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Climate Change: Emotional Impacts Can Be Countered by Taking Action
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Climate Change: Emotional Impacts Can Be Countered by Taking Action

Natasha Juliana - Cool Petaluma


Not only are people feeling more anxious and helpless about climate change, but they are also increasing over time. Given the news over the past few months, this is not surprising.

In August, the latest report from the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found that the frequency and severity of climate events are increasing in all of the world’s regions, and that some of the changes to our climate are already irreversible. Considering that this news comes on top of previous IPCC calls for net carbon neutrality by 2030 to avoid the most serious effects of climate change, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres called the report “a code red for humanity.”

In September, a survey of 10,000 young people—defined as aged 16–25 years—from 10 countries in both the global North and South found that over 50% of young people felt sad, anxious, angry, powerless, helpless and guilty when asked about the climate crisis. 84% also reported feeling at least moderately concerned.

The 26th U.N. annual COP26 took place in Glasgow during the first two weeks. Climate Change Conference was established to coordinate the global response to the crisis. Although many leaders recognized the urgency of the IPCC report, the conference promises fell short of the targets set by climate scientists.

Greta Thunberg (18 years old) summarised the existential angst she felt in advance of COP26.

“They’ve now had 30 years of blah, blah, blah, and where has that led us? We can still turn this around—it is entirely possible. It will require drastic annual emission reductions. But not if the current situation continues. Our leaders’ intentional lack of action is a betrayal toward all present and future generations,” Thunberg said.

Are these children just being snowflakes? For decades, scientists have supported the existence of greenhouse gases, global warming, climate change and other related phenomena. The crisis is getting worse and the name keeps changing. And, given the familiar cycle which played out over the past few months—a scary report about the impacts of climate change met with pledges from politicians, followed by little meaningful change—it makes sense that the intensity of feelings is increasing with each new generation.

For this article, please refer to the Pacific SunWe interviewed three North Bay activists who are working to address the crisis of climate change: one Generation X activist, one Millennial activist and one Zoomer. We also spoke with an environmental studies professor, who studies the emotional consequences of climate change. Although it is not a scientific sample of responses, they helped to demonstrate how climate change responses vary across generations.

All the experts that the Pacific Sun spoke to for this article had the same advice: Don’t just suck it up, let our emotions drive action. It will benefit both of us AndThe planet.  

The Gen Xer

Natasha Juliana, 49, is a legend in Petaluma. She is an entrepreneur and a pioneer in climate change. WORKPetaluma was established by Natasha Juliana nearly 10 years ago. This coworking space has since become a hub of networking, community gathering, and numerous climate-action initiatives.

Juliana’s reputation for community leadership recently received a massive boost with the award of a $1 million Cool City Challenge grant. The Cool City Initiative was established by David Gershon, the Empowerment Institute and has given greenlight to teams in Petaluma and Irvine to launch programs with a goal of reducing their cities’ carbon emissions to zero by 2030.

Petaluma, which has a population close to 60,000, is the smallest of all the recipients. Irvine has more than 270,000 and Los Angeles has nearly 3.4million. The pilot program was only open for applications from cities in California. These pilots will serve as proof of concept for expanding this program nationally and internationally.

The resultant company Cool PetalumaJuliana will serve as campaign director. The approach is to organize on a block-by-block basis, with neighborhood “block leaders” facilitating the collaboration between households to make necessary changes to reduce resource use, increase fire resilience and build networks of mutual support for the safety of all—steps needed if the city is to have a chance of reaching zero emissions by 2030.

Natasha Juliana - Cool Petaluma
Natasha Juliana, 49, has been picked to lead Cool Petaluma, the city’s new organizing effort to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2030. Photo by Lorena Fernandez Fernandez

The “Moonshot Team” which prepared the application is made up of names well-known to anyone organizing around climate change in Sonoma County. It is possible that their years of tireless work for meaningful changes in our regional ecological impact may now be paying off.

“This is more powerful than you might think,” Juliana says. “It is common for social movements to look like they have no momentum for a long time, but once they hit a tipping point the curve takes off.”

“We are reaching that tipping point, and it is up to all of us to seize the moment and create a more beautiful future filled with ‘win-win’ solutions that improve our quality of life and restore balance on the planet,” Juliana adds.

