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Empower the eco-anxious: what is the University doing to address eco-anxiety in young people?

This page features work by University of Leeds students: PhD students Susan Ann Samuel, Jyoti Narsude, Prahelika Deka and Sop Satchwell; Masters students Eliza Taswell-Fryer, Hina Komiya, Yiying Wang; and undergraduate students Vaibhav Pramode Nair, Safia Khan and Ellie Overton. With thanks to the valuable guidance from senior academics Dr Harriet Thew, Dr Susanne Lorenz, Dr Vasiliki Kioupi and Dr Viktoria Spaiser.

Government and corporate commitments do not match the scale of ambition needed to keep the world within 2°C of warming. This lack of action is driving anxiety around climate change in young people across the globe who express frustration at the lack of action by governments and fear about the future they face. Although it manifests differently in each individual, eco-anxiety can broadly be understood as feelings of fear, guilt, distress, helplessness or hyperactivity in response to global climate change. These overwhelming emotions risks disempowering the youth in creating just and long-lasting climate action.

However, through engaging with actions aligned with each of the six Action for Climate Empowerment (ACE) pillars, the emotions and beliefs driving eco-anxiety can be channelled into something positive, hopeful, empowered and productive. In preparation for the UNFCCC’s poster session on ACE at the 60th session of subsidiary bodies, a team of University of Leeds students has been evaluating the extent to which initiatives at the University of Leeds empowers eco-anxious youth. It uses the ACE pillars of empowerment to evaluate the University’s current suite of initiatives.

Their poster summarises key initiatives and points for improvement:

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Accessible version of poster (Word doc)


Education and training

In addressing eco-anxiety, education plays a vital role in empowering young people to deal with the climate crisis.

Some of the ways in which the University of Leeds educates young people around climate change include:

  • One of the seven principles in the University’s climate plan focuses on the development of a sustainable curriculum which aims to allow all students the opportunity to study and participate in sustainability as part of their learning. Within this, students are involved in the development through ‘Curriculum Redefined‘ which includes students in the development of inclusive learning tools and highlights sustainability as one of the key principles of all new curriculum development.
  • The Student Sustainability Research Conference brings together students, staff, collaborators, and the public to experience the diversity of undergraduate and postgraduate student sustainability research that reflects positive social, economic and environmental sustainability.
  • The Climate Plan Student Challenge invites students from across the University of Leeds to submit their ideas that will contribute to achieving net zero as an institution. Three winning ideas receive support for trials on campus.
  • Priestley Climate Scholars brings together students from across disciplinary backgrounds and offers opportunities for training, networking, and leadership.

Student voice

The University offers a wide range of courses to address climate anxiety. But as much as I am aware of the climate, I feel anxious and hopeless towards making a real difference to our planet and hope in the future we see more community-led initiatives and programs to not only educate, but bring our community together to fight for a change we can be proud of.

Whilst education on climate change can be empowering, there is also evidence to suggest that this too can generate eco-anxiety. That’s why education alone is not enough to empower eco-anxious young people, initiatives must also address the other ACE pillars.

Awareness and information

Awareness and access to information is central to managing eco-anxious emotions. Empowering young people with access to information allows them to gain the knowledge they need to begin envisioning solutions to the inertia they see.

The University of Leeds’ initiatives create awareness amongst young people in various ways:

Public participation

Participating in climate action can help address eco-anxiety by connecting young people to a supportive network, providing emotional validation for experiences, inducing a positive outlet and connection for anxious emotions.

At the University of Leeds, student societies offer various avenues to participate in climate action, activism, and holistic wellbeing. These groups empower students to address eco-anxiety through collective action and support networks. For example, Leeds Union’s Climate Week, led by students focuses on eco-anxiety and activism by providing tools for positive emotional engagement. Students are also active in more direct forms of action and demonstrations organized by students are frequently held in and around the University.

Furthermore, the University of Leeds also offers opportunities for students to be directly involved with the sustainability projects running on campus. The ‘Student Sustainability Architect’ program offers students the opportunity to bring new ideas to the table, voice their opinions and bring their unique perspectives on the sustainability initiatives running on campus. The university also offers the ‘Leeds Living Lab’ initiative, a program dedicated to researching and testing sustainable solutions, tackling global challenges through using the University and local communities as a test ground, and more; this initiative is open to both students and staff across the University, empowering all to embed sustainability into both the University and the city of Leeds.

Student voice

The number of sustainability and climate focused student societies at the University is great, it’s such an active space for learning and action. I think the University could create more links between staff and these societies so that students could feel more involved in academic research and academic research could be more connected and informed to grassroots action. The more student action is embraced, the more empowered we will feel.

International cooperation

In 2016, the Priestley Centre was formed with an aim to catalyse international collaboration on climate change at the University. The Centre has also contributed to other ACE pillars such as education through its Priestley Climate Scholars scheme. Recently, the University has collaborated on an international scale to conduct climate research in connecting indigenous knowledge in the Arctic with climate science, developing infrastructures in Africa to reliably track weather, and a mobile app to track extreme weather activities, co-designing toolkits to prepare the disabled during disasters in Indonesia, and using satellite technology and more to boost food security in East Africa.

Student voice

It’s nice to know they’re doing this, this research and the recent COP. But, I still feel that they could do more. Perhaps they could create more international links, and get even more people involved, all in service of tackling climate change. That would certainly alleviate some anxiety, considering climate change is one of the biggest dangers facing the world today.

Where next?

As students at the University, we spoke to our peers and reflected as a team to consider what more the University of Leeds could do to empower eco-anxious young people in and around the University.

There needs to be a greater focus on using international links to foster greater cooperation in the pursuit of tackling climate change, as well as empowering the youth at the same time. Whilst the University of Leeds is collaborating internationally, there is not enough youth participation and awareness about these projects. To truly empower the youth as well as combating their eco-anxiety, all ACE pillars must be considered simultaneously. Education without participation is not enough. Participation without the right education is not enough. International cooperation without education and participation of students is not enough.

Going forward, the University must attempt to tie together their initiatives ensuring the inclusion of young people, not just academics, throughout. By involving students and fostering a global community of empowered youth the University can help further empower the eco-anxious.