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.”