Brooke Bailey, a third-year architecture major with a minor in sustainability at Ball State University, said she and many of her peers feel the burden of responsibility attributed to climate change. Even when it comes to the “little things” like picking up trash littered on campus or trying to find the closest recycling spot, she and other members of Generation Z feel like they’re the last resort.
Bailey remembers when she first became conscious of the climate crisis at hand. In the third grade, she recollects lecturers handing out pencil sharpeners that looked like recycling bins. When she got her first iPod Touch in middle school, she was exposed to news and activism on social media platforms.
She remembered feeling “helpless about the environmental issues.”
“I keep having to remind myself that I cannot single-handedly save our environment, so I resort to posting on social media to spread the word, verbally educate people when the opportunity arises and apply environmentally friendly designs to my own ideas in my architecture studio,” Bailey said.
According to an article published by Nature Mental Health, spikes in anxiety and depression reported in all communities, particularly young people, have been linked to threats posed by the climate crisis.
In September 2022, Hurricane Ian leveled restaurants and knickknack shops along the coast of Fort Myers Beach, Florida. According to Maui County officials, Maui wildfires caused nearly $5.5 billion in damages in August 2023.
Indiana experienced record temperatures every month during the summer of 2022. According to the Indiana Labor Insider, humidity and temperatures reached up to 110 degrees Fahrenheit.
But those numbers were topped in the summer of 2023. June, July and August combined were 0.41 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than any other summer, and 2.1 F warmer than the average summer between 1951 and 1980.
This August alone was 2.2 F warmer than summer averages previously recorded, according to NASA. The heat wave resulted in wildfires in Canada and flooding in Europe and Asia, among other catastrophes.
Along with the high-pressure heat dome and the consequences that followed, a February train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, caused hazardous waste to permeate water sources and affect air quality. The derailment even led to concerns of the toxic chemicals affecting Indiana residents situated near the Ohio River.
The Environmental Protection Agency provided information on the recovery and cleanup efforts, such as air and water safety monitoring, but it’s still unknown if and when the area will return to normal.
“It does affect my mental health,” Bailey said. “I believe the government needs to fully step in and take hold of these issues and their sources. More policies need to be implemented, even in architecture … Climate anxiety fuels a lot of my work as an architect.”
A 2021 study points to natural disasters, like heat waves, paired with mounting media coverage causing mental distress in younger generations. “Eco-anxiety” — a relatively new term for the mental distress caused by events of climate change — has become a budding phenomenon.
‘Inherit the mess’
Regarding challenges placed on younger people in terms of climate change, Robert Koester said younger generations “absolutely are” affected more heavily than his own.
Koester, a professor of architecture at Ball State, incorporates his passion for design and sustainability in his teaching. For him, architecture and architectural sustainability work hand-in-hand. Outside the classroom, Koester speaks out about climate change — even when it’s affecting a generation outside of his own.
“It’s more than falling into the trap of single-line clichés like ‘We need to recycle more,’” Koester said. “We need to talk about it, focusing on varying scales of intervention.”
Koester serves as the founding chair of Ball State’s Council on the Environment, which promotes the sustainable use of natural resources and the protection of ecological systems that conserve life on campus and in the Muncie community. But his sights are set beyond the campus and the state of Indiana.
“Future thinking means envisioning desirable and possible futures,” Koester said. “We are part of nature’s systems. We need to strive for whole system effectiveness.”
In 2012, Koester developed a methodology many United States universities use to reduce carbon emissions and promote campus-wide energy conservation. His work is now embodied as the Second Nature Carbon Credit Purchasing Program, funded by the Chevrolet Climate Reduction Initiative. The program allows universities to accelerate their progress toward campus carbon neutrality.
“Climate change thwarts our very existence,” Koester said. “Younger generations will inherit the mess we are in.”
The Committee on Energy and Commerce in the U.S. House of Representatives introduced a bill — H.Res.975 — in March 2022 that expressed the mental health impacts of climate-related disasters on America’s youth. The bill referenced reports from the American Psychological Association and ecoAmerica about increasing rates of emotional strain connected to natural disasters, displacement caused by weather and stigmas surrounding mental health.
The committee met again that June to discuss improvements to Medicare’s Mental Health Access Act, suicide prevention guidelines, and crisis care for high anxiety and stress related to climate catastrophes, according to the committee’s website.
However, little has been done to progress the bill past its referral and introduction. While the resolution expressed that the House of Representatives must take action on climate change and address the mental health effects of climate change on children and families, it’s been at a standstill since early 2022.
Eco-anxiety has begun to manifest in young adults, and prospective legislation like H.Res.975 was looking into ways to improve mental health during crises.
‘A sliver of hope’
Before coming to Ball State, second-year biology student Noelle Quiroga was exposed to the gravity of climate change in an Advanced Placement Environmental Science class in high school. She learned how detrimental ecological threats were for younger generations like hers — Gen Z.
“The difference between being a part of a younger generation, versus generations like baby boomers, is that they don’t have to say, ‘Oh, we made our beds and now we have to lie in them.’ It’s younger generations that have to lie in those beds when it comes to climate change,” Quiroga said.
Whether it be visiting a dining hall and feeling guilty about her produce wrapped in plastic or the endless scroll of news reports on diminishing natural resources, Quiroga’s increased environmental consciousness led her to experience heightened eco-anxiety.
A Lancet study of 10,000 people between the ages of 16 to 25 in 10 countries found 75 percent of respondents said they thought the future is “frightening,” with 45 percent saying they “worry negatively about climate change” affecting their day-to-day lives. The study, published in December 2021, concluded respondents across the polled countries were worried about climate change.
The study reported that children and young people in countries around the world experience climate anxiety, as well as “distressing emotions” and “thoughts about climate change” that impact their daily lives.
“Growing up in northwest Indiana, near Chicago, was a lot with the steel mill production in the area,” Quiroga said. “There was so much concern every day with water pollution, unclean air … it was overwhelming, but that fear and the blatant lack of regulation in these industries have affected me into young adulthood.”
Instead of feeling consumed by fear and guilt, she tried to find relief in the small victories. She started to do what she could in her own way to fight against climate change while acknowledging that authoritative figures, like elected officials and corporation heads, had the most impact on the situation.
“The blame shouldn’t be put on individuals,” Quiroga said. “I do what I can to play my part whether that be reusable products or less energy consumption … I feel a sliver of hope sometimes in the news, such as how the Biden Administration hopes to push climate-focused bills, but more needs to be done.”
While the United States has taken action in addressing the climate crisis — such as reentering the Paris Agreement in January 2021 — the nation is still lacking in evolving its climate policies and initiatives. America has a substantial carbon footprint; the U.S. comes in as the second-largest polluter in atmospheric emissions, according to Statista.
The country’s emissions have declined by 12 percent since 2010, but there’s still a long way to go. Addressing the climate crisis — including its effects on the nation’s youth — goes beyond activism and inching government efforts.
According to the study by The Lancet, the distress behind climate change is boiled down to young people feeling “they have no future, that humanity is doomed.” As climate change enters the therapy room, it needs to be acknowledged that it’s less about a single person’s climate footprint. It’s more about collective effort rather than governments and corporations shifting the blame onto individuals like those of Gen Z, Koester said.
“[It’s not about] single dimension efficiency or perfection,” Koester said. “Fixing that challenge can be the foundation [for the younger generation's future].”
Contact Kate Farr with comments at email@example.com.