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Climate change is changing childhood, and the stats prove it. 

Over the summer of 2019/2020, Australia experienced one of the most devastating bushfire seasons on record. A catastrophic 19 million hectares of land and 3,000 homes were burnt, and tens of thousands of people were displaced.

In our episode of ‘What is climate anxiety?’ Rae Johnston talks to Clinical Psychologist Avalon Bourne, who did her master's thesis on climate anxiety, and Takesa Frank, a climate activist, and young Aboriginal person living on Yuin Country. Together, they discuss climate anxiety, what it is and coping strategies.

Host: Rae Johnston, Ambassador for UNICEF Australia, TV presenter and podcaster 

Guests: Clinical Psychologist Avalon Bourne and climate activist Takesa Frank.

Producer:  Liz Tse, Freya Conomos and Lara Robertson.


Episode Transcript 

Rae Johnston 00:00 

UNICEF Australia acknowledges the traditional custodians of the land on which we live and work and pays our respects to the ancestors who cared for this country and the elders who continue to today. 

Rae Johnston 00:21 

Young people have a lot to say, and it's time we listen. Welcome to NextGen, a UNICEF Australia podcast that gives young people a platform to speak up on issues they care about. Every episode, I pass the mic to experts and young people as we discuss everything from climate change to mental health and inequality.

I'm Rae Johnston, Ambassador for UNICEF Australia, STEM journalist, TV presenter, podcaster and climate champion. Over four episodes, I will be speaking with experts and young voices about climate change. What is it? How is it affecting young people and what UNICEF Australia is doing about it? From West Sydney to West Pakistan. Climate change is not a tomorrow problem. It's the greatest threat facing children right now. 

Rae Johnston 01:21 

In our second episode, I'm chatting to Avalon Bourne, who did her master's thesis on climate anxiety. Welcome, Avalon. Thank you, Rae. And I'm also talking with Takesa Frank, who is a climate activist and young Aboriginal person living on Yuin Country. 

Takesa Frank 01:37 

Thank you for having us today. 

Rae Johnston 01:38 

82% of 16- to 25-year-olds in Australia report being moderately or extremely worried about climate change. And we know that young people today will experience three times more climate change. And we know that young people today will experience three times more climate disasters than their grandparents. So, those worries are justified. Avalon, it's a relatively new concept. But climate anxiety, is very real. It's affecting many of the younger generations. Can you explain to us a little what it means? 

Avalon Bourne 02:11 

Yeah, totally. I think the first thing to say is that it's not actually that new of a concept. We've known about climate change for actually a couple of decades now. And there have been people experiencing climate anxiety for quite a long time. I think what's changing now is that, as you say, increasingly more people are experiencing it. And so we've had to come up with a term to collectively identify what this experience is that a lot of young people and older people are having as they notice what's changing around us. Climate anxiety is, is really more of an umbrella term for all of the emotions and experiences that come with increased awareness of the effects of climate change. So, it can encompass really any kind of concern or awareness around the climate that leads to discomfort and sometimes mental health problems and implications. There's a difference between managing climate anxiety and managing generalised anxiety and other mental health problems. And that is that with climate anxiety, we're not trying to diminish it when we're managing it. We're just trying to improve our functionality. Because the difference with climate anxiety is that it's not actually going anywhere. And the triggers for it a very real, this is an existential threat. And we can't diminish that.  

Rae Johnston 03:26 

How can you recognise if what you're experiencing is climate anxiety? 

Avalon Bourne 03:30 

Great question. I think it really comes down to what's bringing up the sense of, of anxiety or any kind of uncomfortable emotion and whether or not that's connected to the climate. And it's also not something that is you have it or you don't. It might be something that you experience a lot of one day, and then you kind of aren't exposed to some media or stimulus for a while. And then you don't have it for a little bit. And then it comes back. A lot of people, especially down our way on the south coast, are all in one country, experiencing more climate anxiety leading into another bushfire season. So, it can kind of come up seasonally, as you're exposed to more increased temperatures and dry winds. And there are a lot of things that can bring on a sense of climate anxiety as an umbrella term, and the experience of that can be pretty different. 

Rae Johnston 04:17 

So, you mentioned that it's pretty common for people down on the south coast, which was obviously really incredibly affected by the bushfires a couple of seasons, they're back. Are there some people that are more susceptible to feeling climate anxiety? Is it a geographical thing if you've been through it before? 

