Environmental activists at BU talk about how they grapple with “climate grief”
By Jessica Colarossi for BU Research
When I close my eyes and imagine my favorite place, I picture the rolling white sand beaches on the south shore of Long Island, New York. I picture the Fire Island Lighthouse poking up through the lush beach grass at the end of the boardwalk. I can think of so many summer days spent with family and friends, sitting on beach towels, eating deli sandwiches and drinking iced tea, while listening to the waves crashing.
This was basically my backyard growing up, which- whoa!-I now realize was an incredibly special gift. But today those precious places are facing serious threats from rising sea levels and climate change-fueled storms like Superstorm Sandy in 2012. Call me an environmental nerd (I did minor in environmental studies in college, after all), but I am worried. How are we going to save humanity from the devastation caused by climate change?
As I quickly learned from talking with other environmentally minded activists at Boston University, I am far from being the only one experiencing a case of climate anxiety, or, as it has come to be known, “climate grief.”
“I definitely do feel a lot of anxiety about [climate change],” says Emily Anderson, a Boston University first-year medical student and a student leader of BU’s School of Medicine Climate Action Group.
Climate grief is a relatively new term that’s quickly seeping into broader circles of conversation. In 2017, the American Psychological Association (APA) released a report, “ Mental Health and Our Changing Climate,” which outlined the psychological trauma caused by natural disasters, along with the significant mental health impacts from longer-term climate change.
For BU researcher Lucy Hutyra, who is currently gathering evidence firsthand of how our local climate is changing, the concept of climate grief hits especially close to home.
“In my dissertation research, I studied the collapse of Amazonian rain forests, which is a pretty depressing topic when you think about an entire ecosystem collapsing,” says Hutyra, a professor of earth and environment.
The more heat-trapping gases enter the atmosphere through human-related carbon emissions, and the faster our oceans heat up, the harder it can be not to worry about climate change. Many parts of the world are facing total upheaval due to climate change, and a lot of the negative consequences from polluting greenhouse gases, such as high rates of asthma, are even worse for low-income neighborhoods and communities of color. But amid so many reasons to feel stressed out, BU’s sustainability director Lisa Tornatore (CAS’02) thinks climate anxiety might have a silver lining-it could motivate people to get involved and do something.
Tornatore has the task of implementing the BU-wide Climate Action Plan, which aims for net-zero carbon emissions by 2040. To her, the most important aspect of community sustainability is empowering individuals and students to get involved in the effort, whatever way they can.
“Know that just because you are one person doesn’t mean your actions don’t add up-your actions do significantly add up,” says Tornatore.
For example, simply unplugging your laptop when it’s not in use, when that adds up to a whole building of people unplugging their laptops, can directly determine how much electricity the University consumes, Tornatore says.
If thinking about climate change is getting you down, she suggests meditating in nature. She also recommends finding a buddy-sort of like an exercise buddy, but for sustainability-to hold each other accountable and build a social circle of people with similar values on climate change and protecting the environment.
Anderson, the Climate Action Group leader, agrees. “Building relationships is much more important than nagging people to use less plastic,” she says.
But her biggest piece of advice?
“You have to be kind to yourself and kind to other people, and understand that everyone has a lot on their plate already…so finding that balance between pushing yourself and also being kind to yourself can be really hard to navigate,” Anderson says. “When I find myself going down rabbit holes like, Should I even have kids? Is our planet going to exist that long?, running is a good, grounding thing…. Being outside has got to be the biggest thing I do to find inspiration and relieve anxiety. I find it’s such a good stress reliever and a powerful reminder of why all of this matters.”
Her personal experience backs up findings from the 2017 APA report, which noted that spending more time in nature lowers stress levels and can reduce stress-related illness. The report also recommended-perhaps this is obvious-talking with friends about whatever it is you are feeling.
Personal habits to reduce carbon emissions, like cutting out meat and choosing to commute by bike or foot instead of by gas-powered vehicles, can also be tactics to help us connect to the big picture, Anderson says. She hopes that industries and institutions will continue toward changing the landscape so it’s easier for more people to make those decisions.
For that to happen, “advocacy has to be a part of it,” she says. Last year, Anderson and the Climate Action Group collected signatures and raised money for a food diversion program that collects food waste in a 208-person residence building. The group is participating in BU’s 2019 Earth Day Festival and has plans to push for more practices to raise eco-awareness among members of the medical community.
Hutyra sees signs that advocacy and awareness efforts are paying off.
“I find it incredibly important to understand what the problem is, but not wallow on everything that we’re losing and instead focus on how we keep moving forward, and cities [like Boston] have done that,” she says. Earlier this year, BU researchers and Boston city officials revealed an aggressive outline for how Boston can eliminate its net carbon emissions by 2050.
Hutyra’s experience as a graduate researcher thousands of miles away in the Amazon continues to shape much of her work as a principal investigator here in Boston. Using a network of sensors in the city of Boston and in less-populated areas outside the city, her lab primarily focuses on studying levels of carbon dioxide and the way human and biological activity affect air quality.
“I’m studying the same core problem, but I am in a position to ask questions that I think policymakers need answers to,” she says. “It’s incredibly rewarding and empowering to be able to shape your community.”
Ultimately, after hearing from Anderson, Hutyra, and Tornatore, my climate anxiety might be waning, even if just a little bit. I feel encouraged by the many people-whether they are scientists, activists, student leaders, or professors-pushing for a better world. Through small actions in each of our lives, and through bigger, organized actions, like community-led efforts to protect entire seashores and neighborhoods, we all can critically shape our world and our climate in the coming decades.