In December 2017, Jennifer Atkinson flew from Washington to Santa Barbara, California, where her family lives, to celebrate Christmas. The 42-year-old is a senior lecturer in environmental humanities at the University of Washington Bothell, about an hour from Seattle, but she grew up in rural central California, outside the town of Templeton. She remembers cattle ranches and vineyards and fields of oak trees stretching toward the sun. She spent her summers playing in a creek with her dogs. Some nights, she’d sleep outside on lawn furniture and stare at the stars twinkling overhead.
On this trip, though, in the middle of winter, smoke darkened the skyline in Santa Barbara. By December 14, flames had scorched more than 242,000 acres in Southern California, making it the state’s fourth-largest wildfire to date and the only December-occurring wildfire on the list of California’s 20 largest wildfires, according to a post on what was then the government’s climate website.
During her visit, Atkinson watched her nieces and nephew hook masks over their ears before they could play outside after school. After pulling on dresses and nice shoes to attend a performance of the Nutcracker, they walked back to their cars wearing the masks to filter out the smoke. Atkinson had been getting evacuation alerts on her phone for nearby neighborhoods all evening, and the smoke had become so oppressive that she and her family decided to leave too. She was devastated by the destruction around them, the danger, the loss.
“The experience of being in or in the vicinity of a catastrophic wildfire is so pervasive,” Atkinson says today. “You can’t not see it. And to actually breathe in these toxins, to know they’re going into your lungs and your body, there’s just a sense of assault, or a kind of invasion, that is just deeply personal.”
It felt traumatic, but that doesn’t mean it was novel. Atkinson had been reckoning with those feelings when she pitched a new class to the university that was set to begin when she returned to work after the holiday. “Depressed about climate change?” read a flyer advertising the course. “Our seminar will examine not only the anxiety that is our own, but also the psychological toll of climate change on communities in different parts of the world.” She called the three-credit undergraduate class “Environmental Grief and Anxiety: Building Hope in the Age of Climate Consequences.” It was aimed in part at exploring the emotional and ethical issues of climate change, as well as helping students develop tools to endure the emotional effects of extinctions, deforestation, and more.
Atkinson created this seminar because “we can’t afford to educate a generation of young people who aren’t emotionally prepared for what’s coming, what’s already here.”
It was just a pilot. Atkinson didn’t know if students would be interested. But two dozen enrolled, and after the quarter started, the university ran a story about the class on its website. News coverage followed as the Seattle Times and other publications reported on this woman who was lecturing on coping with grief connected to global warming. Hundreds of messages filled Atkinson’s inbox, most of them supportive — thanking her or sharing a sense of solidarity. She heard from professors, religious leaders, and just people—from the community and across the country—who had read the newspaper article and felt validated. “Most said that just knowing this seminar existed made them feel less abnormal,” Atkinson told me when we met in her office in November. “It was reassuring to know they’re not some social misfit for feeling devastated about our climate crisis.”
Atkinson assigned readings to her students, including poems by Chickasaw writer Linda Hogan, a commencement address by novelist Barbara Kingsolver called “How to Be Hopeful,” and a 2017 report by the American Psychological Association titled “Climate Change’s Toll on Mental Health.” Though Atkinson had never heard of a college course like hers when she launched it, it turns out she was tapping into a burgeoning field that has increasingly gained traction as psychologists, therapists, and academics like her probe the psychological impact of climate change, arguing that unless we deal with the profound and, at times, paralyzing grief brought on by the destruction of our environment, we’ll never fully be able to tackle the problem. “We can’t afford to educate a generation of young people who aren’t emotionally prepared for what’s coming, what’s already here,” she says.