From not having kids to battling anxiety: Climate change is shaping life choices and affecting mental health – USA TODAY
Revelle Mast wanted to be an architect when she was a kid. She changed course in high school, deciding to pursue chemical engineering to address the threat of climate change. But, last year, she made another life decision: to go into politics.
“I realized about a year ago that was not feasible on the time scale that climate change is happening,” Mast said. “Nine months ago, I quit my engineering job and went full time into political work.”
As global warming – the gradual increase in temperature of the Earth’s atmosphere –accelerates, people are grappling with the idea that disastrous conditions may appear as soon as 2040. The reality of this potentially existential crisis greatly impacts the way some people, especially those who have dedicated their lives to stopping climate change, make life decisions – whether that’s going vegan, living in a certain part of the country or deciding against having children. It even impacts their mental health.
For some people, ignoring climate change is not an option. It’s real, it’s happening, and preventing the crisis from getting worse is a driving force in their lives.
Deciding what to do with their lives
“There’s a strong chance that society, as we know, it is going to be in shambles,” said Faith Ward, a 19-year-old climate activist with the youth movement Zero Hour. “What position am I going to be in for the sake of leadership?”
Ward is from Plantation, Florida, a city in the thick of the climate crisis because of its coastal location. At Zero Hour’s Youth Climate Summit in Miami earlier in July, the team was told to picture a place they consider sacred that is especially threatened by global warming, she said. While others pictured distant nature reserves, Ward was picturing her hometown.
“Everyone else was picturing some place far off,” Ward said. “But I was standing there, it wasn’t my imagination. I’d pushed that thought down, but just standing there and thinking about it, I broke down crying in front of the group.”
Even though rising sea levels and hurricane intensities frighten her, Ward said the climate crisis has made her determined to stay home and protect her community. Her fight against climate change is personal, she said.
“I don’t think any natural disaster could break the emotional ties I have here,” Ward said.
Faith Ward, a 19-year-old climate activist with the youth movement Zero Hour
I don’t think any natural disaster could break the emotional ties I have here.
Lauren Maunus, also from South Florida in Palm City, was introduced to climate change’s harm by observing it in her hometown. In fourth grade, her town was struck by two back-to-back Category 4 hurricanes. At first she saw this as an opportunity to miss school for a month and tube down the streets. But she soon realized while her family’s house remained unharmed and their car intact, this was not the case for some of her classmates in lower income neighborhoods.
“With those back-to-back massive storms, I saw injustice even if I didn’t have the language for it, and from that point I was always fighting for environmental justice and climate justice,” Maunus said. “I couldn’t get that image of disparity out of my mind.”
Maunus dived deeper into environmental issues in college and learned how the crisis implicates every part of our society. Now, she’s a political and legislative coordinator for the Sunrise Movement, a youth-led movement advocating political action on climate change.
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Isabella Fallahi, 16, is the communications director for Zero Hour. Fallahi lives in Indianapolis, Indiana, a state that ranks 48th for quality of life and 46th for air quality. She was re-diagnosed with asthma this year because of worsening allergies triggered by climate change, she said.
Fallahi said being personally impacted by climate change’s effects has made her even more determined in her activism.
“I have to go off to college and still won’t be able to escape the air quality that has damaged my respiratory system and my lungs for years now,” Fallahi said. “It’s going to forever play a role in what I do and how I do things.”
Deciding to address climate anxiety
Christene Dejong would be awake at 2 in the morning, panicking over impending environmental “apocalyptic scenarios.”
She was always aware of environmental concerns, the Amherst, Massachusetts, native said.
But after the 2017 Paris Climate Agreement withdrawal coupled with the 2019 U.N. report that says up to 1 million species are at risk of extinction, “some switch flipped and I just started freaking out all the time.”
The Paris agreement aims to combat global warming by gradually reducing emissions of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane, which come from the burning of fossil fuels such as oil, coal and natural gas. President Donald Trump announced in June that the U.S. would withdraw from the deal.
A Yale survey released in December found nearly 70% of Americans are “worried” about climate change, 29% are “very worried” – up eight percentage points from just six months earlier – and 51% said they felt “helpless.”
This anxiety has gained so much traction in the national consciousness that it is starting to needle its way into popular media. On an episode of the popular HBO drama “Big Little Lies,” the daughter of one of the main characters has a panic attack while learning about climate change.
Revelle Mast, left, and Lauren Maunus of Sunrise Movement, a youth-led movement advocating political action on climate change. Alex Brizee
Susan Clayton, professor of psychology at the College of Wooster, said mental health issues surrounding climate change can stem from both climate change events directly experienced and concern about the changing climate in general.
