Deer in Headlights: Young People & Abrupt Climate Change

Ongoing, abrupt climate change is rooted in human behavior underlain by natural selection. Ongoing, irreversible climate change is rooted in human behavior underlain by natural selection. These young people have no more control over abrupt, irreversible climate change than bonobos in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The same applies to you. Even if we could somehow gather together in a united front to battle climate change, it’s too late.”—Dr. Guy McPherson

Planetary Hospice

By Dr. Guy McPherson

Time is running out.
Time is running out. (Photo: Tobias Rademacher/Unsplash.)

Guy McPherson

BELLOWS FALLS Vermont—(Hubris)—January 2024—The headline of a story on Medium published on 11 November 2023 reads: “When It Comes to Climate Change, the Kids Are Not All Right.” The subhead is: “They worried they have no future.”

The author, Theresa Ann Story, opens with this anecdote: “Not long ago, a science teacher at a local middle school graciously gave me some time at the end of her day to discuss what students are learning about climate change.

“When I arrived, two students were still in the classroom—young girls who were laughing and chatting as they helped tidy up the desks.

“‘Looks like you’re still working,’ I said, standing in the doorway. ‘Is this still a good time to talk?’

“‘Yes, come on in,’ she said, smiling and waving me in. ‘We’re just waiting for my daughter. I told them you were coming, and they might be interested in our meeting since the topic affects them, too.’

“‘Great!’ I enthusiastically replied. I turned to the girls and blurted out, ‘So, what do you think of climate change?’

“They froze like deer in headlights. 

“Their laughter abruptly stopped. An expression of unease washed over their faces as they shifted their gazes toward one another. After a moment of awkward silence, they drifted back to futzing with the desks.

“In a low voice, the teacher explained, ‘It’s a scary subject for them. They don’t feel like they can make a difference, so it’s hard for them to talk about it.’

“Crap, I thought. What have I done?

And then, beneath the subhead “Young People are Terrified of the Future,” she continues: “A teenager’s weightiest worries should be along the lines of ‘How am I going to pass math?’ or, ‘I wonder if Tommy likes me?’

“They shouldn’t be asking themselves ‘How am I going to survive global warming?’ And yet, they are.”

The article in Medium refers to a peer-reviewed, open-access paper in “The Lancet Planetary Health” published in December 2021. Written by Caroline Hickman and eight other scholars, the title of the piece is, “Climate anxiety in children and young people and their beliefs about government responses to climate change: a global survey.” 

According to the summary of this paper, “Children and young people . . . have little power to limit [the harm of climate change], making them vulnerable to climate anxiety. This is the first large-scale investigation of climate anxiety in children and young people globally and its relationship with perceived government response.”

The peer-reviewed paper is based on a survey of 10,000 people (between the ages of 16 years and 25 years, inclusive) in ten countries. Respondents in all countries were worried about climate change. In fact, 59 percent were very or extremely worried and 84 percent were at least moderately worried. More than half the respondents reported feeling sad, anxious, angry, powerless, helpless, and guilty. Three-quarters indicated the future is frightening and 83 percent said that “they think people have failed to take care of the planet.”

I agree with their concern, obviously. However, I think it’s tragic that young people feel guilty about climate change. Again, with feeling: It’s not your fault! Our behavior, underlain by natural selection, dates back to the Cognitive Revolution of more than 70,000 years ago.

Ongoing, abrupt climate change is rooted in human behavior underlain by natural selection. Ongoing, irreversible climate change is rooted in human behavior underlain by natural selection. These young people have no more control over abrupt, irreversible climate change than bonobos in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The same applies to you. Even if we could somehow gather together in a united front to battle climate change, it’s too late. Even the politically motivated Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has concluded that climate change is abrupt—the most abrupt even in planetary history, in fact, exceeding the power of the meteor that struck the planet about 66 million years ago and drove dinosaurs to extinction—and also irreversible. Yes, these conclusions were reached by the IPCC, an organization designed to fail when it was created during the Reagan administration.

Earth is in the midst of abrupt, irreversible climate change. This is not surprising, considering we have surpassed the 2 C mark above the 1750 baseline that we were warned about for many years. Of course, 2 C was invented by an economist and was never relevant to our continued well-being, much less our continued survival. Rather, as pointed out by the Advisory Group on Greenhouse Gases in 1985, 1 C above the 1750 baseline was a cause for concern. As pointed out by many scholars over the last several decades, our behavior is inconsistent with stopping or even slowing abrupt, irreversible climate change. But, in response to my citing peer-reviewed literature, I am accused of “giving up.”

