds of positive futures. But it also helps you to understand that there is a big lift between now and then if we’re going to realize those positive futures. 

PE2072: One of the things I’ve been reading about you is the study you’ve done looking at mangroves and how we could use that to help us in this issue of carbon emissions. Tell me a little about the role mangroves play down here, what role they could play, and that phrase people will see from time to time, “Blue Carbon.”

Tiffany Troxler: Blue carbon is primarily about coastal wetlands. Their soils are wet but also saline because they’re positioned along the coastline. Those coastal wetlands can accumulate more carbon in their soil than other types of wetlands. Those mangroves or other types of coastal wetlands species are sucking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, putting that into their plant material and roots. The plant material goes through a lifecycle and then falls off the plant, buried below ground. And over time, that builds up something we refer to as peat or vibrant organic soil, depending on the area. Coastal wetlands that you have can be a relatively large sink of carbon dioxide that can be shunted or stored below ground. And also, from the perspective of blue carbon, help to complement our strategy to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions and provide a more diverse portfolio of ways to reduce our total greenhouse gas emissions.

PE2072: How significant a role can this play in the overall picture?

Tiffany Troxler: Compared to what we can do to reduce our emissions, it’s just a drop in the bucket. But what’s excellent about mangroves is that they offer all these co-benefits. It helps to support habitat for fish species that support local economies. It provides tourism opportunities. It holds our coastline together, essentially. It also provides storm surge protection, depending on how large those mangrove areas are. It’s a win-win kind of climate mitigation strategy.

PE2072: When you think about mitigation and adaptation, what are South Florida’s cities and communities trying to do to prepare for the future? Are we doing the right things to get ready for the future? What are your thoughts about those strategies and the attitudes that the general public, politicians, and planners have?

Tiffany Troxler: We’re definitely setting the course. Things are happening at the household level to the city level, county level, and state. We just saw something come down from the governor’s office about an investment in sea level rise planning and flood resiliency across the state, so a positive trajectory has been set. But we are behind the curve like we are already seeing the impacts of climate change in many different ways in South Florida. We have quite a bit of catching up to ensure that we can protect, most importantly, the quality of life of residents in South Florida. But it is, you know, moving, and we just need to do more faster. 

PE2072: You work with young people as an educator. What do you hear from them, are they afraid of the future? Are they hopeful for the future? What are the typical concerns and questions they have?

Tiffany Troxler: As professor at FIU, I teach courses there to undergraduate and graduate students. One I taught this past semester was sustainable cities and, I sort of challenged the students to explore what cities is around the U.S. and the world are doing to tackle both sustainable development goals, as well as keeping our planet within planetary boundaries. Their eyes wide open. They ask really good questions and their solutions are integrative. They’re interdisciplinary. They’re thinking about it in a very comprehensive way. But they’re also practical. When they sense that this is too optimistic or it doesn’t seem realistic. They’re critically trying to think through that the more that we can incorporate perspectives and ideas from younger people, the better off we will be and it’s fundamentally crucial to our future. 

PE2072: Do you ever tell them what you think about their future?

Tiffany Troxler: We have to get busy. We’ve got increasing heat, increasing change in sea level. And there are a lot of things we can do in the urban environment to mitigate those impacts. I think back to Monroe County, one of the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact discussions and, courageous communication was a word that came out of the administrators there. It’s really important that we understand what we can do and what we can’t do and ensure that the solutions that we come up with are protecting our environment, are protecting our people just as much as is protecting our infrastructure. We also have to think about how those three types of systems can help each other. You can build infrastructure, but you can also build natural, hard infrastructure, great infrastructure, but then you can build, Natural infrastructure around it. And it gives that great infrastructure more resiliency. You’re building safeguards to ensure that we are moving forward in protecting people and protecting people’s quality of life, their ability to prosper here in South Florida. So my view is optimistic. I have all kinds of reasons to be optimistic about the future, but we absolutely have to be realistic. We have to have hard conversations and we have to continue to pull the funding so that we can have our community involved in this process. We can’t just say we’re going to slap down these kinds of solutions or adaptation strategies without very critically involving meaningfully involving the public.

PE2072: So you have an optimistic view of the future. All right. So I want you to tell me, imagine that I send you into the future and you land in Miami in2072. What do you see?

