Climate Anxiety and Active Hope

Photo by Joanne Francis on Unsplash

Gratitude Circle: I teach 6th grade at a middle school in Sonoma County, California. Every week, we have a Community Circle. Often, we begin our Community Circles with a quick round of gratitudes. Each student simply states one thing they are thankful for.

It was a rainy Monday in January of this year. A student, I’ll call him Kayden, shared that he was grateful for the rain because he didn’t have to worry about the smoke or the fires anymore. This relief from fire anxiety was the one thing at the forefront of his mind that he was most grateful for in that moment.

Relief: But, it had been raining pretty well for nearly six weeks when Kayden shared this gratitude. The first winter rains had come at the very end of November. Six weeks later, and still, the relief from fire anxiety, was the one thing at the very forefront of this 11-year-old’s mind when he thought about gratitude. Six weeks after that initial relief had first arrived. Think about how strong and pervasive the anxiety must have been for the relief from it to linger so prominently for so long.

Background Climate Anxiety: Kayden is a powerful, resilient young person and he expressed this in a business-like, matter of fact way, without overt signs of stress or anxiety. Yet, I cannot help but take this as a small, but telling example of the way that climate change anxiety has colonized our conscious and subconscious.

Negative Space of Gratitude: The flip side, the negative corollary, of Kayden savoring a quiet moment of relief from fire stress was the underlying fact that fire anxiety is a new and growing component of his personal, community, and regional reality. It’s not going away and scientists tell us that at this current rate of emissions, it is only getting worse.

Tangible Climate Harm: Kayden’s climate-related fire concerns are grounded in tangible, visceral experiences. As a fifth grader, he spent over 10 days under smoke clouded skies while 1400+ students in our county lost their homes in a climate-related firestorm.

Just this past August, the skies were hazy for weeks and there were several days in which local public health officials warned children to stay indoors due to extremely smoky conditions from the Mendocino firestorm the next county over.

In October, after an early rain, there was a controlled burn about 8 miles away. When the smell wafted over right after recess one morning, my entire class grew agitated and jittery. One of Kayden’s classmates announced enthusiastically, with a dissonant smile “I think I’m having PTSD!”

He likely was. Just a year earlier this 11 year-old had been awakened at 2:00 am on October 9th and evacuated against the backdrop of encroaching flames. His home was spared, but he spent 3 troubling days not knowing whether or not it would be consumed. Entire blocks of homes just a few hundred yards from his house were destroyed.

In November, 2018, all schools were closed in Sonoma County for two days, and again skies were darkened and unhealthy for a week due to the climate-related firestorm in Butte County, 100 miles away. Some of the smoke we breathed was from the homes of 5,000 school kids in Paradise, CA.

Kayden’s climate-related fire anxiety grew from a rational understanding of the significant risks he faces. Scientists believe that this is not the new normal, but rather better than what future fire conditions will be.

The Dark Lining in the Rain Cloud: We’ve got rains for at least another couple of weeks at this point which we are all grateful for. But there are difficult truths embedded in that fact as well. Two weeks ago, the rains for which Kayden had been so grateful became biblical downpours, fueled in part by higher temperatures which evaporate more moisture off the Pacific. One part of Sonoma County logged 20” in a single day! Flooding from the Russian River did more than $155 million dollars worth damage in our county alone. One of Kayden’s classmates’ homes was flooded and school was closed for 2 additional days.

And, experience and scientists suggest that the flush of new plant growth in the understory during a rainy winter will turn into higher fuel loads during our naturally long dry summers (summers made hotter and more desiccating by rising temperatures). So, the relief we experience with a wet winter may be counterbalanced by increased fire danger the following summer and fall.

Socio-Political Signals Suggest It’s Getting Much Worse at this Rate: As climate signals worsen, socio-political signals are not improving quickly enough. Many federal electeds are still either signaling doubt about mainstream climate science or are silently tolerating climate obfuscation and climate delay by their colleagues and leaders. The most egregious climate deniers, such as Senator James Imhofe or Representative Louie Gohmert, unwitting instruments of great climate harm to Kayden and his generation, still retain positions of respect and authority among their party. (Twenty years from now, this fact will baffle, stun, and chill young history students.) To my knowledge, none of their caucus members has publicly condemned either one for their years of public, proud, and sometimes smirkish promotion of the unscientific climate denial ideology.