Avalon Bourne 04:36 

I think anxiety as linked to natural disasters; there are probably people who are more susceptible than others. We know, obviously, farmers can be more susceptible to climate anxiety because it's a whole livelihood that is based on the climate and the conditions down where we live. There's, yeah, there's definitely a higher sense of anxiety having seen what a natural disaster can do to our region and to our communities and to our wildlife; it was a really significant event for a lot of people. So, I think having seen it firsthand, there are people who are more susceptible to experiencing disaster-related climate anxiety. But across the board, it's pretty hard to avoid the climate crisis, right? I think you're, if you're connected to social media, if you're connected to really, people anywhere, you're probably going to experience it at some point. And it really, I think it depends on the values of the person experiencing it, to the degree to which they will take it on and the connections that they'll make. 

Takesa Frank 05:36 

I think, as well, like on the south coast, we have so many beautiful natural environments, we have our beaches, and then our rivers and our forests are very close together. So, I think people that grow up on the south coast in these environments, they have a deeper connection to the environment, because, you know, they look after every day, they see it every day, they see the wildlife every day, versus like, obviously, yes, people in the city also suffer from climate anxiety. But they don't see it as much like on the ground on the frontlines as much as you know, people that experience it, and then going from having such a beautiful environment to then see it not only destroyed by bushfires but also flooding and other natural disasters is a big thing as well, for people on the south coast. 

Rae Johnston 06:18 

Also, as an Aboriginal person, there's a deeper level of connection that we have with the environment around us as well, you know, we're looking at those animals and those plants and those rivers and the streams, there are kin there are family, so ...

Takesa Frank 06:32 

... and we know the stories behind them and why they are so important. Exactly, 

Rae Johnston 06:36 

Exactly. And it does hurt. It hurts a lot to see country suffering like that, especially when you know that if you were allowed to manage it the way your ancestors did, that we wouldn't be having these sorts of problems today. So, it's quite a stressful thing to take on. When you do see it every day. Do you think that it's something that is affecting younger generations more, you know, the people that are looking towards having a much longer future on this planet than the older generations? To put it politely? 

Avalon Bourne 07:14 

I think the experience is different for older generations to younger generations. I mean, a lot of the data is that significant numbers of young people are experiencing climate anxiety or climate grief. But there are older generations are experiencing a lot of eco guilt as well, you know, for having grown up and come up in this, this culture and society that hasn't really protected the future. And so our younger generations are suffering. So, you know, a lot of parents, especially of young people that we work with, and parents, grandparents, there are definitely people who are suffering potentially in a different way, for fear of future generations. 

Rae Johnston 07:51 

So, when we're talking about climate anxiety, Takesa, what does this look like for you? 

Takesa Frank 07:58 

I guess to understand my climate anxiety, it's really important to understand my upbringing and deep connection that I do have to country. I live literally in the middle of nowhere surrounded by forest, and the closest town and shop is a 45-minute drive away. And I've lived there my entire life; I learned to swim in the Clyde River, which is one of the cleanest rivers in New South Wales. And I have three siblings and me. And we used to just run through the forest, we definitely went on inside TV Kids. So, I guess my connection is very deep to this country. And not only just living there but my cultural connection to this environment. I grew up going out to sacred sites with elders going out into the forest and learning about those important sites. And now we're seeing a lot of them get destroyed through climate change and acts that are contributing to climate change. 

Rae Johnston 08:48 

How does it feel to you when we're approaching summer? 

Takesa Frank 08:51 

I'm nervous for this summer, not only more than any other summer since the 2019/2020 bushfires. And that's because it's already so dry. You know, out in the forest, I walk, and everything is just so crunchy, the muscles dry. And some of our political leaders locally have said, Oh, we should be fine in this bushfire season because everything has burned already. And that's not true. So, it's like if our leaders think we're gonna be fine, they're obviously not acting and preparing, you know, the community for what's coming. And especially where I live locally, there's a lot of public native forest login happening. And for anyone that doesn't know when they log out forest, they only want you know, the trunk of the tree. So, what they leave behind is all the leaves, all the branches and all of that debris is just waiting for a fire. So, I think very locally in the small community that I live off, I can like just feel that anxious, like rising, and people you know, starting to get ready. At home and my work, I work on a blueberry farm as well. We already have our water trucks ready to go like their field any day; those cars and water trucks are ready to start fighting fires. And, you know, we're only just starting the warm season. And we're not sure how long that this drought is going to last for into the future. 