Tiffany Troxler: Diversity, in terms of how we get around and how we do our work, and how we support ourselves. How we provide ourselves with food and water because as we move further into the future, things are going to become more uncertain. It’s going to be harder to anticipate what is going to happen from day to day. And so if we’re building in these ways in which we can accommodate that uncertainty in our daily lives, that will help us to manage that uncertainty a little bit better. I’ve had the opportunity to work with some of our architecture students in the College of Communications Architecture in the Arts. They’ve come up with some pretty wild ideas. We’ve got walkways that are connecting the tops of buildings. We’ve got all kinds of neat public transportation. More amphibious living. Of course, they incorporated some of those structures that can elevate like The Jetsons. I want to direct that creative thinking toward tangible solutions that protect our environment and our people. 2072 will look a lot better than what it would if we didn’t do those things.

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PE2072: When did the topic of climate change become part of your life? Was it a class you were in, something you saw, or somebody you talked to? Do you remember?

John-Paul: Well, I remember when I was really young. I really liked science. I am Colombian-American. And I remember every summer that I would go back to visit my grandparents. I would spend a lot of time with them and nature. My grandmother gave me a very close connection to the environment around us. She would make ailments and teas whenever I felt sick, which gave me a very close relationship with the land around us. And my grandfather was always very politically active and politically aware, and he was a union organizer back in his day. He was always very progressive. And those were underlying values I never really understood to be a part of me at a young age. But as I got older, they were activated in different ways. I was passionate about the environment and cared about the climate crisis when I first started hearing about it. Still, I never felt like it was an issue of politics or activation. I grew up in Miami, and that all changed in my sophomore year of high school four years ago when a hurricane known as Hurricane Irma was brewing in the Atlantic and intensified to a category-five storm overnight. And that was a bit scary. My mom and I didn’t really have anywhere to go, so we went off to the home of a more affluent friend to wait out the storm there. And thankfully, the storm changed its trajectory, and only its tailwinds hit Miami. But when we left our friend’s place and started returning to our neighborhood, something struck me: the damage done to Miami was carved along the lines of inequality, race, and class. And that’s something that really struck me. I remember in those moments seeing that some of the houses were rumbled. The worst were low-income homes. And I remember being in school a week later when the power was back. For some of my friends, the power took way longer to come back than for others. And I started putting these moments together and being like, oh, man, the climate crisis might not be just an environmental issue. It might be an issue of resources, power, or whatever that means for a 14-year-old. And that’s when it clicked for me that there was something grander in this, and I never let it go. And I found a community of activists and mentors ready to welcome me into a fight. And that’s led me up to this point.

PE2072: I’ve read articles about how your generation is dealing with a great deal of anxiety about this topic. Is that true? Is it really anxiety? How would you describe it to us?

John-Paul: I think that young people are feeling anxiety in multiple forms. On the one end, many of us were born into a world that never really made sense. I was born in 2000 to the financial crisis in 2008. The election of Trump amid high school was hard for some folks; another financial crisis, a pandemic. Throughout that, it’s felt like we’ve been cheated out of a future worth dreaming for. Right. You grow up doing everything you have to do to have the future you want. Right? And. It suddenly became a thing where part of growing up was this realization that none of those things are guaranteed. And not only are they not guaranteed, but. It could actually be a lot worse. We might grow up in a world that is, to an extent, uninhabitable, a world where getting a meaningful and good-paying job is really hard. We’re still dealing with shocks from various economic disasters, and they hit young people particularly hard. So all of these things induce an incredible amount of anxiety. I remember coming to college, too, after a year of being in Zoom classes and away from our friends. The social anxiety was through the roof. Nothing that I’ve ever felt before. And that’s really real for our generation. And the second, more intellectual answer is that this is a bit affirmed. So there was, two years ago, an article that came out by The Intercept about something called Zebellion, which is a funny title. But essentially, the journalists in this piece were acquiring some declassified documents from the Pentagon that basically looked into a program called JLass, which trains new recruits. And the program is like any other military program. It gives hypothetical scenarios and trains, you know, recruits and folks who are becoming part of the military on how to respond to those scenarios. And they usually construct scenarios based on actual events that could unfold, based on the world, on what’s happening around us.

