A popular new class on climate change at the University of Washington Bothell tackles the emotional dimensions of a warming planet, helping students develop personal resources to deal with a lifetime of witnessing environmental losses.
When she first started learning about climate change from one of her elders, Fawn Sharp was invited on a helicopter flight over the Olympic Mountains to survey the Mount Anderson glacier.
But the glacier was gone, melted away by the warming climate.
Sharp, who is now finishing her fourth term as president of the Quinault Indian Nation, remembers a deep sense of loss when she discovered the glacier had vanished.
It’s the same feeling of despair that haunts the tribe over the demise of historic sockeye runs, and the need to relocate the village of Taholah because of ocean encroachment, increasingly severe storm surges and flooding, Sharp said.
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Loss is a growing issue for people working and living on the front lines of climate change. And that gave Jennifer Wren Atkinson, a full-time lecturer in the UW Bothell’s School of Interdisciplinary Arts & Sciences, an idea for a class.
This quarter she taught students on the Bothell campus about the emotional burdens of environmental study. She drew on the experiences of Native American tribes, scientists and activists, and asked her 24 students to face the reality that there is no easy fix — that “this is such an intractable problem that they’re going to be dealing with it for the rest of their lives.”
The class was so popular that she had to turn many students away. Atkinson plans to teach it again next year.
Some skeptics, including President Donald Trump, don’t agree that the climate is changing, or say that human activities are not the cause. Trump has often referred to climate change as a hoax, and his administration has taken steps to dismantle environmental regulations and pull out of the Paris climate agreement.
But among the students Atkinson teaches, climate change is a given.
“We haven’t had to spend any time debating whether climate change is actually happening,” she said. “It’s more, ‘What’s my personal responsibility for this, and how do I develop the personal resources to navigate it?’ ”
For college students in their teens and 20s, the loss some feel due to climate change can be deeply personal — akin to grieving for a dead parent or grandparent.
For Rhissa Delfin, global climate change hits home. Delfin was born in tourist-dependent Guam, where parts of the island’s spectacular coral reefs have periodically died back in a process known as coral bleaching, caused by warmer ocean waters. In a warmer world, islands like Guam will also be threatened by more powerful, more dangerous tropical storms.
Delfin, whose family lives in the U.S. now but who has gone back to visit periodically, says she worries the island’s natural flora and its clear ocean waters will be lost in a changing climate, an idea that sometimes brings her to tears.
“I don’t want the only memories I have of home to be on home videos and pictures,” Delfin said.
Lauren Morrison, one of Atkinson’s students, grew up in Lubbock, Texas, where many consider climate change a hoax. Then she moved to Washington and took a class at Bellevue College that changed her mind. In short order, she went from thinking scientists were making it up to believing the scope of the problem was overwhelming.
Morrison cheerfully takes on the idea that the class is a bit “snowflakey,” but she sees value in learning how to find a new way to talk about climate change — neither a dry, scientific approach or an overly emotional reaction, but something in between. “Not coddling, but more empowering,” she said.
She’s majoring in environmental studies and hopes to work in environmental policy after she graduates.
Atkinson became interested in the subject in fall 2016, when she joined a group of educators and activists around the region who convened to talk about teaching climate change. The group gathered shortly after Trump was elected, and “they talked openly of grief and fear,” and the possibility that years of their work would be undone, she said.
That meeting prompted Atkinson to embrace the emotional side of the issue. Within the university classroom, there’s a tendency to treat a student breaking down in tears “as a detour in the conversation, something we need to patch up or steer around so we can get back to the ‘real work,’ ” Atkinson said. “That led me to wonder, what if instead of treating those moments as a diversion, we took them as our starting point?”
She expected the students who signed up for her class to be majoring in environmental work, looking for a way to steel themselves for the realities of their job. To her surprise, about half the students are majoring in other disciplines. Many feel a sense of panic and urgency in their own lives, but they have no one to talk to about it.
Student Cody Dillon used to be a climate-science skeptic. Then he did his own reading and research, and changed his mind.
Dillon isn’t going into environmental work — he’s a computer-science major. Yet the potential for a planet-wide environmental catastrophe seemed so real to him five years ago that he quit his job and became a full-time volunteer for an environmental group that worked on restoration projects.
But six months into the work, he decided that wasn’t the right response, either. “I didn’t really feel like I had an impact,” he said.
Atkinson’s class was just what he was looking for — a place where he could discuss his concerns about a changing climate, and also learn more about what’s being done in response. “You really see the amount of passion and drive a lot of these activists are putting in,” he said.
Atkinson said she hopes the class helped her students steel themselves to the amount of loss that will happen over their lifetimes and gave them resources to help cope with despair and grief.
“We are already transforming the planet — so many species and communities are going to be lost, displaced or massively impacted,” she said. “The future isn’t going to be what they imagined.”
Morrison said she felt empowered by learning about climate-change actions around the globe.
“It’s easy to feel defeated, but all over the world, people are stepping up,” she said.