Amid the haze and despair over the planet’s future, Colorado experts offer hope
By Elizabeth Hernandez The Denver Post
The more Andrés Better studied climate change and its worsening impact on the environment, the more discouraged he became. The Colorado State University freshman absorbed what he learned in his environmental courses — rapid declines in pollinating insects, the consequences of statewide droughts, carbon footprint calculations — then drifted back to his dorm, scowling at dumpsters piled high with recyclable materials and plastic-wrapped dining hall food he imagined destined for a landfill.
“All I could see walking around campus were the negative ways humans were impacting the planet,” Better said. “It all really had an effect on me. I guess I just kind of gave up.”
Better’s grief surrounding the warming climate and the future of the planet consumed him so wholeheartedly during his first year at CSU that he dropped out of college in 2020.
“There were 80 students or more in this lecture hall and all these youths eager to change the world and make it a better place, but our assignments every week were not helping the planet,” Better said. “I understand why it’s important to learn how to calculate human population growth and stuff, but I think the time has passed where we can sit down and study. We have to make change now. I didn’t want to sit in a classroom. I wanted to get out and do something about it.”
As the impacts of climate change increasingly upend our everyday lives — mudslides closing our roads, poor air quality impairing our health, hotter days fueling larger wildfires and raising our energy bills — climate experts and mental health professionals agree it’s natural to feel despair about the state of the planet.
If not addressed, however, this despair can not only manifest as mental health problems, experts said, but also can become overwhelming enough to render an informed, passionate climate advocate unable to effect needed change.
“We can become immobilized when we’re overwhelmed, or when we sink into despair,” said Amanda Rebel, a Colorado-based therapist with a focus on climaterelated trauma. “It’s not like there’s anything wrong with you. It’s trying to figure out the supports and resources and the processing that might have to happen in order to feel like you can still have a nice life in the present moment even though you’re also holding the enormity of the unknown about the health of our planet.”
A 2017 report sponsored by the American Psychological Association and ecoAmerica called “Mental Health and Our Changing Climate: Impacts, Implications and Guidance” called for expanded action on the mental health aspects of climate change.
“Health, economic, political and environmental implications of climate change affect all of us,” the report’s authors wrote. “The tolls on our mental health are farreaching. They induce stress, depression and anxiety; strain social and community relationships; and have been linked to increases in aggression, violence and crime.”
The enormity of climate-related distress can weigh heavily on Becky Bolinger, the assistant state climatologist, who is based at CSU.
Bolinger monitors Colorado’s climate and helps communicate the information she studies to the public. Most frequently, Bolinger educates people about increasingly warmer Colorado temperatures, worsening drought conditions, snowpack levels and wildfires.
“It’s very, very easy to feel like you’re getting beaten down by some of that information, especially when you see the (United Nations’) Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report that says some of the effects of climate change are irreversible,” Bolinger said. “The times it hits me the hardest is when it feels like I’m literally staring climate change in the face.”
One such occasion unfolded more than a week ago when the thick Western wildfire smoke and ozone hanging over Denver made headlines — and spurred headaches — as the city ranked No. 1 in the world for worst air pollution.
Bolinger looked up at the haze and wondered if her future grandchildren would one day ask, “When you were little, was the sky blue?”
“It was a dramatic thing to think, but it was this future in my head where our summers have become more filled with haze and smoke and we have in Colorado absolutely beautiful, amazing bluebird skies,” Bolinger said. “If that’s going to be more frequent in the future, it’s a sad thought that the blue sky will become more rare. It’s days like that that I do feel a little bit overwhelmed.”
Moving through climate grief
Since the release of the U.N. climate report last week, Rebel said she has seen about a 75% uptick in clients seeking her eco-grief counseling.
The report, based on hundreds of worldwide scientific studies, declared a “Code Red for humanity,” warning of a hotter future and increased climate-driven calamities.
Clients go to Rebel for eco-related distresses, including people grieving over a future that may look different from what they envisioned, wildfire anxiety and isolation stemming from family members who deny climate science.