Language like “win-win” has motivated the discussion around sustainability and decarbonization, underpinning a kind of optimism, more common in older generations, reflecting a belief that economic and political systems just need to be shown the path forward.

However, the idea that those who benefit from the endless economic growth that has created the climate crisis just need to be shown how to “win” the same levels of profit in a more eco-friendly way is losing credibility among critics of the status quo.

“There is no denying that today’s elite may be among the more socially concerned elites in history. But it is also, by the cold logic of numbers, among the more predatory in history,” says Anand Giridharadas, author of the New York Times bestseller, Winners Take All.

So, although Juliana’s efforts make it clear that the need for action is urgent, there is a kind of comfort or ease with which Generation X is able to live while attempting to address sustainability needs through work or volunteerism. 

“I grew up as a hippies’ kid during the back-to-the-land movement of the 1970s, surrounded by redwood forests, with a strong connection to the earth underfoot and the Milky Way sky overhead,” she says of her childhood in Humboldt County. “I’ve always been an advocate for stewardship and sustainable living practices, but it wasn’t until … I signed up for Al Gore’s Climate Reality Leadership Corps [that] I really got involved in climate activism in an ongoing and meaningful way.”

This may resonate well with many Gen X readers, such as this writer. We’ve known about the climate issue for years, we’ve been worried about it, but we’ve taken more drastic action lately than ever before. This is the privilege of the luckyest generation in human history.

“Gen X has lived a pretty blessed life with plenty of economic ups and downs, but overall we are at the peak of historic human comfort,” Juliana notes. Which sounds good until she adds, “We had running water and reliable power and plenty of food on the grocery store shelves.” Bright when compared to food and shelter security of past historical periods, that is. Dark when compared to the projected near future water, food, and clean-air scarcity that haunt those who feel the need for action.

Is it surprising that members of the DIY generation—who grew up with punk rock, hip-hop and photocopied ’zines—would believe that we can do it by starting with ourselves?

“The more people can participate in the creation of a positive future trajectory, the more their worldview will change to make it happen, creating a positive-feedback loop,” Juliana says.

The Millennial

A climate activist during her student years at Sonoma State University, Claudia Sisomphou, age 26, first came to the attention of the Sonoma County professional sustainability community with her campaign “Top Ten Simple ways to save your health, money, and the planet” which she circulated via a blog series, posters and a PowerPoint presentation.

Sisomphou, who is now employed at Sonoma Clean Power as a non-profit public energy agency and president of Sonoma County’s chapter of United Nations Association has been a frequent speaker at sustainability conferences since her student days. Sisomphou is known for her solutions-oriented actions and relatable communication of solutions. However, she admits that it can be hard work. “It’s very easy to get overwhelmed by the severity of the challenges we are facing, and some days I just have to take time and cry about it,” she says. She’s not alone.

“I know people my age who are seriously questioning whether they want to have children, because they are so concerned about the future of our planet,” Sisomphou says, reflecting a growing sentiment that might have occurred to the average Gen Xer, but only in passing.

Claudia Sisomphou garden
‘Learning how to grow your own food, volunteering during local emergencies, being aware of your water usage … can help you feel part of the solution rather than focusing on the problem,’ says Claudia Sisomphou, shown here gardening. Claudia Sisomphou. Photo by Claudia Sisomphou

It is an example of intensifying emotional reaction to our rapidly deteriorating planetary-wide  ecological reality, an awareness that is more present to each new generation.

“Growing up [in the North Bay], I never once worried about wildfires,” Sisomphou says. “Now, five to seven months out of the year I am constantly on edge and mentally preparing myself for the possibility of losing my home.”

This paper will be familiar to readers who feel the same way about the increasing severity of wildfires each season. Californian burning photos are some of the most frightening and disturbing images that show the acceleration of climate change. Previously, climate impacts were often referred to the Arctic or islands like the Maldives. The urgency is clearer now that examples are right at home.

“My advice to others is to do what you can in your own life to both prevent and prepare for the changes that are coming with climate change,” Sisomphou says. She maintains her can-do attitude and solution-oriented thinking, recommending that “[t]Learning how to grow your food, volunteering in local emergencies, being aware about your water usage, choosing the right products, and eating less meat. [and companies] you spend your money on, can help you feel part of the solution rather than focusing on the problem.”

Alternatives can lead to despair.