These peer social signals make it “safe” for members of Congress to perpetuate their collective climate neglect, even though privately, Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle fully understand the harm climate inaction causes. Yet, the Energy Innovations and Carbon Dividends Act, the first robust piece of bipartisan climate legislation introduced in nearly ten years still only has 1 Republican co-sponsor. It is essentially a conservative, free-market climate solution endorsed by conservative think-tanks and oil companies, as well as Democrats and climate activists desperate to take a first step towards ending our national climate neglect.

The 116th Congress, without extraordinary signals from the individuals, institutions, and grasstops leaders across the country may be incapable of taking the bold and fast climate action required to decrease the climate harm Kayden and his classmates face in their lifetimes. Given the current signals from Congress, it may be that Congressional climate neglect will continue and that the exposure to climate harm is only going to get a lot worse in Kayden’s lifetime. (See links at the bottom to help prevent this).

Managing climate anxiety will become a central element in the lives of many of my students. This effort will be complicated significantly by the dynamic of Congressional climate neglect and by the silent witnessing which enables this form of child neglect.

Does Gaslighting and Silence by Witnesses Impede Development of Resilience? Please consider how the words, statements, and actions of federal electeds on climate change interact with Kayden’s life experiences and perspectives related to climate and climate-related fires. Please consider how education sector climate justice silence, or more optimistically, education sector climate justice advocacy can help Kayden and his classmates process and manage their own private and community climate-related anxieties.

As adults and as educators our words and our silences dramatically shape the context by which young people experience difficult new climate realities. By embodying climate action and by speaking up assertively for climate justice, we can construct a more hopeful and empowering climate context for our children and our students. Research suggests that this context of active hope is crucial for developing resilience need to manage the psychological burden of climate change.

Schools for Climate Action Campaign: To end on note of active hope, you should know that Kayden was one of the lead student advocates who secured a non-partisan climate action resolution from the California Association of School Psychologists (CASP) as part of the Schools for Climate Action (S4CA) campaign. Heidi Holmblad, the Executive Director of CASP responded enthusiastically and quickly when Kayden and his fellow club members asked her in a Zoom Meeting to bring a climate action resolution to the CASP board.

Two 8th graders in Kayden’s climate action club will travel to Congress at the end of this month to hand-deliver the CASP resolution along with climate action resolutions from more than 58 education sector organizations in 9 states.

At the S4CA Climate Advocacy Summit on 3.28.19, more than 180 youth and adult allies will march the halls of Congress to hand-deliver resolution packets to every Congressional Office. They will serve notice that Congress has a moral imperative to act quickly and boldly on climate to protect Kayden and his entire generation. They will help the education sector break silence about climate justice which is an element enabling this Congressional climate neglect.

Cry of Grief Stuck in Our Throats: Right now, 99.9% of education sector leaders and organizations are silent witnesses to the Congressional climate neglect which harms all of our students. But with more and more resolutions passing each week, we expect the S4CA campaign to go viral soon. It may quickly generate thousands of non-partisan climate action resolutions from the 75,000 education sector organizations across the country: school boards, student councils, PTAs, educators’ unions and associations. This overwhelming signal from the education sector will help move Congress to quickly enact bold policies to address the climate risk Kayden and his generation face.

Active Hope: When the CASP resolution passed, Kayden was thrilled. He has learned a valuable lesson in non-partisan advocacy, in climate assertiveness, and in managing the socio-ecosystem. By speaking up assertively for himself and for his generation, he is also empowering adults — -board members, educators, and Members of Congress — to be their better selves and to embody with greater integrity all of the important values which organize our classrooms and our schools.

Likely the rational concern for fire will be a persistent element throughout Kayden’s life. But, by acting to address climate neglect by Congress and climate justice silence by education sector adults, Kayden can respond to this anxiety with active hope.

Hundreds of students in 9 states have been involved in the Schools for Climate Action campaign. Please share information about Schools for Climate Action with the Kaydens in your life.

Learn more at www.schoolsforclimateaction.org

S4CA Outreach Email to School Board Members: This email, and little else, from a student, parent, teacher, or community member has generated a non-partisan climate action resolution from a school board in less than 2 months more than 8 times. Many of our campaigns are surprisingly fast and easy.

Student Council Resolution Toolkit: This slideshow shows everything a student needs to pass a student council climate action resolution. 8 have passed in the past 8 weeks in four states. We expect this to go viral quickly and as student council resolutions pass, they will generate follow-on school board, PTA, and educators’ union resolutions. Please share this with students and teachers in your social and professional networks.