There are so many things to consider when choosing a college: class size, cost, the strength of the swim team or theater program, for example. And for a growing number of high schoolers, climate change also ranks high on their list of considerations.
“I’m honestly super scared about moving to New Orleans for college,” says Katherine Hudson, an 18-year-old from Knoxville, Tennessee. “While I’m excited because I love Louisiana, I’m also scared of a Katrina-esque situation happening again.”
For teens everywhere, this is the reality as they come of age during a time of climate crisis. In a recent 10-country survey of 10,000 young people ages 16 to 25 published in The Lancet, 45% of respondents said their feelings about climate change had “negatively affected their daily life and functioning.”
“Climate anxiety is more intense for teenagers, [especially] as they transition from home to college, because they have internalized the urgency of the crisis,” says Heather White, author of One Green Thing: Discover Your Hidden Power to Help Save the Planet.
For Earth Week, Teen Vogue wanted to hear from U.S. high school students about how climate change concerns show up in your lives and how you cope with these stressors. Have you lived through extreme weather events? Do you talk to people about how they experience this crisis in their lives? Are you taught about it in school?
Grappling with these anxieties can feel overwhelming and frustrating, but many students say talking to loved ones or getting engaged in school or community organizing has helped. Hope is never lost. As climate activist Mitzi Jonelle Tan wrote in Teen Vogue, “Every second counts; every fraction of a degree [of warming] matters.”
We’ve shared a selection of remarks from students below, along with videos created by ABC News in which two respondents are interviewed.
Editor’s note: These responses have been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
Isabella Luzarraga, 18
Hometown: Omaha — College town: Boston
My aunt works for the Nebraska chapter of the Nature Conservancy, so we are constantly discussing legislation and local concern regarding climate change. In the past couple of years, my home state has experienced drastic flooding due to climate change, the creek behind my house overflowing into the prairie. Because Nebraska relies largely on agriculture, the severe swings in temperature and drastic droughts followed by floods have harmed our crops and farmers.
In Boston, the frequent nor'easters dump feet of snow, which then [often] melt in unusually warm temperatures the following week.
This may sound a little naive, but I purposely didn't apply to any colleges on the West Coast. I thought to myself, California is going to fall into the ocean in 50 years or some anyway, and I don't want to get attached to a place I might lose.
My concern for the environment's future definitely impacted my passion for journalism. I wholeheartedly believe that investigating and elevating diverse voices are forms of advocacy that make a difference.
Lily Gelb, 15
Many teens agree that it is difficult to imagine having kids when we are older, because it seems cruel to have children when we know they will experience even more brutal impacts of climate change than our generation will.
At my school, we are lucky to have a full-time sustainability curriculum coordinator who is provided [with] resources to incorporate climate education into science and social studies courses. Students are also given the opportunity to become climate advocates and [get] time during our school week to participate in activism.
Cate Jean, 18
Tappan, New York
I have asthma, so pollution affects my lungs greatly.
[Climate change] causes me to look into the future more than living in the present.
Aina Marzia, 16
Climate change is very intersectional, from food to women's rights. It disproportionally affects poorer communities, especially on the border. Growing up on the Frontera — the U.S-Mexico border — we experience water constraints, weather influxes, and air pollution, which make El Paso the fourth worst in air quality among [midsize] cities.
A big concern of mine is fast fashion and waste. Stores like Shein and H&M are very popular among my peers and some of us can't get enough. The problem is that we only wear these pieces once or twice and then we throw them away, where they occupy landfills. I encourage my friends and classmates to buy less and avoid brands that make clothes unethically.
Katherine Hudson, 18
Most of my family lives in southwestern Louisiana, which is almost routinely [devastated] by hurricanes that are made worse by climate change. Every day, the Louisiana coastline loses football fields worth of land due to the ever-encroaching Gulf [of Mexico]. Though [we have] lived in what is now Louisiana for over 300 years, my family may have to leave our ancestral homeland in favor of places that are safer.
I’ve been lucky to take a class about current issues where we discussed climate change, with specific focus on how it impacts marginalized communities in places like Louisiana and Mississippi. Plus, I have a close friend at Tulane who has recommended books about why so many people directly impacted by climate change don’t believe in it. However, my family won’t talk about it. They don’t say it, but I think they’re afraid of losing Louisiana, or just want to be completely detached from it.
I occasionally talk with my therapist about my climate anxiety.… I think just having someone to combat the scared voice in my head can help.
Eleana Kostakis, 17
Queens, New York
I have anxiety and I have spoken to my therapist about how I feel, that I am running out of time for my future because the world is rapidly decaying. I found my therapist through my school, [thanks to] a program implemented by the NYC Department of Education. My therapist has helped me by finding things that can distract me when I start thinking about this topic, such as journaling or watching a show I really like.
