By Anne Hedges

I recently had a sobering conversation with my niece about her fears regarding her childrens’ future in the face of the climate crisis. She and her family have taken extraordinary measures to decrease their carbon footprint. She wants to do more but isn’t sure what to do and worries it won’t be enough.

This isn’t the first time I’ve been confronted with this problem. The climate crisis is making people panic and wearing them down. Recently the mental health impacts of the climate crisis struck home when a good friend crossed the line of civility. This is happening more and more as people feel stress, anxiety, and even despair at the onslaught of distressing data that is being ignored and often mocked by climate deniers.

Climate change is responsible for geopolitical conflicts, human suffering, and environmental devastation (such as the disquieting news that two-thirds of North American birds are at risk of extinction). Sometimes the climate crisis feels like it’s too much to grapple with. That combined with current politics makes people feel desperate and helpless.

Psychiatrists refer to this new phenomenon as climate anxiety and climate despair. Some formed the Climate Psychiatry Alliance to raise awareness about this mental health threat. The American Psychological Association published a guide to aid doctors in helping their patients. They wrote, “the psychological responses to climate change, such as conflict avoidance, fatalism, fear, helplessness and resignation are growing. These responses are keeping us, and our nation, from properly addressing the core causes of and solutions for our changing climate, and from building and supporting psychological resiliency.” The pressure cooker is whistling madly and people feel helpless to stop it. Our challenge is to come together through these dark times, protect our own mental health, help people access the mental health support they need, and do what we can to tackle the climate crisis.

I wish I could say that if we act quickly, we’ll save every bird and other species teetering on the brink of extinction. We won’t. It deeply pains me. But we will do our best to prevent as many losses as possible. To do so, we must insist politicians stop talking platitudes and start doing – and we must thank them when they do the right thing. Some of our politicians are working very hard to address the crisis and we must support them when they do the right thing. Yelling, insults, and aggression won’t accomplish our goals (and will back-fire), but respectful, urgent, constant insistence will help.

We must work toward local, state, and federal action on climate change – public opinion is with us even if political leaders such as Trump and McConnell are not. We must work around them – do what we can in our professional lives, talk to friends and family about the problem, and decrease our own climate impacts (i.e., drive less; air dry clothes; insulate our homes, decrease our plastic use, and so much more.) Better yet, try all three.

Norman Bishop, a retired national park ranger, recently reminded me that trees can help tackle the problem. If you’re wondering what you can do? Plant a tree, lots of them, and allow existing forests to reach their ecological potential. While trees are often overlooked in our quest to decrease fossil fuels and advocate for cleaner energy, they are a critical part of the solution. Not only do trees store carbon dioxide but nature actually improves our mental health (for more on the connection listen to former Montanan, Florence Williams, podcast, “The Three Day Effect”). Some quotes from Bishop’s research:

“The scale of tree restoration globally required to substantially reduce climate change is immense, but is an effective [long-term] strategy for climate change mitigation.  European scientists Bastin et al. write that ecosystems could support 0.9 billion more hectares of forest; more than a 25% increase in forested area, with 500 billion trees that would hold 200 gigatonnes of carbon at maturity. That would cut the atmospheric carbon pool by 25%.[1]

Swiss ecologist Thomas Crowther and his colleagues found that there is enough room in the world’s parks, forests, and abandoned land to plant 1.2 trillion trees, that could cancel out a decade of carbon dioxide emissions.  He said that, “Trees are our most powerful weapon against climate change.”  “There’s 400 gigatons [of CO2 stored] now in the 3 trillion trees,” according to Crowther’s research. 

Tufts professor emeritus William R. Moomaw and others write that proforestation (growing existing forests to their ecological potential) mitigates climate change and serves the greatest good.  They point out that intact and older forests annually sequester large quantities of CO2, above and below ground, for long periods of time.  They are the most carbon-dense and biodiverse terrestrial ecosystems, with other benefits to society and the economy. U.S. temperate and boreal forests remove enough CO2 to reduce national net emissions by 11%.

We know we must work every day to do better. People and species across the globe are depending on our success. But we also must take time to address the anxiety, stress, and depression that results from worrying about the crisis. The crisis is real. The stress is understandable. But we need to maintain civility and protect our mental well-being if we are going to tackle this problem. If ever there was an example of the nexus between the environment and the need for accessible and affordable mental health services, this is it. There’s a lot of work to be done, but remember, take time to enjoy the world around you, take a few deep breaths, be civil, and if you can, plant a tree or two.

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