Ericson: Instead of climate anxiety, try climate empathy

If you’re reading this, odds are, you’ll be OK. But others won’t be.

by Sean Ericson

Over the past couple of years, a new term has come into vogue: “climate anxiety.” Many media outlets have covered a rising phenomenon of mental distress caused by climate change.

It’s not like this is surprising. As the authors of one study put it, “climate anxiety is rational.” Faced with terrifying impacts like hurricanes, wildfires and droughts, it’s understandable that people are worried.

But if you’re reading this, odds are, you’re a student, staff member or other community member here at the University of Minnesota. And while our community is very diverse, most of the people reading this column are likely to be Minnesota residents who already have or are pursuing a college degree. Education is often associated with higher incomes. Both of these factors – geographic location and social status – are likely to blunt our exposure to the worst impacts of our coming climate catastrophe.

Our northern friends at University of Minnesota-Duluth live in what has been hailed by some as “climate-proof Duluth.” And in 2018, the authors of the Fourth National Climate Assessment wrote that Minneapolis and Minnesota “will be among the few places where the value of warmer winters outweighs the cost of hotter summers.”

According to Jessica Hellmann, director of the University’s Institute on the Environment, it’s not just a matter of which areas are going to be hit the hardest, but which governments have the capacity to respond.

“It’s not just that they will feel the effects of climate change,” Hellmann said about the countries most vulnerable to climate change. “They have [a] differential ability to deal with the effects of climate change.”

One such country is Bangladesh. Hellmann helped create the Global Adaptation Index, which classifies Bangladesh as having high vulnerability and low readiness. As Saleemul Huq, a Bangladeshi climate expert, wrote in March, Bangladesh and other vulnerable countries “have been seeing and feeling enhanced climatic impacts from floods, cyclones and droughts for the past decade or more.”

Huq also pointed out the inspiring Bangladeshi efforts to protect Bangladeshi communities. For instance, scientists have created new breeds of rice with higher salt tolerance, and the country has developed some of the best cyclone safety programs in the world. But impoverished nations like Bangladesh start out with fewer resources to combat climate threats.

While we aren’t at as high of a risk as Bangladesh, and we have far more resources, we still face challenges in Minnesota. Droughts and changes in weather could affect farmers, Hellmann said. And flooding is a risk, including in urban areas.

But these impacts are unequally distributed. Take heat, for example.

“We need to worry about extreme heat,” Hellmann said. “Especially in the urban center, which again, affects lower income people.” She also said flooding is an example of a climate harm that disproportionately affects those with fewer resources.

To recap: if you’re reading this, odds are you are highly educated and living in the United States, specifically Minnesota. This means that you’re at lower risk from climate change thanks to social status and geography.

I think that, as human beings, we should be concerned about climate change. But I worry that excessive focus on our own future, and the future of our families and communities, might lead to a narrowing of the boundaries of our ethical concern. I think the climate crisis calls for us to instead expand those boundaries.

Take migration, for instance. As people around the world are faced with increasingly inhospitable conditions, they may choose to move elsewhere, including to the U.S. And Minnesota has both a history and present of being a migration destination.

Jack DeWaard is a sociologist at the University who studies human migration. He has also collaborated with Hellmann. Despite many people’s hopes and fears about climate-induced migration, he said most people dealing with climate catastrophe will stay close to home.

In general, most people don’t migrate, DeWaard said. And those who do don’t usually go very far. “Most migration that happens, and this includes climate migration as well, tends to be internally within countries,” he said.

But what about people moving from more vulnerable areas within the U.S. to Minnesota?

“Sometimes there’s a lot of folks up in Duluth worrying about climate migrants coming to Duluth,” DeWaard said. But “the projections show that people generally go shorter distances.” For instance, displaced Floridians may move to Georgia or Alabama.

But what if we do get some climate refugees?

“I do worry about the reception piece,” DeWaard said. “What I think the historical record shows is that newcomers, particularly newcomers that … have a different skin tone, have a different language, a different religion, a different sexuality, then local residents are not welcoming.”

However, I don’t think this needs to be the case. DeWaard cited the example of Mongla, a city in Bangladesh that he said has tried to connect climate migrants with job opportunities, healthcare and education. I think if we can follow Mongla’s example, and remember the positive aspects of our state’s history, then we can be welcoming to whatever newcomers the climate sends our way.

When it comes to climate anxiety, Hellmann said the two best antidotes are getting involved and spending time with other people who care. “Both of these help combat a feeling of helplessness,” she said.

It’s important that we practice empathy, not just anxiety. Climate change will affect all of us, but some of us more than others.