University of California

04/01/2024 | News release | Distributed by Public on 04/01/2024 16:20

Coming of age in a warming world: How UC students cope with climate despair

The climate change documentary "An Inconvenient Truth" hit theaters in 2006. The film helped propel climate change into mainstream American consciousness, even if many viewers left the theater believing it was a problem their grandchildren would be left to solve.

Another big 2006 debut? Most members of the University of California's incoming Class of 2028. Today's college students have grown up as climate change has accelerated into an intensifying crisis that has left no California community untouched.

We've been chatting with UC students whose campus jobs set them face to face with this new reality. Through the UC President's Bonnie Reiss Climate Action Fellowship, now in its 10th year, students at every UC campus and location get paid to do climate research, organize their peers to take action, and develop practical solutions to climate challenges facing their campuses and communities. Fellows also get together throughout the year, which gives them a chance to share what they're learning and how they're feeling about their shared goal of building California's climate resilience.

How three UC campuses are phasing out fossil fuels

Climate Action Fellows get involved in the daily work of making the University of California a more sustainable institution. As each campus works out its long-term plan for eliminating carbon emissions, experts on three campuses explain how they are phasing out fossil fuels ahead of schedule.

Find out which campuses are leading on decarbonization.

What's it like to come of age in this warming world? How do UC students think about their futures, knowing that the world they were born into will probably look a whole lot different than the one they grow old in? And how is their UC experience preparing them to take on this epochal challenge without succumbing to despair?

Meet three UC Climate Action Fellows who are grappling with these big issues and find out how they take care of themselves and their communities today to stay focused on building a better future.

Think like an engineer

Marie Buhl faced a conundrum. A UC Merced Ph.D. student, she recently needed to get to Los Angeles for a conference. She could go by train, a 12-hour journey for which her program would reimburse the $70 cost of the ticket. Or she could drive, which would only take five hours, and then she could put in for a mileage reimbursement worth $350.

"That's not a very good incentive for me to pick the climate-friendly option," says Buhl, an engineer and Climate Action Fellow at UC Merced. Sticking to her principles, she took the train, but she was "very salty" that attendees who drove got there in less than half the time - and pocketed $200 after covering the costs of gas.

Daily life is riddled with frustrating scenarios like this. "You want to stop climate change, so you make personal sacrifices. But they're not incentivized. They're not honored," Buhl says. "I think that's where so much climate anxiety comes from. It's because you feel helpless and like you're on your own."

That's not to say that Buhl, who grew up in Germany and worked as a hydraulic engineer for a few years before coming to Merced for her Ph.D., spends much time in a state of despair.

"I think I'm a very optimistic person, always have been, and that's been amplified by my engineering work and education," Buhl says. "Engineers are very practical, and they're always trying to find a solution and not just say, 'That's impossible,'" Buhl says.

Courtesy Marie Buhl

Marie Buhl, Ph.D. student in engineering at UC Merced

You want to stop climate change, so you make personal sacrifices. But they're not incentivized. They're not honored. I think that's where so much climate anxiety comes from.
Marie Buhl, Ph.D. student at UC Merced

Buhl brings an engineer's eye to her work as a Climate Action Fellow. She set out to model how future temperature swings will affect the amount of energy the campus will need to devote to heating and cooling its buildings. But she ended up finding that making design modifications to keep buildings passively comfortable would allow the campus to save 10 times the energy climate change would force them to consume in running AC or heating to keep every room at an even 65 degrees.

"I wasn't supposed to calculate different behaviors. I was supposed to come up with a number for energy use, so they could project how much more energy we'll need from solar panels or whatever. But in the end, my research showed that that's actually not the correct question," Buhl says. "The correct question is, can we just put a couple of blinds up, and then we don't even need solar panels?"

That kind of thinking has resolved past environmental crises, from acid rain to the hole in the ozone layer. "Humans are resourceful. Even if we do experience massive changes, we can cope with those," she says. "I see in my civil engineering profession that people are already coming up with solutions, and that makes me feel hopeful."

Living with climate distress

Jazmín Romero was struggling to stay hopeful. They'd been juggling a busy schedule, commuting from home in Los Angeles to UC Irvine, where they're studying environmental science and policy. Every science class seemed to offer new, more damning insights into the planet's future. "I do feel discouraged by some of the research we're doing, because it feels like we're just testing something to prove a point. But we already know what the problem is: We need to stop burning fossil fuels," Romero says.

Alongside the demands of classes and research in a geochemistry lab group, Romero was also still searching for their place on campus. "Where I lived in L.A. was heavily populated by Mexican people and Hispanics in general, so all my life I grew up around people who looked like me and spoke like me," they say. "When I came to Irvine, for a while I didn't think I belonged on this campus."

They came to college thinking they were going to be a research scientist, but it was in their environmental policy classes that Romero started to envision a career and a future. "Being encouraged by professors to think about solutions to these problems has changed my mind a lot about working in climate and helped me see the world differently," Romero says. So when they found out about the opportunity to apply for a Climate Action Fellowship to support UC Irvine's transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy, they jumped at the chance.