Rae Johnston 10:15 

After the last fires, there was a lot of talk about incorporating more cultural burning indigenous land management into areas. It seemed it was like all anyone wanted to talk about I was like, Oh, hang on a minute, they might be onto something. There's, you know, 60,000 plus years of managing the land. Have you seen any of that implemented? I know it was recommended. 

Takesa Frank 10:36 

So locally, we have seen a bit more of that take place after the 2019/2020 fires; there was a bit of red tape that kind of made it really hard to actually get through. So, it really just depends on how, you know, far those communities pushed against that to fight for it. But it has been really positive. We've also seen like locally in the Ulladulla and Milton area, young people get involved in that. So, elders have taken out those new generation and of Aboriginal people to then start doing some of that burning. And I think not only was that really good, because cool burning is good. But it also allowed young people to connect to fire in a different way than what we had experienced, you know, in 2019 and 2020. And I think that also helped with the fear because often people will look at fire and all they think of is like the smoke and the fear that they felt. But if they're then back out there with elders and people they trust and they're seen, you know, these burnings take place, really calm and finding out that fire actually can, like, isn't scary, when it's used in the right way, I think was really important. 

Rae Johnston 11:43 

Learning how to work with fire is a really good tool that seems for helping to combat that climate anxiety that we might be feeling. So, being able to engage in those processes more seems like a good thing all around. UNICEF, Australia is calling on the government to protect children from the worst impacts of climate change by facilitating resources that support adaptation and build climate resilience in Australia and the Asia Pacific region as well. I'd love to hear from both of you. What are some of the coping mechanisms for dealing with climate anxiety, good coping mechanisms? We're all aware of online shopping. Doom scrolling scrolling, that will be beneficial for us going forward? Yeah, 

Avalon Bourne 12:30 

Totally. So from a government perspective, the way that they can help is by introducing mental health education in schools and better resources for regional and rural areas for young people, especially who need to access mental health support, even just to better understand our responses to anxiety, especially climate change anxiety, and all of the unpleasant thoughts and emotions and physical responses that come from that anxiety, emotional regulation education isn't something that most people are getting, and it's something that we're going to increasingly need. Because the climate crisis is really smacking us in the face all the time, there's very few places you can go these days where it's not brought up, there's only so much time you can spend with your head in the sand. 

Rae Johnston 13:15 

And learning how to regulate our emotions. That's usually something that you can only access by going to see a mental health practitioner, which is really tricky. 

Avalon Bourne 13:24 

Totally, it's very expensive. And there's phenomenally long wait lists in regional areas, even health plans. And you know, phone services aren't accessible to everybody. And not everybody experiences them in the same way. They cannot always they can help some people, but they're not always super helpful. So that's not the solution. And it's not the solution to wait until climate anxiety has manifested itself. The solution is to understand that in advance so that when it arises, we can better manage it for ourselves. 

Rae Johnston 13:55 

So, if we feel that arising, what can we do? 

Avalon Bourne 13:58 

Good question. So, what we talked about a lot is to not experience it alone because climate anxiety, well, the climate crisis, isn't something that anyone is experiencing alone. We're all in this together. And there are a lot of people who are suffering from it. So, to have that conversation is one of the best things we can do to find the people in our communities and in our lives and families that are also suffering or even open just having that conversation and holding the space. So do not be alone with climate anxiety or climate despair is probably the most important thing that you can do. 

Rae Johnston 14:33 

We're not supposed to go through anything alone in this life. So why would we go through this alone? Okay, so how have you been coping?  

Takesa Frank 14:42 

So, I guess I have a few different things that I cope with climate anxiety; the number one thing is taking action. So, I guess putting all of that energy of, you know, that anxiety into work that is going to actually have a positive impact on the environment. And that can take all kinds of types of forms, you know, signing petitions, but also talking to our local politicians and our state politicians. The other thing is enjoying the environment, which seems like a really simple thing. Like, oh, like, obviously everyone goes, enjoys the environment. One of the most easiest ways once I'm like really feeling like, Oh, my God, like really anxious about climate change, and where we are at that moment, is just to go outside. And actually, look, there's actually still so many beautiful places, and we should enjoy them, you know, while they last. And then once we save them to continue joining them into you know, the future. 

