Climate Change and Climate Anxiety at the Law School

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In this post, Dr Lovleen Bhullar and Professor Natasa Mavronicola discuss how climate change and climate anxiety can shape students’ experiences and pursuits within and beyond the Law School.

Dr Lovleen BhullarProfessor Natasa Mavronicola

Lovleen Bhullar and Natasa Mavronicola

As ‘extreme weather events’ have continued to proliferate around the world, a more widespread and deeper awareness of anthropogenic climate change and its implications has catalysed an unprecedented rise in environmental and climate activism and protest against the refusal or failure of powerful actors to take the steps necessary to prevent climate catastrophe. Children and young people have been at the forefront of this fight for the future.

At the same time, in the context of growing weather extremes and consequent loss of life and environmental degradation, children and young people worldwide are experiencing profound distress, anxiety, anger and other negative emotions, impacting their day-to-day life and plans for the future. This phenomenon has been referred to as ‘climate anxiety’ or, more broadly, ‘eco-anxiety’. Climate anxiety and eco-anxiety are often used interchangeably, and are described as encompassing ‘a chronic fear of environmental doom’. As a recent survey establishes, the distress experienced by youth in the face of climate catastrophe is tied to the ways in which State laws and policies sustain and/or worsen the climate crisis.

In the contemporary Law School, climate anxiety has implications for student welfare and well-being, as well as for how students make sense of the legal regimes they examine in their studies, in areas ranging from environmental law to company law and public law. After law school, climate anxiety may influence the professional decisions made by these young people as well as the nature and extent of their commitment to environmental citizenship. With funding support from the Society of Legal Scholars, we therefore sought to conduct a survey of the Birmingham Law School (BLS) student body, to find out about how climate anxiety affects our students’ lives how it shapes their studies and their experience of learning the law, as well as their career aspirations, and how they view their role in addressing climate change within and beyond the Law School.  We also invited them to tell us about what the Law School could do to address their concerns about climate change.

The survey was completed by 61 students, with 49 of them describing their gender as female, 11 as male, and one identifying as non-binary. In response to a question inviting students to indicate how aware they are of climate change, 77% of those taking the survey conveyed that they are moderately or very aware of it. All but one student expressed worry about climate change, with 62% indicating they are ‘very worried’ or ‘extremely worried’. Asked whether their feelings about climate change negatively affected certain aspects of their lives, the most widely identified aspect area was ‘making plans’, selected by 21 students, followed by ‘having fun’, selected by 16 students. Other aspects of daily life affected included concentrating, studying, and sleeping.

Crucially, 59% of students reported feeling frustrated and powerless, while many conveyed feelings of anxiety (52%), helplessness (49%), sadness (39%) and anger (33%). Only 7% reported feeling hopeful and only 5% reported feeling optimistic. Asked about how they felt in relation to the UK government’s response to climate change, 51% expressed feelings of disappointment, while 15% indicated they felt betrayed.

In spite of the prevailing feelings of frustration and powerlessness, students showed a readiness to take action themselves to respond to climate change. The survey identified significant interest in pursuing various activities to respond to climate change, including:

  • modifying their personal habits (70%);
  • getting involved in student societies concerning environmental action, sustainability, climate change (67%);
  • engaging in voluntary work with non-governmental organisations (61%).

The survey gave students an opportunity to make suggestions about how BLS could better address their concerns about climate change. Some key ideas emerging in students’ comments included the need for integrating environmental law and climate change elements into the compulsory and optional BLS curriculum from as early as the first semester, as well as a call for more optional modules covering environmental law and climate change. Many students also pushed for better institutional efforts to counter harmful environmental practices and implement positive environmental and climate action within and by the University of Birmingham. Another important theme emerging from student feedback is the need for more opportunities for students to engage with civil society and other organisations and collectives mobilising to address the climate crisis, both as a platform for students’ civic engagement while in Law School, and as a chance to explore potential careers in the field.

Following the completion of the survey, we held an exhibition on ‘Hope and the Climate Crisis’. We invited members of the BLS community (including students and staff) to submit a photograph they had taken themselves with a caption and brief explanation of how it reflects the theme of hope in the context of the climate crisis. The photographs remain on display in the Common Room on the Ground Floor of Frankland Building.

Our experience engaging with the BLS student community through the survey and exhibition illuminated to us the importance of embedding environmental and climate law within the Law School curricular and extracurricular offerings and providing regular opportunities to students to share their experiences, concerns and hopes in respect of what is arguably the greatest challenge younger and future generations are facing. We have a lot to learn from them.

The authors are very grateful to the Society of Legal Scholars (SLS) for funding the activities outlined in this blog post, through the SLS’ ‘The Law School and the Climate Crisis’ Funding Initiative.

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