If left unaddressed, this grief can take shape into depression, dysfunction, wanting to disengage from family and friends, or losing interest in career pursuits or hobbies because they seem “pointless,” Rebel said.
“Sometimes grief can be turned into denial, discrediting science, avoidance, ignoring, head in the sand,” Rebel said. “They can think it’s so overwhelming, they can’t even deal with it because they don’t even know if they can survive the feelings.”
Rebel said it’s important to acknowledge that feeling anxiety about the future of the planet is normal and talking about those emotions is important to process them. Then, Rebel said, she encourages shifting from thinking “What have we done?” to “What can we do?” to focus on the positive actions people can take to make the negative emotions more manageable, Rebel said.
“There are ways to move through the hard stuff to see what’s on the other side,” Rebel said. “When you move through the grief, you can come up with new ideas about how to feel connected to moving things in the right direction and feel more connected to other people doing the same thing. There is hope.”
When Better left school, he began processing some of his emotions and realized his negativity was hurting the cause he cared for so deeply.
“I was just a downer to the people around me,” Better said. “It can be really hard some days to think about how I can’t do enough to fix everything, but being super negative isn’t helping anyone or anything. I try to do the best I can every day.”
Better, who lives in Boulder with his parents, joined Ameri-Corps, through which he helps local farms plant and harvest food. The 21-year-old also works with Denver-based nonprofit Spirit of the Sun, which is focused on bettering the lives of Native American communities.
He dreams of one day building a food forest — mimicking the structure of a natural forest — to help sustain humans in the event of food shortages.
“I would only have kids if I know there could be a bright future for them on this planet, and I don’t feel that way right now. But maybe if I keep working that will change,” Better said.
Better hopes to pass along his passion for foraging and growing mushrooms to teach people more sustainable food practices.
“When I do something that’s good for the planet and good for myself and share it, then you’re inspiring others to do the same. And when others do the same, they inspire their friends, and you just create a better world,” Better said.
Using laughter to fight despair
For Beth Osnes, a better world is one united in laughter.
The University of Colorado associate theater professor has experience in environmental work that led her to dream up a different — and funnier — kind of climate communication.
“So much of our communication is scaring the hell out of people and convincing them the situation is hopeless,” Osnes said. “If we believe that, we’re full of inaction and want to disengage as fast as we can.”
The 2017 climate report said psychological responses to climate change — conflict avoidance, fatalism, fear, helplessness and resignation — are on the rise. These responses, the report said, are keeping the nation “from properly addressing the core causes of and solutions for our changing climate.”
Osnes teaches a course on creative climate communication dedicated to making climate information fun and funny to pull more people toward the cause. The class is largely for students about to graduate into environmental science fields.
“Their hearts are nearly on the ground,” Osnes said. “They know too much. They’re overwhelmed. They need to process their emotions.”
Osnes assigns projects in which students create informational campaigns about climate-related issues but begs them to be comical. While teaching about the climate impact of the fashion industry and the difference ethically sourced clothing can make on the planet, Osnes asks students to don completely sustainable outfits — meaning pieces are thrifted, handme- downs and recycled.
Then, students photograph themselves in their outfits while wearing green lycra bodysuits underneath to draw attention to themselves so they can explain their messaging.
“Once you start bringing together expression and purposeful action, people feel like they can allow themselves hope,” Osnes said.
Bolinger finds her hope in science.
Despite the droughts, Bolinger knows there will be days of driving rain soaking into the Earth. Despite the heat, Bolinger knows there will be nights frosted by glittering snowflakes. The climate scientist also takes comfort in the number of people trying to make a better future.
“There are so many people in Colorado working to slow down climate change,” Bolinger said. “If you try to picture how to solve this whole thing, it looks impossible. But if you really drill down to the more local level, there are solutions and things you can tackle. Consider even looking just in your neighborhood or your city to see how you might be able to help. It’s a lot easier to tackle an issue if you’re looking at where it directly impacts you vs. trying to think about a polar bear floating on a melting ice cap in the Arctic.