Three years ago, after the Woolsey fire, Greg Kochanowski, 53, returned to the Santa Monica mountains and walked past his own street without recognizing it.
The most destructive wildfire in Los Angeles County history devastated his Seminole Springs neighborhood, burning down more than half of the area’s homes, including his own. What was left was “a lunar landscape,” he said – ash and char, black and gray.
Losing your home was traumatic. But losing his bearings in his own neighborhood “scared him,” Kochanowski recalled, and sparked new existential worries about climate change.
Now he is agonizing over the future of his 14-year-old daughter. “What kind of world will Ava grow up in?” he said. “Will Southern California be uninhabitable when she is my age?” “
Mr. Kochanowski’s sense of dread fits into a spectrum of feelings often referred to as climate anxiety, a term that includes anger, worry and insecurity stemming from awareness of a warming planet.
“I actually think a lot of people have been going through this in silence and in private for a number of years,” said Renee Lertzman, climate psychologist and climate scientist. consultant to companies and associations. But “the conversation is no longer marginal. He really broke.
The evidence that climate change threatens mental health is mounting, according to a recent report from the Institute of Global Health Innovation at Imperial College London. Higher temperatures are linked to depressive language and higher suicide rates. Fires, hurricanes and heat waves carry risks of trauma and depression.
Cascading climate disasters forced American Red Cross volunteers to stay on the ground for months, rather than weeks, said Trevor Riggen, who heads the group’s national disaster programs. He noted that due to climate change, the Red Cross has moved from a focus on immediate trauma, “to this more chronic disease that requires a different type of mental health intervention or spiritual care.”
Young people, in particular declare feeling weakened by climate anxiety and the frustration of older generations. “They try to figure it out, but they don’t,” said Adah Crandall, 16, climate activist and anti-highway in Portland, Oregon. “I am afraid for my future because of the inaction of adults in the past.”
Today, as the humidity drops, Mr. Kochanowski sees anxiety on the faces of his neighbors. Warm days stretch for much of the year, and cool, humid mornings are rare. Sometimes he wonders if they need to move on.
“You realize the larger forces that have always been beyond your control,” he said. “This level of achievement makes you feel a little helpless.”
Andi Poland, 49, a technical recruiter who lives near Denver, said she too experiences anxiety, grief and fear of a hotter planet. “I’m glad I’m running out of this land,” she said. “I think I have a third of my life left. I’m not upset that I only have so much time.
But experts say these dark emotions can also be the basis for empowerment and progress. Writing in The Lancet, researchers recently argued that climate anxiety “may be the crucible through which humanity must go to harness the energy and conviction necessary for the vital changes now required.”
Your feelings about the climate are justified.
Anxiety is a rational response to the growing risks of climate change, according to Merritt Juliano, therapist in rural Maryland and co-chair of the Alliance for Climate Psychology in North America. But we shouldn’t hide it or ignore it.
“Our emotions are not something to resolve,” Ms. Juliano said. Rather than pushing aside climate concerns, people need to identify them and realize that they are there for a reason. “Kissing them makes us even stronger. “
Extreme weather conditions
Connecting with others is the key.
In a survey of 1,000 people by the American Psychiatric Association, more than half said they were worried on the impact of climate change on mental health. You don’t have to survive a hurricane to feel climate anxiety, said Britt Wray, a postdoc who studies the impacts of climate change on mental health at Stanford University. Suffering from a longer mosquito season in Pennsylvania, seeing orcas disappearing from Puget Sound, or simply reading about the catastrophic floods in Germany can cause a deeper emotional response to climate change.
“We can all reach out and touch it, no matter what our position, no matter our life experience,” said Dr Wray.
As the pandemic has clearly shown, when people don’t talk about anxiety, the resulting isolation can lead to depression, Dr Lertzman said.
Informal gatherings called weather cafes, organized through the country and world, aim to bring people together to share their feelings and reactions to the climate crisis. Other groups combine community and action.
The association Good mourning network offers climate distress support through a 10-step process, presented in weekly meetings that culminate with a commitment to “reinvest in meaningful efforts”.
Bradley Pitts, a 43-year-old artist, says his weather-related emotions have given him “opportunities to make decisions in a different way.” After attending the Good Grief meetings, he and his wife changed their personal choices to adapt and mitigate climate change. They bought an old commercial farm in upstate New York and committed to putting it back in the prairies and forests.
After factoring in climate anxiety, Pitts said: “Sitting on the sidelines is no longer an option.”
Action is the antidote to anxiety.
“We don’t see one approach as a silver bullet” for climate anxiety and inaction, said Sarah Jornsay-Silverberg, executive director of the Good Grief Network. Instead, the goal is to do things, big or small, that mean something to you and reflect the internal change in your vision.
For example, people often associate energy efficiency with turning off lights, but a single use of a dryer uses as much electricity as running a standard LED bulb for 13 days.
ReWild Long Island promotes biodiverse alternatives to traditional lawns, which volunteer Charlie Sacha calls “America’s largest and most wasteful harvest.” Ms. Sacha, 17, is a high school student from Manhasset; she said she had her first anxiety attack in 2018, after reading that greenhouse pollution must be reduced by 45% by 2030 to avoid a dangerous 2.7-degree warming.
“I don’t have a lot of power to do things on a grand global level,” she said. “But you can literally make a change in your own backyard.”
Some people adhere to the local ”don’t buy anything”To minimize the heavy carbon footprint of shipped purchases. Others are pushing to elect climate-conscious politicians.
IVEdit, a community-based climate and weather platform, encourages volunteers to record their observations of local changes online. In New Orleans, participants gathered stormwater data to show the impacts of flooding outside of expected patterns. As a result, local authorities redirected nearly $ 5 million in federal funding to build a larger stormwater retention tank in a low-income neighborhood.
Whatever you do, make it stick.
The very thing that fuels your anxiety – your imagination – may also be your most powerful tool in overcoming it, Dr Wray said.
In California, Mr Kochanowski said the Woolsey fire and the anxiety that followed reframed his work. Landscape architect, he set up what he calls a research laboratory to promote more radical construction and design adapted to the climate.
Mr Kochanowski knows that fire is essential for the oak forests and chaparral of his house – in the past two decades, the fire has forced his family to evacuate three times. But they love their neighborhood and believe they can help adapt it to a new climate reality.
Using non-combustible materials and a sustainable defensible space, they were rebuilt. And next to their new home, they planted a flowering tipu, which can spread a shade canopy in just a few years. “The idea was that we are not going to be defeated by this thing,” he said.
Molly Peterson is a Los Angeles-based investigative reporter who focuses on the intersections of climate, disaster, and public health.