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(Emerald archives)

With Lane County facing historic wildfires and amid the COVID-19 pandemic, mental health is a concern for many. Climate anxiety, or worry about the worsening environmental crisis, is a new and increasingly common problem that reflects both a sense of urgency and of impending disaster. 

Climate change is an ever-mutating force that has grown more devastating and more dire each year, according to the Washington Post. In 2020, Lane County faced historic wildfires and drought in the summer — a  trend that will continue to worsen, Eugene Springfield Fire battalion chief Mike Cavan said.

Studies show that higher temperatures are tied to depression and high suicide rates. Fires, hurricanes and heat waves carry the risk of trauma and depression, all part of mounting evidence that climate change affects mental health, according to the New York Times.

Currently, there is no data on how many members of Lane County experience climate anxiety, but 76% of Lane County believes global warming is happening, according to the Yale Center for Climate Change Communication. That number is 4% higher than the national average.

In an American Psychiatric Association poll, 55% of 1,000 people said they’re concerned about the impact of climate change on their mental health. According to the New York Times, young people feel especially debilitated by climate anxiety.

Peter Walker, a professor of geography and environmental studies at the University of Oregon, said he’s noticed a change in the way students respond to studying the environment since he began teaching here in the late 90s.

“I’ve definitely seen, over time, dramatic escalation and elevation of awareness and concern by students and faculty about climate change issues,” he said.

While climate anxiety is a new phenomenon, it manifests itself similarly to other forms of anxiety, according to the Guardian.

According to the UO Counseling Center, “anxiety is the body’s warning that something is amiss.” Its website recommends identifying the anxiety’s source, as well as reducing stressors and focusing on breathing to combat it.

Cavan said people don’t need to understand the ecology of fire or climate change for it to cause anxiety.

He said smoky skies are not a good indicator of fire danger. The Eugene Springfield Fire Department has effective protocols in place to alert the public to fire danger, he said. These include major media sources and knocking on doors when needed. Oregon’s state department has a live tracker of fires in the area.

“The systems are in place to make sure that people have as much notice as we can possibly give them to evacuate,” he said.

Cavan said people should prepare for fire danger in reasonable ways, but he said he doesn’t encourage too much self-monitoring or preparation.

Katie Russell, a graduate student in UO’s environmental studies department, is writing her masters thesis on climate change education.

Russell said people are sometimes unsure of what climate change is and therefore aren’t sure how to fight it. She said one of the best ways to learn about climate change is to explore metaphors, like that of the “heat trapping blanket.”

“The atmosphere is like a blanket around our planet,” she said. “As we burn fossil fuels in natural gas — like powering our cars — we are adding more carbon dioxide making that blanket thicker. As that blanket is thicker, it's trapping more heat on our planet, and we're seeing that driving all these different extreme weather events and climate change.”

Both Russell and Walker said they sometimes feel stressed and overwhelmed by climate change as a topic. But channeling that stress into their work can be beneficial, they said.

Walker said it is important for someone experiencing climate anxiety to understand that the science behind climate change has been around since the late 80s. If someone wants to learn how to combat climate change, he said, the information is out there.

The difference is that people won’t learn about climate change from a theoretical perspective as they had in the past, he said.

When the Holiday Farm Fire raged east of Eugene last summer, “there was no reason to believe that this wasn't gonna come right into our home, literally in our backyards,” Walker said. “It's really a merging of the lived experiences and the studied experiences.”

To combat climate anxiety, the nonprofit Good Grief offers virtual meetings to discuss climate anxiety and how climate change impacts mental health. Students can schedule therapy appointments at UO’s Counseling Center, which provides coping strategies for a variety of mental health issues.

While he wishes climate anxiety and climate change were not so devastating, Walker said he is impressed that more people, especially the UO students he interacts with in class, haven’t “checked out of the hotel.”

“It gives me hope,” he said. “I didn't see that level of passion, that level of engagement 20 years ago. To see it now, yeah, it gives me hope.”