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I Am Anxious About My Son’s Lack of Climate Anxiety

In succeeding as his father, I’ve failed him as a citizen.

A teenager looking at the sun.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

My son Conor recently turned 14. When he was younger, I’d felt a low-lying dread about what it would mean to be the father of a teenager. I knew that he’d one day engage in the same rituals that I once had: the eye rolling, the whatever, Dads, the prizing of friends over family. And though all of this is now happening, I recognize it for what it is. None of it offends me, because at his core, he’s the same carefree kid he’s always been.

Of course, much is different, and in some ways worse, for him now than it was when I turned 14.

A wave of studies now show that teenagers are sadder and more anxious than they’ve ever been — even in times of war or Watergate or Limp Bizkit. New technology is the crisis’ obvious driver; as The New York Times recently wrote, the decline in teen mental health has coincided neatly with “the introduction of the iPhone (in 2007) and the rise of selfie culture (around 2012).”

But if smartphones and social media are a leading cause of adolescent stress, the threat of climate change would seem a logical runner-up. As recently noted in National Geographic, over half of respondents to a 2021 Lancet study of children and young adults believed that “humanity is doomed” — and a similar number “said concerns about the state of the planet were interfering with their sleep, their ability to study, to play, and to have fun.”

In Conor’s 14 years of living on America’s East Coast, he’s experienced both Superstorm Sandy and Hurricane Ida’s floods — with each in their time described as a once-in-centuries event. And though he’s so far avoided the sadness that social media can bring, I’ve lately been wondering what he makes of our troubled Earth. Has this winter — in which January was nearly 10 degrees above normal — unnerved him as it has me? He’s a pleasantly average kid, a lover of baseball and Fortnite and hanging out with friends. I know what the Greta Thunbergs of the world make of climate change. But what about the kid who I eat dinner with every night? I was embarrassed not to know. So I asked him if we could talk about it, fearing that I’d uncover a well of anxiety.

We sat on a couch in our basement, where he normally plays video games — and where, during the Ida downpour in 2021, my wife and I had frantically plugged holes in the wall to keep water from pouring in. He seemed a little confused as to why I wanted to discuss climate change; this was not a normal part of our evening routine.

“So is climate change something that you ever think about?” I asked as we settled in. “Is it something you’re conscious of?”

“It’s not really something that I think about, like, constantly,” he said. I didn’t know if this meant that he thought about it occasionally — that he had to force it from his mind — so I asked him about the mild winter. When people blamed climate change for something currently happening, did it give him pause? After all, our hotter predicted future has undoubtedly arrived. “I don’t really know,” he said, “because I don’t really remember before it wasn’t like this.”

I found this upsetting — he, like any other child in 2023, can’t properly gauge his worry because the recent past is his only measuring stick. It’s normal for Australia to burn, for California to run dry. It’s normal to wear shorts in January. But he didn’t seem upset. So I asked him the question that I didn’t want to ask: Does he worry about what the future may bring?

“Not really,” he said, shrugging. “Because I feel like I don’t know that much about all of it.” Only a few minutes in, his tone had already drifted toward one of polite detachment. It was becoming clear that he had no particular interest in climate change. “If I asked you … do you ever think about the stock market? Would you give it the same amount of thought?” I asked, a little exasperated. “[Climate change] is just not a thing?” “Pretty much,” he said, almost apologetically.

Conor is intelligent; he gets good grades and is funny and thoughtful. He’s not callous or unfeeling, and, at least in an abstract way, I know that he cares about the Earth. Though he might have joined the 29% of respondents to the Lancet study who said they felt “indifferent” about climate change, I would never use that word to describe him. So as my questions failed to stir him, I realized that, in trying to do right by him as a father, I might be failing him as a citizen. Because climate change is very much “a thing”; it might be the only thing.

For all of his 14 years, I’ve tried to shield him, as much as possible, from terrifying things that are beyond his control: shootings, sickness, governmental collapse. I largely avoid troubling subjects whenever he’s around, and climate change is the most troubling subject of all. So when I do address it, I tend to sand off the edges: I acknowledge that, yes, January was warm because of climate change, but also because of La Niña, a Pacific weather system that both heats the air and allows me to change the subject. It seems natural to me that I haven’t wanted to drop the full weight of climate change upon my child’s mind. I don’t want him to feel that his future might not be as open as his present seems to be. But now that he’s coming of age, that protective approach seems less defensible.

Throughout his childhood, I thought it would be enough to do the right things without articulating their necessity. He’s a vegetarian because my wife and I are vegetarians; he recycles because we recycle. There are solar panels on our roof because, well, we had them put up there. He knows why these things are good for the planet, but he clearly doesn’t understand the urgency behind them. I don’t want him to be anxious, but I also don’t want him to lack awareness. It’s a delicate balance: to be environmentally conscious, yet also mentally strong. As someone who lays awake at night, worrying about our degraded earth, I’m not quite sure how the two things fit together.

“I want you to understand that everyone’s actions have a result, even if it’s a tiny thing like leaving your light on,” I said to Conor in the basement, referring to one of his particularly maddening habits. He nodded, possibly convinced, as I went on. “It’s going to be your world … and I want you to be equipped to go out into that world and make the right choices.” This was all true. And yet I now knew that I had to do more to “equip” him: to find a way to give him the facts of the problem without marring his happiness.

After a while, I understood that I’d squeezed as much on the topic from him as I was likely to get. He simply didn’t know enough about climate change to have a real dialogue, and for that the fault was mine. “I guess I’m a little surprised that it’s not something that you give any thought to,” I said, “when it’s 60 degrees in February.”

“It’s nice football weather,” he said, smiling the smile I was so determined to preserve. About this, he was right. It was nice football weather. But it was also a harbinger. As I’m learning with Conor — who’s so neatly poised between childhood and maturity — it’s possible for two things to be true at once.

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  • Jacob Lambert

    Jacob is Heatmap's founding multimedia editor. Before joining Heatmap, he was The Week's digital art director and an associate editor at MAD magazine. Read More

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    Boston’s Big Dig Was Secretly Great

    A podcast by GBH News reporter Ian Coss gives this notorious project a long-overdue reappraisal. Bonus: The show comes with lessons for climate infrastructure projects of the future.

    Boston being dug by a backhoe.
    Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

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