Laura De Mata, 19
My family and I moved away from the Bay Area about a year ago, and… [moving to] an area untouched by skyscrapers and car traffic has helped our mental and physical health.… For me, the biggest changes have been my appreciation of nature. For the first time in my life, I am able to see the stars every night, and see more wildlife — jackrabbits, sheep, cows.
When I talk about climate with my family, it's usually how is this issue going to affect our beloved forests and natural habitats in California. It makes me feel really worried that it looks like no one is doing anything to stop this from happening — there is no immediate action being taken by world leaders [to] ensure significant progress will be made. There are international deals like the Paris Agreement that promise change by 2050, but anything could happen in 28 years. I know that now more than ever. Countries could fall under a new administration (like Russia's invasion of Ukraine); another pandemic could occur.
No part of the world is exempt from climate change — not even my own home, which is the most terrifying realization I've had. All of my personal belongings, family photo albums, heirlooms, the first home my parents purchased [after] we immigrated to the U.S. could also vanish. People don't realize how closely our existence intertwines with the natural world until something precious to them is at stake.
Chloe Weber, 16
Montclair, New Jersey
Sometimes it comes up as a joke. I’ll be walking home and note that it’s 50 degrees colder than it was the day before, and blame it on climate change.
We don’t learn a lot about climate change in school. The only class I talk about the environment in is biology, and it’s more in general than in reference to current events. The only events to address climate change are student-run events.
Lex Meyer, 15
As I’ve learned more about the climate crisis, I’ve moved toward the idea of environmental law. That being said, I’ve also come to understand the amount of pollution and destruction coming from big companies.… One of my greatest fears is that I will become an environmental lawyer and be so weighed down by student loan debt that I default to [taking] the only well-paying job I can find, working with an oil company or some other position that would work against stopping climate change.
Lily Aaron, 18
I have the privilege not to live in a neighborhood polluted by toxic fumes, nor do I worry about my parents' ability to stock our fridge. For this I am very grateful. Yet many in my community are plagued by food apartheid, instances of environmental racism, and an increased sense of vulnerability in line with each new U.N. climate report.
At my high school of 4,000 students… teachers don't have the resources to facilitate meaningful discussions about climate change, and our administration doesn't hold the space necessary for students to voice how they feel about the crisis they are set to inherit.
In conversations with family and in other adult-dominated spaces, older folx tend to become extremely defensive when addressing what is at the root of the climate crisis. When we begin to unpack how colonialism, white supremacy, capitalism, and greed are at the core of where we are today, adults tend to write off young people as naive and move on.
Many of the fears I face regarding the climate crisis I share with fellow organizers, so I have been lucky enough to have that as my main space for coping.
Zach Kaplan, 17
New York City
I often worry that the next decade is the point of no return for our planet, and I'd like to live out my dream of becoming a proud parent without worrying about the world being habitable for my child.…
The fact is, major corporations are causing the most carbon emissions, and the richest people on the planet aren't doing everything they can to reverse this damage.
One of my main factors [for]/concerns about what college I commit to is how much money they're divesting from fossil fuels.
Amaya Turner, 17
Honestly, sometimes it's difficult to not feel burned out or overwhelmed talking about climate change. Especially when the news is near always bad, I get stressed and despondent thinking about how bad the world will look when I am an adult, [and] how it will look for the generations that come after.
I want to make a change, but it is hard to feel as though a person can make a difference when some of the main sources of pollution are from industrial factories or [due to] lax regulations, not personal choices.
Vaishnavi Kumbala, 14
Hurricane Ida shut my school down for a month. COVID-related school closings that forced us to become virtual learners for a year had already affected my social relationships, but having a hurricane wreck my hopes for a more “normal” school year had a large impact on me.
I’ve noticed that many people's social anxiety has worsened. Additionally, many school districts were caught off guard and there was so much confusion after the storm, with us [left] wondering how and when our schools would open again…. It is hard for me not to feel dread on June 1, as hurricane season approaches.
At my school, our holiday breaks and summer have been drastically cut short to meet educational time standards, and we have less time to cover material for our second-semester classes.… Sometimes we talk about how it's almost as if you’ve dodged the bullet with one storm, but you are completely unsure how nature will react next.
Since I was a little girl, I [have been] told that climate change is a major issue, but seeing the scattered shingles, damaged roofs, and fallen trees with my own eyes has added depth to my perception of the issue. Since then, I have been making more efforts to support climate change action...
