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The Faces of the Climate Crisis: the Youth

The children of Sonoma Valley today will contend with a physical environment which is unrecognizable from the one their parents and grandparents grew up in, with more wildfires and prolonged drought conditions.

Some of the influences of climate change have already impacted students in the Sonoma Valley Unified School District, whether it be through learning loss caused by emergency closures and evacuations during wildfires, heavy smoke days and public-safety power shutoffs.

An auxiliary effect of growing up in a climate crisis is the impact on mental health. Medical journals call it “climate anxiety.” And online, “doomerism,” slang for a fatalistic view of a future, has come to encapsulate the pronounced feelings of hopelessness or nihilism about tackling climate change.

“The link between mental health and climate change is less obvious. And yet there is substantial evidence for it,” wrote Susan Clayton in a study published in the Journal of Anxiety Disorders. “The impacts of discrete events such as natural disasters on mental health has been demonstrated through decades of research showing increased levels of PTSD, depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and even domestic violence following the experience of [climate] storms.”

Loss of innocence

A coming of age moment for Sonoma Valley’s youth came in October 2017, when the Nuns fire forced large portions of the Valley to evacuate. Phoebe Richards, now 10-years-old and in fifth grade, remembered her family leaving their home in 2017 to stay at her grandparents’ house in Napa to evade the smoke that settled like a thick blanket over Sonoma Valley.

“That is my first memory of wearing any type of mask,” Richards said. “I was just a small child and I didn’t like the fires, but I didn’t think they were part of something bigger. But recently, I’ve learned we are causing these.”

Woody Hastings, the energy program manager at the climate and energy policy nonprofit The Climate Center, has said many scientists are now identifying a new era in the history of earth: the Anthropocene. The Anthropocene — ‘anthropo’ meaning human, and ‘cene’ meaning time — is an era marked by human activity as the dominant influence on the climate and environment.

“We’ve passed the point where it's just theoretical,” Hastings said. “The thing that is different about anthropogenic climate change is that human civilization has emerged over the last 10,000 to 12,000 years with a very stable climate that could have gone on for a much longer time. We really were blessed with this... And we basically trashed it.”

Whether its “belching” carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere or creating landfills with plastic waste that will last centuries, or the deforestation of trees and environments for human development; the environment on earth has drastically changed since the industrial revolution.

Joseph Silvi, a 2021 Sonoma Valley High School grad who is now studying climate science at the University of California, Berkeley, was out of school for two weeks during the 2017 fires.

“The largest impact of the 2017 fires was it was just an unforeseen pause,” Silvi said. “Especially for people whose houses burned down, it was very emotionally impactful. And then it just can be distracting and you can't really get back into the normal groove.”

Nichole Warwick, a programs manager for youth at the Leadership Institute, a nonprofit aimed at educating and creating leaders for a sustainable future, said the string of climate crises in Sonoma County has been “devastating” for the mental health for some of the youths she works with.

“I've worked with youth as young as 4 all the way up through high school and college,” Warwick said. “The younger ones are more aware of environmental threat, because climate is still an abstract concept in that way. What they understand is what they know. And they can see burned trees, they can see a scarred landscape, they can see where their community’s neighborhood used to be.”

She said there is often a pattern with youths’ mentality on the climate crisis. Children at Richards’ age are learning about climate change, but the stark reality is often ungraspable. Yet as children begin adolescence, they begin to make connections between the reality around them and the systems responsible for the current state of the planet.

“For those students, what I witnessed is profound grief around species loss,” Warwick said. “And they are aware of the impacts of climate change and this great extinction that we're living through right now.”

Species or biodiversity loss is the decline of animals, their genes and, in some cases, total extinction. The World Wide Fund of Nature, formerly known as the World Wildlife Fund, estimates the rate of extinction today is 1,000 times higher than the natural extinction rate.

Students, too, have faced a loss of learning as a result of smoke days or public safety power shutoffs, when campuses go dark in an effort to prevent wildfires. Much like snow days, the Sonoma Valley Unified School District added days to its academic calendar to prepare for school closures during intensive smoke or fire evacuation.

“Fires of that magnitude, I hadn’t ever experienced in my lifetime so close to home,” Silvi said. “It was just a surprise, I never expected to experience anything like that... I just recognized that it was a reality.”

The future is borrowed

Hastings remembered growing up in Pennsylvania and Illinois watching flying insects that would gather around the porch light at night, and the chorus of birdsong that came with the rising sun each morning, he affectionately called the “dawn chorus.”

“It was loud and it was long and it was beautiful,” Hastings said. “And you really don't hear that very much anymore... My own observation over my lifetime is a radical decline in insect diversity, insect numbers, and birds.”

Pennsylvania State University estimates 29% of bird populations have been lost in the past 50 years. And the university recently opened an Insect Biodiversity Center to study the biodiversity loss and conservation of insects.

It’s difficult to grasp what has been lost to those who’ve never experienced a dawn chorus, but Warwick said children understand what's happening — they feel the loss even if they are unable to express it through words.

“Yet, they also see that we are all perpetuating the same behaviors that keep the crisis in play,” Warwick said. “And they're outraged, they're angry. But anger is part of grief.”

Some youths Warwick has worked with question whether having children is ethical based on a future which Hastings described as “the age of consequences.” This apathy toward future prospects must be validated, Warwick said, while avoiding getting stuck in those feelings of despair.

“It's hard to remember in those moments that hope is a discipline,” Warwick said. “And hope is something that can be contagious when we're together with other people who understand what causes our suffering.”

But as students enter early adulthood their mentality shifts to action, she said. Richards and Silvi have started their own endeavors to curb the climate crisis.

“It can sometimes be very sad to think that this is happening and very overwhelming,” Richards said, but “time is of the essence, and there's really no time to just sit around.”

Under youth management

In the years since 2017, Richards focused on programs aimed at the environment, beginning with her family’s home owner’s association landscape committee and then joining the Earthlings program, a youth-led group dedicated to environmental sustainability, at the Sonoma Ecology Center where her mother, Catherine Thorpe, is a project coordinator.

“(The HOA) decided to plant a butterfly garden, and so from there I got involved with the ecology center,” Richards said.

Richards appeared in one of the videos for the Sort it, Sonoma! campaign, a city initiative to educate residents about composting and recycling. She’s also started a website where she shares articles related to climate change and climate solutions. For Silvi, it is the responsibility of the public to “adapt and change,” even if that demands uncomfortable decisions.

“The one thing I've been looking at a lot is just the current state of drought we're in,” Silvi said, mentioning the Colorado River Basin and the mega drought that is affecting communities across the southwest.

“Like, with lawns, a lot of people have lawns. Lawns are nice and all, but we have to think about what is this lawn doing other than providing this nice cosmetic look,” Silvi said.

And Richards is planning to restart the “green team” at her Montessori School in Petaluma with a goal to reduce plastic waste from the school’s lunches.

With the interview coming to a close, the Index-Tribune asked Richards whether she had faith in the adults who are handling the climate crisis.

“At first, my response was ‘Okay, this is a problem. But I think that the adults are going to fix it.’ And that is extremely wrong, unfortunately,” Richards said. “I feel like it's everyone's responsibility. And as a human, do the thing for your planet that it needs you to do.”

Contact Chase Hunter at chase.hunter@sonomanews.com and follow @Chase_HunterB on Twitter.

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