In 2021 – of these hypothetical scenarios – was something called Zebellion, where essentially this defense program made a hypothetical scenario a little bit exaggerated, but nonetheless, based in reality, where driven by generational malaise, the climate crisis, economic uncertainty, a sort of nihilist sense of things, Gen Z grows really tired of the world around them and rebels. And it’s a problemmfor load of governments around the world. And that’s interesting in and of itself. But the research that underpinned some of that was even more interesting in those cited papers. Millennials suffer from the highest levels of depression generationally, and Gen Z suffers from the highest levels of anxiety generationally. Millennials came of age and were raised by parents who had some firm ground or some socialization in an American middle class that actually encouraged social mobility, then to have their bubble popped by the 2008 financial crisis while they were coming of age. You get expectations shattered and depressive tendencies in that generation.

ON THE OTHER HAND, Gen Z and its anxiety have to do with the fact that there were no promises or expectations, to begin with. And we’re just walking this line of uncertainty as we grow up. And so that’s a really long answer to just affirm the fact that this generation is a very anxious one.

PE2072: Tell us about the Sunrise Movement. What is it they’re trying to do?

John-Paul: The Sunrise Movement is an organization and youth-driven social movement fighting for a Green New Deal. A Green New Deal is a decades-long plan to aggressively stop the climate crisis and create millions of jobs. A Green New Deal is about admitting how bad things are, not only in terms of the climate but also in an economy that made something like the climate crisis possible. It only gives a lot of agency and power to a small number of people who sometimes behave in a way that furthers the crisis. The Green New Deal is about decarbonizing our economy, using the levers of the government to channel money in the right way, and putting that money into getting people jobs. That’s what the Green Deal is about. But Sunrise’s mission is to be the political youth force that drives that. It has a vision of climate justice rooted in an accountable government and ensures justice, too. So we have loads of chapters and hubs around the country that organize their communities to correspond to and demand their members of Congress.

PE2072: You’ve had the opportunity now to see firsthand how government works. Do you think we can do this? And it can be slow. As scientists have told us, we have this window of about twelve years; if we don’t, the consequences will be pretty dire. Twelve years is a short period. How are you feeling about our ability politically and socially? Can we change the world that fast? 

John-Paul: It’s kind of ironic because the whole premise of the problem is how fast we have changed the world in a concise amount of time. There’s an irony to the climate crisis where we feel powerless to confront it. I feel hopeful about what we could be able to do. And I think the timeline, the constraints of the timeline on which we have to move, are incredibly scary. And we might only get some of it done because it’s a terrifying process. However, it isn’t a signal to stop or to give up. To a certain extent, some extent of warming is already locked in. So change to some extent is inevitable, but the crisis is a choice. And so we have an immense opportunity right now to rethink our priorities as a country. I love my activist friends, but I only hang around them a little or have a quota on how much I hang around them. Because what inspires me the most is when I talk to regular, everyday people and hear what they think. And the truth is that they feel some level of anxiety and also sometimes hopelessness as a consequence of loads of the things going around them. But when you ask them permission to dream of the world that they would want or, if you ask them the question, if you were a congressman, if you were a mayor, if you were the president, what would you do? Most people agree that this is a problem. Most people agree that this stems from the fact that everyday people don’t have as much economic and political power as most others. And most people agree that we all need to do a lot better.

PE2072: I want you to just picture what does Miami look like in 2072. After everything that’s happened, everything that’s changed. What do you see?

John-Paul: I think that, we all grasp a moment that happened was maybe a storm or a flood where we lost a lot of people. And we lost a lot of places that we loved. And we feel nostalgic for the memories of where we grew up, where we loved, and where we lived. And that those memories inspired some form of pain. But that attachment to those memories and that attachment and that commitment to a love of place made us rethink a lot of priorities and made us really think of what mattered. And at that moment, we decided that Miami was worth saving. And so we gathered as Miamians from all walks of life to demand that there was a city, a county, and a federal government that represented us and would save us. And I think that is the legacy that Miami could really have. And so when I look at Miami, when I think of Miami in 2072, obviously I keep some of the realities of sea level rise and the threats that maybe the beach is facing right now. But I also see people who didn’t give up and who committed to it. And I could probably see myself living there honestly. And I could see us being ready for the next storm. Having our people safe and having a city well protected, that comes from a duty of care and a duty of commitment to a world that we want. And so that’s how I imagine Miami. And I’m just going to keep fighting for that Miami in whatever way I can because that’s how I feel.

Research for this article:

The Intercept


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