The spread of 'climate doom' on TikTok is hurting the climate justice movement – and Gen Z

Last year I saw a TikTok that troubled me. Covering the screen is text saying: “When my cousin says he wants to be an astronaut when he grows up, but it's 70 degrees in December.” The message was clear: The world is ending, the generations to come will carry that burden and they won’t be able to accomplish their goals.

While I understood that the creator of this TikTok was joking, I still felt anxiety lurking in the back of my head. What if the world really does end due to climate change before I get to realize my dreams? Is there any point in continuing my studies if the future will be too miserable to thrive in? Will any effort I make to affect climate change help if the biggest contributors to it are giant corporations?

My social media is littered with videos from teens my age spreading hopelessness and despair. While I understand their perspective, they do not understand the impact these videos have on their audience. Not only do they disregard the accomplishments climate activists have worked so hard to achieve, they encourage others to give up as well.

Those of us in Generation Z, defined as born between 1997 to 2012, have always known that the burden of solving the climate crisis falls on our shoulders, partly because of its constant presence on social media. We can't help but question what kind of a future we'll be living in.

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'Climate doomism' undercuts calls to action

The climate crisis has become quite the hot topic on social media apps like Twitter and Instagram. On TikTok, the hashtag #ClimateChange has about 3 billion views, with countless videos under it. Many posts revolving around the climate crisis depict a teen dramatically posing while a sad song plays in the background. “None of our efforts are helping the climate crisis, the world is ending, there’s no point in even trying anymore” is plastered across the screen in bold text. We’re all viewing this content – and internalizing it, whether we like it or not.

Climate doomism” is the idea that global warming is so advanced that any effort to combat it is meaningless. According to environmentalist Isaias Hernandez, it “is often used as a scare tactic to disempower collectivized communities on their journey for environmental liberation.”

Climate activists march in Boston on Sept. 21, 2022.
Climate activists march in Boston on Sept. 21, 2022.

Many climate activists have been fighting the spread of this doom. Some activists have also pointed out the privilege in climate doom itself.

Climate activist Wawa Gatheru says in one TikTok: “For many white people in the West, the climate crisis is their first existential threat in recent history. But for Black, Indigenous and other people of color, that’s not the case. … And some people, many of whom will be the last impacted by the climate crisis … say it's too late? If that’s not privilege, I don't know what is.”

This privilege can gain thousands, if not millions, of views and overshadow the climate justice movement’s true values.

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Climate doomism didn’t just start on TikTok. Gimmicky headlines meant to get clicks and instill fear have been used for years. The Rolling Stone headline “ 'The Fuse Has Been Blown' and the Doomsday Glacier Is Coming For Us All'' is one example of this.

Life is hard enough for Gen Z. With social and academic pressures clouding teenagers' mental health, social media can seem like the one escape from it all. With social media being such a prevalent force in their lives, exposure to climate doom only worsens the pressure.

TikTok’s spread of climate doomism is especially concerning because of TikTok’s “For You” page. It is designed to show users content that they might like based on their previous interactions. Forty-five percent of U.S. social media users who interact with climate content on social media are Generation Z. If members of Gen Z are interacting with the most climate content but TikTok has no fact-checking system or filter, they could be exposed to climate doom and misinformation without intending it.

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Social platforms can prioritize hope 

While some say videos that spread fear can be a call to action, they also often cause people to lose motivation with the climate crisis. Ultimately, people might give up their efforts because they think they will not have a lasting impact. To be clear, the grave effects of climate change need to be emphasized. But when videos that do nothing but spread fear gain thousands of likes, harm is done.

Some say the solution to not seeing this negative content is deleting TikTok, but because the platform has become such an integral part of our society, this is not a realistic solution. TikTok offers a lot of useful information about the climate crisis, and deleting the app could take away this easy access to correct information.

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The solution to minimizing climate doom is promoting verified climate activists who inspire Gen Z to make change. Not only is climate doom harmful, it’s also just blatantly wrong. Scientists say it is never too late to reverse even some of the worst effects of climate change.

Gen Z needs to realize that there is potential to make change in the climate crisis instead of giving up. Showing positive, motivating climate content on TikTok will inspire Gen Z to take action.

Annie Goodykoontz
Annie Goodykoontz

Annie Goodykoontz is a rising senior at Tempe Preparatory Academy in Arizona.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Climate 'doomism' is going viral on TikTok and it's hurting Gen Z