I created an app to help teens deal with the combined stressors of COVID and the storm, which went on to win my district's Congressional App Challenge. I also [published] a letter to the editor in The New Orleans Advocate about school districts developing a long-term plan for [coping with] hurricanes to lessen families' confusion and academic anxiety.
Gregor Sharp, 18
Lake Bluff, Illinois
I've had the unfortunate experience of actually receiving physical scarring, although minor, from a climate change-induced forest fire near Palm Springs, California, in 2018, which was one of the main reasons I got into climate activism in the first place.
Around the beginning of my senior year, 2021, I went to the O'koon Psychology Group, which did a comprehensive assessment of my mental health and determined that I had anxiety stemming primarily from the fear of the future, along with other general anxiety disorders. This went down the path [leading] me to being medically diagnosed with anxiety by my pediatrician.
I found consolation in my freshman biology teacher, who allowed me to express my frustration, worry, and fear about the future.
Rishi Hazra, 17
I am lucky to live in an affluent area with good infrastructure, where I can take basic resources, and some luxuries, for granted. However, I’m more than aware that others do not have this privilege, and news headlines of natural disasters, unexpected weather patterns, and other climate crises displacing people of lower socioeconomic status affirm the dire situation.
Additionally, last summer I was staying in Pullman, Washington, for a research internship, and the temperatures hit record highs, in the 110s. With air-conditioning units and fans sold out, and the very poor air quality making open windows impossible, it was difficult to get comfortable. It became quite scary when I started receiving amber alerts for fires and evacuation alerts in the nearby counties, and when the apartment complex a street down from mine actually burned down.
As elected student government president, I am initiating discussions with our administrators on topics [such as] cafeteria waste, green building features, and high morning traffic with too many idle cars to count. With my team at Sustainability Ambassadors, a local nonprofit, I have developed a video curriculum that is being implemented into the Lake Washington School District biology program. I have also rallied my local government to create an environmental board, where I am now serving a two-year term to advise the Issaquah City Council on relevant policies from the angle of sustainability.
I believe that even those who do not see addressing climate change as a personal duty will encounter a necessity to join the fight in the next few decades.
Atreyi Basu, 15
It's a pretty scary time to be a young person, as we already see what's to come. Even today, where the science is undeniable, government officials are still voting down legislation that will literally save lives.
Talking to people openly and honestly is the best way to help them understand the gravity of the situation — we can only change hearts and minds when we have open discussions. While it's important to be realistic, it's so important to emphasize the hope and opportunity that lies in our reach.
I've been an organizer with the Sunrise Movement for about a year and a half now, first with my local hub, and later, with the national phone-banking team to help with the 2020 Georgia runoffs. My friends and I started a program at my local library [to] educate elementary school [students] on sustainability and the environment, and seeing young kids so enthusiastic about it gives me even more reason to fight for our future. Now I'm a co-lead of the Victory Squad Support Team and 2022 National Phone-banking Team of Sunrise.
I put a lot of myself into this work because I know that it is me — and so many other people just like me — who are going to pay for [climate damage] in the future.
Madigan Traversi, 16
Santa Rosa, California
I lost my home in the Tubbs Firestorm in 2017. I was 12 years old. I lost all of my belongings, the home I was raised in, and the trees, flowers, and wildlife that surrounded me through all of those years.
I have spoken to therapists about my experience and done a lot of my own research about the mental health effects of the climate crisis. It has been helpful, but the harsh reality is that anxiety surrounding our future isn't irrational; it's a very real response to a present threat to our future.
Even in my experience, after losing my home, I've had to evacuate multiple times [due to] wildfire threats. This makes it incredibly important to address mental health and climate change hand in hand, so that we can increase the resources for people to process their fears as we increase the awareness of climate urgency.
I'm lucky enough to be part of a community that directly acknowledges this crisis. The thing that stands out to me the most in these conversations is the importance of climate education.… [It] is so important for young people to be able to collaborate with and be held and supported by adults as they step into the huge responsibility of being a climate advocate.
I co-lead a nonpartisan, grassroots, nonprofit organization called Schools for Climate Action, which has a mission of empowering school boards to work directly with Congress to act on climate and declare this crisis a generational justice issue.… My most recent project has been coauthoring a bill that was recently introduced to the House of Representatives by Rep. Mike Thompson as H.Res975 - Expressing the Mental Health Impacts of Climate-Related Disasters on Youth.
Talulah Juniper, 17
Santa Rosa, California
Because of climate change, I'm now looking at going into politics, not because I want to, but because I feel I need to in order to enact the necessary change to ensure a future for myself and the generations ahead. I've never desired to be a politician, but I've learned that if politicians aren't going to listen to the youth, then the youth need to step up and fill their shoes.