“You don’t have to be directly affected by climate change in order to be worried about climate change,” she said.
Psychotherapist, ecotherapist and author Linda Buzzell who is from Santa Barbara, California, has struggled with “eco-anxiety” herself.
“I think it’s beginning to dawn on us that we’re not going to be here very long if our habitat is basically killed off and dying,” she said.
I think it’s beginning to dawn on us that we’re not going to be here very long if our habitat is basically killed off, and dying
This can manifest as trauma from events, post-traumatic stress disorder, compounded stress and depression, or even death by suicide, Clayton said.
She wrote in a study that in some cases, feelings of loss, because of natural disasters or knowledge of climate change impacts, persist for so long and so severely “that individuals have trouble resuming their normal lives.”
Chris Paluszeck says his eco-anxiety manifested mostly because of his kids’ births – his son was born five years ago and his daughter three – which he says has “been a wake- up call.”
“You want to have them inherit a world at least as good as what you had, hopefully better,” he said. “But to read about it and understand what’s coming our way, it seems like it might not be the case. And that really hit me hard.”
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Paluszeck, of Burbank, California, has attended meetings of the Good Grief Network, a support group based in Nebraska for people to talk about their climate anxieties. It is known for its 10 step model for personal resilience and empowerment.
The founders, Laura Schmidt and Aimee Lewis Reau say that “Good Grief is what happened when we kept digging into these issues” of climate change and anxiety surrounding it. They two are originally from Michigan but moved to Nebraska to work on this project.
Their goals are to make people confront the “collective despair” that is felt by those who feel that climate change is inevitable, as well as “come together in community,” according to Reau.
Paluszeck said the Good Grief Network has helped him mitigate the anxiety he feels every day by talking and sharing stories.
“Joining a circle of people that also feel the way you feel really helps you not feel so alone,” he said.
Dejong said finding a community with other mothers concerned about climate change has helped her cope with feelings of panic. She urges others to find the “hundreds of thousands of people who are doing something” about the issue and join their cause.
Deciding to make lifestyle changes
The first thing Kim Cobb, a climate scientist at the Georgia Institute of Technology, did was start riding her bike to work. Then she replaced her light bulbs, her sister’s light bulbs and her parents’ light bulbs with LEDs. Her next step was reducing the flying she did by 35%. She also calls herself an aspiring vegan.
“After 2016, which brought the heat-related death of much of the coral reef I’ve worked at for 20 years and then the election of this administration, I kind of had to find another gear of climate engagement,” Cobb said.
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Cobb said she’s usually met with amazement when telling people about her lifestyle changes. She’s one of the few people in her neighborhood with solar panels on her roof, whose expenses have left her husband “with his jaw on the floor,” she said. Cobb noted the government doesn’t make it easy for people to lead more climate friendly lives.
The office space of Sunrise Movement, a youth-led movement advocating political action on climate change, in Washington, D.C. Alex Brizee
“It’s not that we’re doing a hell of a lot to give people a lot of choice in the matter,” Cobb said. “What would it look like if we had really safe bike infrastructure? What would happen if we really subsidized rooftop solar? We would move the market. People want solutions to climate change. People are concerned about climate change. And yet policy is dragging.”
To shift policy and systemic change, Cobb has thrown herself into influencing lawmakers, starting in her own community. She was elected traffic chair of her neighborhood’s board and said she frequents city hall to advocate for biker safety.
Deciding not to have children
The decision of whether or not to have children can be tough for activists.
Some have given up on having kids altogether. British musician Blythe Pepino, 33, created BirthStrike, a group of people who’ve decided against having kids in the wake of the climate crisis. She’s also an activist with the Extinction Rebellion, a movement using civil disobedience to protest climate change inaction.
“Mainly, I want to be an activist,” Pepino said. “I’m also afraid for the child I would bring into the world.”
Students at a climate change protest at Columbus Circle in New York on May 24, 2019. JUSTIN LANE, EPA-EFE
Like Cobb, Pepino has made climate-related lifestyle changes. She’s vegan and she doesn’t fly anymore, meaning she probably won’t accomplish international recognition as a musician – a fact she has accepted. Pepino says the decision to not have kids became harder to accept, though, when she met her current partner.
Mast, who is a trans woman, had to make her decision on having kids when transitioning. She decided against it, and so she didn’t bank sperm.
“That was a decision I made when I was 24 that I’m not having kids because the climate can’t take it,” said Mast, who’s from the San Francisco Bay Area. “By not having kids, I can devote that much more of my life toward fixing this crisis.”