Building Climate Change Resilience

by Amber Aumiller, graduate assistant, Sustainability Office

Growing our climate literacy empowers us to take steps to help ourselves, help others, and broaden our impact toward sustaining our world, but learning about the complex multitude of mounting problems can also tumble us into deep feelings of stress, fear, anxiety, and grief.  A growing part of our population is experiencing “ecological grief.”  Psychology Today defines it as “a fairly recent psychological disorder afflicting individuals who worry about the environmental crisis.” It can be characterized by elevated rates of depression, anxiety, anger, hopelessness, despair, and a feeling of loss. 

It is neither a surprising nor an inappropriate response given the magnitude of the problem. Massive species extinctions are occurring at unprecedented rates due to human activity. On land, amphibians and reptiles are suffering the most, we’re down 3 billion birds in North America since 1970, and the oceans are acidifying and losing oxygen-giving plankton. In Utah, we’ve lost 41% of our snowpack since 1980. 

We face problems with water supply, environmental degradation, severe weather, and the overlapping implications for our physical health, mental health, and community health due to living out of balance with the ecosystems that contain us. It is no wonder that we feel overwhelmed, frustrated and powerless. 

So how can we address these feelings? While we mourn the mistakes and losses, there are ways we can take care of ourselves, heal, and maintain our ability to keep facing issues with vibrant and creative solutions. Research tells us that one of the best ways to combat eco-anxiety, depression, and grief is to start with building social cohesion. A developing sense of isolation and not belonging spirals the feedback loop of loss faster. Nurturing our relationships and connections to each other not only enhances our personal feelings of resilience but also constructs networks across knowledge and skills that can contribute to creative solutions. 

Communities aligned by common goals can reduce the severity of the impact of climate change. Simply helping each other out in neighborly ways can boost feelings of empowerment and ease our anxiety and depression according to a report published by the American Psychological Association. The report also noted a decrease in depression when healthy lifestyle choices were adopted, like walking, biking, or taking public transit. Green spaces in cities help, too. During the Chicago heatwave, there was a reduction in deaths in parts of the city that had green spaces. Going to the park, working in the garden, or going for a hike in the mountains can lift your spirits and increase your chances of survival during climate stress events.

Here at the U, there are countless people focused on preparing us to adapt and withstand the changes wrought by a changing climate. We have faculty and students conducting cutting-edge research on climate-related issues and dedicated individuals focused on implementing solutions at the local level. Getting involved can be as easy as volunteering through the Bennion Center or joining one of the student clubs addressing environmental issues on campus. One such organization, the Future Clinicians for Clean Air, founded by graduate students in the health sciences, aims to use research and evidence to advocate for clean air policies in the Utah legislature, bridging the current gap between science and policy. They have two events coming up in January that provide a way to get involved: one focusing on air quality and health, and the other on advocacy training and air quality bills coming up in 2020 with policy experts from HEAL Utah

The counseling center at the U has many resources for mental healthcare including a Mindfulness Center, featuring free facilitated drop-in meditation and free workshops for coping with anxiety and depression. The Huntsman family also recently donated $150 million to the U to establish The Huntsman Mental Health Institute. This much-needed investment will increase access to mental health services for college-age students as well as the broader community.

Another great resource is the Good Grief Network, co-founded by U alumn LaUra Schmidt. The Good Grief Network offers a unique 10-step program that guides groups through eco-anxiety and climate-grief in a community setting with reminders of the importance of practicing gratitude, showing up, and resting when needed. Their model has inspired local community building internationally and their website also features resource links to articles, documentaries, books, and poetry that educate and inspire action.

While coming to terms with climate change can be overwhelming, it’s okay to start small, focus locally, bring your skillset to the table, and remember to be kind to each other, because together we become more powerful in our ability to take care of ourselves, each other, and the planet.

 

Humans of the U: Myron Willson

Janelle Hanson, managing editor, University of Utah Communications June 14, 2019

“I’m retiring as the deputy chief sustainability officer after being on campus for 10 years. I’ve seen a lot of change over the past decade. There’s a lot more support for sustainability efforts across campus.

In my former career as an architect and planner—plus trained in California in the 70s—the environment was always a component of my work. Realizing that the people in the buildings had far more of an impact over the building’s life than the building itself, I started getting interested in human behavior, which turned to looking at how those people got to the building and their commute patterns.

I was also an adjunct in the College of Architecture teaching design. I started volunteering and helped a student who wanted to add LEED requirements to all university buildings. And then I ended up leaving architecture to be more involved in the broader picture for campus.

In my mind sustainability is the poster child for One U. It cuts across all aspects of the university—from health care to Research Park and Commuter Services to Student Affairs. One thing I’ve really enjoyed being a part of was helping to rework the Sustainable Campus Initiative Fund, which had some barriers. It took us four or five years working with administration on a structure that would make it a truly revolving loan fund. Now, it’s approaching $500,000 to be invested in sustainability efforts and will continue to grow long after we’re all gone.

Sustainability is a collaborative effort. I’ve loved working with people to create solutions. There is a need and always a place for everybody at the table to get involved because some of our poor and more vulnerable communities are the ones most impacted by the decisions that the rest of us make.

After retirement, I’m going to travel a bit, but I will still be involved locally with sustainability efforts through a nonprofit called Heal Utah and get more involved with pedestrian and bicycle safety.”

—Myron Willson, deputy chief sustainability officer, Sustainability Office