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Managing Climate Anxiety through High School Bike Clubs

a teenage boy with a model of the earth on his shoulders, weighing him down

Climate Anxiety is a concern amongst children and teens. So, when invited to visit two Vancouver high school bike clubs, I was curious to find out how some young cyclists felt about climate change.

At the start of the meeting, the host teacher handed out a brief, anonymous paper questionnaire that I had provided.

To later compare with other colleagues, I used terminology from existing resources to ask about motivation, feelings about climate change, and possible actions.

By asking children and teenagers direct questions about Climate Anxiety, we acknowledge that these feelings exist - as is recommended by the Australian Psychological Society in ReachOut’s resource for parents How to support a teenager who experiences climate anxiety. The article goes on to quote Dr Patrick Kennedy-Williams, a clinical psychologist from Oxford University; “the best way to help with climate anxiety is to regain a sense of control by taking action”. And by ‘action’, my aim was to help expand these recreational bike clubs into include advocacy - then investigate how any successes of ‘more students cycling to school’ might alter feelings about climate anxiety.

My involvement represents a change in direction for the bike clubs. As an advocate for sustainable transportation, I would return - if the students wanted me to - to help them become a cohesive team to encourage more walking and cycling to their school.

Asking about feelings about Climate Change

The first question asked about fear, sadness, anger, positivity - the four emotions at the core of the Climate Mental Health Networks climate emotion wheel.

pie chart showing responses to the feeling that climate change inspires

Q: “Which one of the following four feelings most closely describes emotions that you might sometimes feel about climate change?”. 

Eighty percent of the responses (20 out of 25) listed either sadness or fear as how they might sometimes feel about climate change. Not surprisingly, only one of 25 listed positivity: which caused me to wonder how might anyone have feelings of positivity in such a scenario?

As it turns out, positivity is the very attribute that can result from the spirit of engagement and camaraderie when working together on solutions - as is explained by Finnish professor Panu Pihkala in an interview with the Climate Mental Health Network. Camaraderie is certainly the result of teamwork and collaboration with a small group of student leaders.

“Positivity is the very attribute that can result from the spirit of engagement and camaraderie.” Panu Pihkala 

The next three questions were based on journalling prompts by Eliya-Quaye Constance’s Creative Therapies for Climate Emotions. I chose three of the 12 prompts and posed them as questions.

Q: How many people can you talk to -openly- about your emotions about climate change? (0, 1, 2, 3+) 

Happily, the most students listed 2 or 3+ people they could talk to. with about their climate change emotions. (No one listed zero.)

Q: What’s one self-care idea you can use when struggling with emotions about climate change?

A few common themes showed themselves here; listening to music, breathe/stay calm, and most commonly - think of other things. 

Q: What might your emotions about climate change be trying to tell you?

This yielded a remarkable set of extremes - including:

We still have time to change the place in which climate change is heading. Sometimes I may think that there is not a lot I can do about the situation but that’s not true. I believe our generation can, if they really try, stop or slow climate change. :-)”

and 

“I shouldn’t bother caring because it’s such a massive problem that I cannot solve and anything I do has such a small impact it’s not worth it.”


Next, the affects of social media were addressed using eight feelings (listed in the Nature article quoted above): Climate Change makes me feel … 

  • sad (68%)

  • afraid (68%)

  • anxious (63%)

  • angry (58%)

  • powerless (57%)

  • guilty (51%)

  • optimistic (32%)

  • indifferent (30%)

In the questionnaire, these feelings were framed around whether social media made you feel; a lot less, less, same, more, a lot more. ‘More’ was most frequently chosen, with three exceptions. Indifferent -true to its character- fell in line at ‘same’. As did Powerless and Sad.

The next two questions asked about actions you can do, and help/support you might need to accomplish this. Not surprisingly, a ‘club’ of ‘cyclists’ seemed to focus on just that: the most common ‘action’ was to get more of their peers to share the love of cycling. And success would come from not doing it alone - i.e. getting support from my peers.

The last question asked ‘how much change’ did they believe was needed to address climate change? A range consisted of a pairing who and what. Who represented a growing involvement: me, a couple of friends, half a class, a whole class, half the school, the whole school. What had only two levels of action; ‘a few days a week’ and ‘everyday’.

The ‘lowest achievement of ‘change’ was; me walking or biking to school a few days a week. The ‘highest achievement of ‘change’ was; the whole school walking or biking to school every day.

More than half the responses listed the baseline (me walking or biking to school a few days a week) was what it would take to start becoming effective in addressing climate change.

So now, my role over the next few colder, wetter months will be to help prepare the student leaders to ramp-up their bike promotion for the springtime - by Engaging and Empowering Youth Leaders. As with every youth engagement program I’ve been a part of over the past two decades, I expect them to succeed as long as they continue to show up.

Are you working to help children and teens manage climate anxiety through direct action of student leadership to promote walking and cycling to school?

And what else is out there? Who else is a part of the youth engagement movement contributing to managing feelings of helplessness, powerlessness, and guilt into climate action that might help today, and make the future feel a bit less frightening?

Who else is working to help children and teens manage climate anxiety through direct action of student leadership to promote walking and cycling to school?

Who else is working to take care of the people who are doing things to succeed in small and large efforts that give us hope. (Thanks to Auckland's Tim Adriaansen for this inspiration.)

Who else is working on direct action towards walking and cycling to school, where teamwork and collaboration with a small group of student leaders can build positivity?

Let's collaborate so we can compare notes. And maybe build our own positivity from the spirit of engagement and camaraderie as adult facilitators.


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