Romero got the job. As the school year kicked off this fall, they joined UC Climate Action Fellows from across the state who gathered for a leadership retreat at UC Santa Cruz. One session, led by UC Riverside alum Madison Reichhold, who's now the sustainability reporting and outreach coordinator at UC Office of the President, explored climate anxiety, grief and despair. It was an opportunity for fellows to talk about the mental and emotional burdens that come along with their climate action work and life experiences.

Jazmín Romero, front and center, leads a tour of UC Irvine's cogeneration plant, which burns fossil fuels to generate heat and electricity for campus facilities. As a Climate Action Fellow, "I'm out educating people about the plant, why it's important, what it does for campus, and, even though it is so important, why we need to replace it with something more sustainable," they say.

For Romero, the session was a turning point. "I'd never been part of a conversation like this before, where people were just being vulnerable and talking specifically about how climate change affects their mental health," they say. "I have climate anxiety all of the time, and I find a lot of comfort knowing that there are other people that also get anxious and emotional about it."

Romero is far from alone: A 2021 survey of 16-25-year-olds in 10 countries found that 84 percent of respondents were at least moderately worried about climate change and over half reported sadness, anxiety, anger, powerlessness, helplessness and guilt about it.

Courtesy UC Irvine Campus Planning & Sustainability

Jazmín Romero, UC Irvine

I have climate anxiety all of the time, and I find a lot of comfort knowing that there are other people that also get anxious and emotional about it.
Jazmín Romero, UC Irvine

At times, Romero says, their climate anxiety can get overwhelming. In the past, they've tried to disengage completely. But the only thing worse than paying too much attention to climate change is trying to ignore it. Despite the toll it can take, "I feel better knowing I'm doing what I can to make it better," they say.

Now, Romero takes what they learned at the retreat and incorporates it into conversations with peers, both through their Climate Action Fellowship role and as the undergraduate president of their academic department. "For anyone who's interested in how they can combat their own climate anxiety, I'll share something I learned from the leadership retreat: Be okay with taking up space and being vulnerable," Romero says. "Especially in spaces where you feel foreign, tell yourself: Your voice and your experience matters as much as anyone else in the room, and you belong there."

Strength in numbers

Sameer Ameen remembers sitting in front of the TV with his dad, watching a speech about climate change from then-President Obama. Bangladesh, the president explained, faced extraordinary threats from rising sea levels. Experts project that by 2050, 17 percent of the country, an area currently home to 20 million people, could be underwater.

"I must have been pretty young at the time, but I just remember looking at my dad like, 'Is this true?'" says Ameen. His parents grew up in Bangladesh before immigrating to California, and they'd bring Ameen back for visits. What would happen to his family back home as the country started to disappear under the sea?

In high school, Ameen learned about the links between burning fossil fuels and climate change, and he says he started to "connect the dots" between what he was learning in school and what he experienced during his visits to Bangladesh. "I wanted to spend my time in college learning about environmental injustices in different parts of the world and apply that to my studies, so I could have a more holistic understanding of what the problems are and how we can address them through policy," he says.

Today, Ameen is a junior at UC Berkeley majoring in Society and Environment. The fight for climate justice motivated his college search, and it's shaped his undergraduate experience in many ways. As a Climate Action Fellow, he has a job in the campus sustainability office. His research has quantified health risks for students living in dorms without AC as heat waves become more frequent and intense. In a survey of 300 students, he found that over half had experienced symptoms of heat illness in their dorm rooms. These findings are informing the campus's plan to eliminate carbon emissions by 2045.

Courtesy Sameer Ameen

Sameer Ameen, third-year at UC Berkeley

Got climate anxiety? A new UC course could help.

Photo: Elena Zhukova

This spring, professors at eight UC campuses are introducing a new course that's designed to help students explore and process their experiences of climate change, cope with the strife and find effective ways to get involved and work for change.

Learn more about the UC Climate Resilience Course and how to register for future sections.

He was the first person to address the UC Board of Regents when they met to deliberate the future of UC Berkeley's natural gas-fired cogeneration plant. (After he and several others spoke up in favor of shutting down the facility and transitioning to renewably generated electricity, the Regents voted in their favor, a result Ameen calls "exhilarating.") He's now the sole student voting member of the Chancellors Advisory Committee on Sustainability, representing the interests of Berkeley's 45,000 students.

Climate justice is the focus of Ameen's education, work study and extracurricular life at Cal, and it can all get overwhelming, he admits. One of his classes was devoted to exploring and understanding the alarming findings of the latest UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Report. "I'd always come out of that class feeling like, 'We are in big trouble,'" he says.

UC Berkeley Climate Action Fellow Sameer Ameen. Photo: Sameer Ameen

He tries to stay grounded in what he's learned from his upbringing between L.A. and Bangladesh: "I think this is my immigrant mindset, knowing that there are people suffering far worse than I am," Ameen says. "It's a different kind of feeling, and you wake up with a different type of aggression and passion every morning to fight for climate justice."

He also draws strength from his fellow travelers on campus, from student activists to the head of the sustainability office, Kira Stoll. "If I had to go at this alone, it would be incredibly isolating and frustrating, but fortunately, I don't," says Ameen, who used what he's learned in class and through his fellowship to nail down a job with the US Environmental Protection Agency after graduation. "You just have to find your people. Cal is beautiful in that: if you're searching for community, you will find it," he says.