We never talked about death, dying, or other important issues when I was a kid. As a result, the death of friends and family members was always unexpected, regardless of how old or sick they were. Imagine my pain when, at the age of eleven, I realized I was mortal.

Life is full of unexpected twists and turns, but death and dying need not be categorized as “surprises.”

After delivering a presentation about near-term human extinction to high-school students, I was chatting with members of the audience. A couple of the teenaged students skipped by us, resembling children in a schoolyard. A few minutes earlier, they had learned they would die in the near future. They understood, and they responded with appreciation for their ability to live happily today.

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Dr. Guy McPherson is an internationally recognized speaker, award-winning scientist, and one of the world’s leading authorities on abrupt climate change leading to near-term human extinction. He is professor emeritus at the University of Arizona, where he taught and conducted research for 20 years. His published works include 16 books and hundreds of scholarly articles. Dr. McPherson has been featured on television and radio and in several documentary films. He is a blogger and social critic who co-hosts his own radio show, “Nature Bats Last.” Dr. McPherson speaks to general audiences across the globe, and to scientists, students, educators, and not-for-profit and business leaders who seek their best available options when confronting Earth’s cataclysmic changes. Visit McPherson’s Author Page at (Author Head Shot Augment: René Laanen.)


  • Prakash Norm Keegel

    When I was in primary school we had a middle-aged woman staying with us in Colombo so that she could make weekly hospital visits. That was the first time that I could remember the death of somebody I knew. Perhaps that’s why I have no hesitation in talking about death. Maybe in a modern city, that woman would have spent the last days of her life in a hospital, so that my 7 siblings and I were not “confronted” by the sight of a corpse in our house.

    Much later I was on a committee training volunteers who were becoming telephone counsellors for AIDS patients. I chose the role of helping each person to experience their death. I think it was clear to me that would allow them to discuss more comfortably the death of the person they were counselling.

    Of course, it’s “upping the ante” to talk about the extinction of our species. But I see that having a sense of personal death is a stepping stone.

  • Guy R. McPherson

    Thank you for your thoughtful, informed comment, Prakash. You were indeed fortunate to have had the experiences that allow you to remain comfortable when discussing death.

    As you indicate, a conversation about extinction is a few steps beyond discussing personal death. My goal is to encourage people to engage in these important conversations before death comes for each of us.

  • Alix Greenwood

    I am very intrigued by the statement that our climate-changing behavior was an inevitable outcome of the Cognitive Revolution of 70 000 years ago. Could you point me to somewhere where you explain this in more detail? I have been following your work since I heard you interviewed by Sonali Kolhatkar some years ago, but visual and other impairments prevent me from using the computer much, so I have for sure missed a lot. I often wish for an answer (if such a thing is possible) to the question of whether something about the human species made catstrophic climate change inevitable, or whether, given the vast differential in emissions between different societies past and present, and between different groups within societies, it is something that has arisen from a whole complex interaction of economic, cultural and other factors that could have played out differently. Any guidance on this question would be very welcome. Thank you.

  • Guy R. McPherson

    Thank you for your comment, Alix. In general, the Cognitive Revolution was the point at which humans began acting on the idea of human superiority.

    “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind” is a 2011 book by Yuval Noah Harari (first published in English in 2014) that provides an overview of the Cognitive Revolution. It’s a bit dated, so I used Google Scholar to track down more-recent information indicating the Cognitive Revolution began considerably earlier than 70,000 years ago (none of which is at my proverbial fingertips).

  • Jim Coyle

    Hi Guy – Lately I’ve been wondering if when I talk to people about our demise in the near future, it felt to me like saying we probably would not make it past 2030 was a safe bet I guess 2026 just seemed too soon.

    Your thoughts?

    Keep up the good work!


  • Guy R. McPherson

    Thanks for your question, Jim. I suspect it is raised by many people.

    The biggest issue over which we have no control is an ice-free Arctic Ocean. University of California-San Diego Professor and active member of the Scripps Institution (part of the Scripps Institute) expected this event to occur in 2022, as indicated in CBS News on 23 April 2021. Harvard Professor James Anderson said in an interview with Forbes posted 15 January 2018, “The chance there will be permanent ice in the Arctic after 2022 is essentially zero.”

    They were both incorrect. Could we have an ice-free Arctic Ocean this year? If we do, the rate of environmental change in the wake of this event will likely lead to the loss of all life on Earth.

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