Rae Johnston 15:34 

You need to do those replenishing activities. Yeah. So yeah, for me, I do, I do get out and I sit in No, I'm by the river. And I'm listening. And I'm listening to the trees, and I'm listening to the birds. And it re-energises me for the week ahead for knowing what we're going to be dealing with. And for other people, you know, they might want to run a bath, read a book, have some escapism, play a video game, just disconnect for a little while, but it's so that you can reconnect. It's not to disconnect forever, right?

Takesa Frank 16:08 

I 100% agree in order to, you know, put all of your energy into something, you have to make sure, you know, and towards other people and other issues, you have to make sure that your energy yourself is being filled up.

Avalon Bourne 16:20 

We talk a lot about managing your social media intake. And in terms of taking a break, that can be really key. There's a lot of, there's a lot of content that comes at us about the climate crisis, you know, whether it's a meme or a 12-second real, it does have an impact, and it has a cumulative effect on climate anxiety. So, taking time to either unfollow accounts that are actually being detrimental to climate anxiety or just taking breaks from your phone and your social media, in general, can be a really beneficial thing to do.

Takesa Frank 16:53 

And also like following pages that are doing lots of awesome things that are uplifting and showing the hope. And, you know, all that we can do together to have a positive impact on climate change, 

Avalon Bourne 17:05 

Just to balance that out, you know, to balance out the stories that we're getting.

Rae Johnston 17:10 

It can be really easy to feel helpless when you've got all these decisions being made by your people in power that you feel like you don't have a whole lot of influence over. So, being able to focus on the people and you're by extension, the social media are accounts that are making a focus on the people and you're by extension, the social media are accounts that are making a difference, even in their own little worlds. In my work, I get to speak to a lot of scientists and technologists and people that, in their own very specific way, are working towards combating climate change and helping the environment and hearing their passion. And seeing what they're able to come up with. Definitely gives me hope. So, I recommend people follow a whole bunch of people that are working towards the joint cause of looking after this planet and looking after this country. 

Takesa Frank 17:57 

When I think of hope, the people that give me hope is young people. I guess I work in a space where I get to talk to a lot of young people; young people are so smart, they have so many ideas. And you know, they're ready to have their voices heard. And they're ready to continue to fight for their voices to be heard. And every single day that I get to talk to a young person, I'm so inspired by them. And you know, what they're deciding to do even just in their small communities, even just like looking at, you know, running beach cleanups and hoping to bring the community together to address this climate crisis together as a whole community.

Rae Johnston 18:39 

It seems like the message is you're not alone if you're experiencing climate anxiety. But you're also not alone if you want to help make change, and that you can mobilize that anxiety and turn it into something that is good for everyone and hopefully good for the planet.

Takesa Frank 18:58 

We kind of talked about, you know, some of the negative impacts of social media can happen. But one of the positives is that you can connect with so many people so quickly. You can go on Facebook, you can look up climate change groups, young people in your community, and that's such a great way to connect with other people that are taking action. Yeah, I think, 

Avalon Bourne 19:19 

I think, from the research, a big part of climate anxiety is education. And there's a very valid sense of wanting to avoid education around it because it is a big, scary existential threat. But in some ways, engaging with education around it can be a positive thing because, I mean, it can help manage the uncertainty around it. But you can learn by doing, and I think we say some young people who are held back by that sense of not knowing enough or not being qualified enough, or there's other people in the room whose voices are louder or who just have more confidence around it, but that doesn't mean that young people can't get involved. Do shouldn't get involved, there is a place for everyone in the climate change movement. It's an all-hands-on-deck situation. So, when there's an idea or a thought or even a sense of motivation, we always encourage young people to act on it.

Rae Johnston 20:13 

Are there any resources that you recommend for anyone listening now who is dealing with climate anxiety and wants to cope a little better? 

Avalon Bourne 20:21 

UNICEF has a pretty good resource at the moment on the website that's been put together around managing climate anxiety. And headspace is doing some research on it that's coming out. So yeah, I would look into mental health organisations and keep an eye on it because there's more and more research going into how it's affecting us and what we can do about it. As you say, it's a growing field. So yeah, and just even giving a Google to how to manage climate anxiety. There's a lot of tips on there, but there's a lot of research growing. Fantastic. 

Rae Johnston 20:51 

Thank you both so much. It's been great. 

Avalon Bourne 20:52 

Thank you. 

Rae Johnston 20:53 

And that does bring this episode to a close. Thank you so much for listening. If there's any more information that you would like about anything we discussed in this episode, check out our show notes. You will find more info and links there. Subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. And while you're there, leave us a review and a rating. It helps other people find the show. 

Thanks again.