More than half of teens say they're 'afraid' and 'angry' about climate change — and 1 in 4 of them are doing something about it

Sara Kiley Watson
climate protest washington september 13 2019

REUTERS/Leah Millis


Being a teenager sucks. It sucks even more when the world is literally on fire.

But today's youth aren't sitting by and watching it happen. According to a new poll by the Washington Post and Kaiser Family Foundation, 57% of US teenagers are afraid of climate change when asked how climate change made them feel.

But in the same survey, 54% of teens also responded that they were motivated and 52% said they were angry.

One in four has already taken action in the form of a school walk-out, protest, or by reaching out to a government official, according to the poll.

Compared to adults who took the same survey, teens also feel more guilty about climate change than their adult counterpoints. However, 10% fewer teens feel hopeless compared to adults in the study.

Here's what else the study found:

  • 86% of teens believe human activity is causing the climate to change, compared to 79% of adults.
  • 29% of teens feel optimistic about the issue of climate change, compared to 25% of adults. 
  • 15% of adults believe it's too late to prevent the worst of climate change, compared to 11% of teens.
  • 74% of teens think the US government isn't taking enough action on climate change, compared to 67% of adults
  • 81% of teens have heard little or nothing at all about the Green New Deal.

The study covered a random national sample of 2,293 adults age 18 and over as well as 629 teenagers ages 13-17.

This week, students will have an opportunity to take action as protests begin on Friday a part of the Global Climate Strike, leading up to the UN Climate Action Summit next week in New York City. New York City teens are excused from school if they participate in the strike with parental consent.

Amnesty International Secretary General Kumi Naidoo tweeted out a letter to over 30,000 schools to allow students to join in the protests.

Greta Thunberg Davos

FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images

Teen climate activist Greta Thunberg started protesting climate change by skipping school on August 20, 2018, and holding up a sign in front of the Swedish parliament. Other students have taken note — joining her in organizing the Fridays for Future movement.

Nearly 1.4 million young people stretching across 123 different countries walked out of class on Friday, March 15, to protest the lack of action taken towards avoiding a climate change catastrophe.

"Our house is on fire," she said in a Davos speech in January. "I don't want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act."

Read more: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Greta Thunberg want everyone to fly less to fight climate change. Germany and Sweden are already embracing the 'flight shame' movement.

Thunberg arrived by sailboat, protesting the fossil fuel waste of flying in an airplane, in the US in August, and was in DC protesting at the White House last Friday.

As young people, teens will bear the brunt of what comes of climate change in the future. It has predicted that by the middle of this century, London could feel hot and dry like Barcelona, Miami Beach could very well be underwater, and more than 250 US cities will have a month of heat per year surpassing 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

The concern isn't universal across all teens. The Washington Post reports that black and Hispanic teens feel a greater sense of urgency about climate change action, 37 %, and 41 % respectively, compared to less than a quarter of their white peers.

climate rally washington student september 2019

REUTERS/Leah Millis

Climate change is a justice issue — communities of color, and low-income neighborhoods already bear the worst of climate change. Communities across the US and beyond are still recovering from climate catastrophes, and people of color are more likely to end up in polluted neighborhoods.

When it comes to climate change impacting different groups, teens were more likely to say themselves and their generation than adults who answered the survey.

Madeline Graham, a 16-year-old organizer of the protest this week, said to the Washington Post that it's easy to let fear take control when on top of normal teenage stress, the planet is facing an incredible threat.

"It's like a dystopian novel," Graham said to the Washington Post. "To grow up seeing the world fall apart around you and knowing it's going to be the fight of your lives to make people stop it."