The Zoomer

“There’s been a shift in the last six or seven years … where the new generation of students [has been] coming into my classroom with a new level of despair,” says Sarah Ray, an Environmental Studies professor at Humboldt State University, when asked to describe the mental health of her current generation of undergrad students, known as Generation Z, or “Zoomers.”

Raja Abastado is 15 years old and a high school student in Sonoma County. She is also a Petaluma Climate Action Commission Youth member. Abastado’s responses in the interview for this article provide a stark contrast to the plucky win-win, solution-oriented response to the crisis presented by the previous generations’ respondents.

“I became an activist because I was tired of seeing the land, the forests and the towns and cities in Sonoma County and the area around it burning,” Abastado says. “I was tired of packing my evacuation bag each year when the fires came. I was tired of having to evacuate each year, only to find the land and forests destroyed and houses destroyed by the fires. I was tired seeing the government do nothing to help. I was devastated at the state of our country. Climate change causing fires and storms, serious droughts, and the government doing nothing about it.”

This kind of immediate existential anxiety could be expected from a child living in Europe in 1939 as the continent was at the brink of war. But this child lives right now in California.

Ray observes that her students are “coming of age in this moment when these forecasts on climate are worse than they have ever been, in conjunction [with]Climate change clearly has a direct connection to all of this [equity and justice issues].”

Ray was not trained to handle this type of situation. “Professors all across the country were all being told, ‘Oh, the mental health of young people is getting worse and worse and worse. We need to have more resources in our counseling and psychology services.’ But no one was talking about how that was spilling over into classrooms and whether or not the climate crisis had anything to do with that.”

“Climate change is scary,” Abastado says. “It is a huge problem made up of so many other problems. People have not always understood how serious climate change is and even now people do not understand … . Climate change’s impact on the environment [mental health of fellow students]It is huge. Many people see how large the issue is and become depressed.”

“People can be devastated and paranoid by what will happen if we do not stop climate change,” they continue. “Many people get scared and guilty, and others feel anxious and afraid, but most of all many people feel powerless.”

“When Greta Thunberg came on the scene and the whole climate strike movement happened and we saw her crying and yelling at the people at Davos … a lot of people were really shocked by the intensity of her emotion around that, but it wasn’t at all shocking to me,” Ray says. It was already known by high school and college teachers around the world.

Ray and her colleagues started asking, “Hey, what’s the emotional story that’s happening with this generation? Because they’re not able to get up in the morning, much less come to class, much less graduate and go fix all these problems.”

Ray wants to stress the fact that these are more then just feelings in children; there are real, tangible mental-health consequences. She “would even go as far as to say that young people are suicidal because of [climate anxiety].”

The situation that Zoomers are facing is one where they know they need to act, but feel powerless. In fact, they are acutely aware of their contributions to climate change, especially here in the West where resource consumption is 5 to 20 times higher than other parts of the world—the areas that suffer first and most from the climate crisis.

These impacts of daily life are in direct conflict with young people’s moral attitudes toward taking care of the environment. As Abastado puts it, “[Zoomers]Are the most likely to stop climate change. We are the people who can wake up the government and hold them accountable for their actions and force them to start taking serious action.”

It is clear that anxiety and depression are two of the main causes of anxiety and depression in many young people and adults. No matter what generation one is from, worrying about the future of our planet can cause suffering. Yet, this worry might be the motivating factor necessary to change. These experts say that taking action now will not only help to address climate change, but it can also be a remedy to feeling powerless.

California Sunrise Movement June 2021 march
CLIMATE MARCH Sonoma County teens participated in a June 2021 walk from Paradise, California to San Francisco as part of an effort for federal green jobs legislation. Photo courtesy California Sunrise Movement

In recent years, climate action is increasingly being led by young people. These are links to youth-led organizations and actions.

Sunrise Movement (​​
Sunrise is the most well-known youth group. It organizes training, phone banking, and canvassing every week. The nationwide group has “hubs” in Sonoma and Marin counties.

Fridays for Tomorrow (
Inspired by Greta Thunberg’s school climate strikes, F4F strikes have been reported throughout the world. Rep. Jared Huffman met in 2019 with North Bay youth strikers.

Youth vs. the Apocalypse (
YVA was born in Oakland and leads direct actions that feature protest art throughout the Bay Area. The focus is on the communities most affected.


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