Turning climate anxiety into action: A Q&A with SEAS Dean Jonathan Overpeck
With COP 28 set to begin in Dubai, the international spotlight once again will be on climate change and global action. Representatives of more than 200 countries will gather to set climate goals for the next year and participate in the first-ever global stocktake, a process where countries and stakeholders see where they’re collectively making progress towards meeting the goals of the Paris Climate Change Agreement—and where they’re not.
As we prepare for COP 28, it’s also important to note how our mental health can be influenced by the climate crisis. Many of us experience climate anxiety or distress when thinking about the effects of climate change on our future. So, what can we do to cope with climate stress?
Tim Muhich, a first-year PhD student at the University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability (SEAS), sat down with SEAS Dean Jonathan Overpeck to get his perspectives on how to manage climate anxiety and turn it into action. Overpeck is a renowned climate scientist who has served on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
Muhich: What emotions do you feel within the context of climate change? How have you experienced climate anxiety? And, what have you observed among your students when it comes to their emotions and climate anxiety?
Overpeck: I certainly worry about climate change and how it’s going to affect future generations. However, I’ve found that turning my worry into action has been beneficial for me in coping with the climate crisis. As a climate scientist, I’ve been involved in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and I’ve been focused on research, teaching students, and engaging with the public to actually solve the problem of climate change. Helping other people realize that climate change is solvable and that they can play a role is how I am mitigating my own climate anxiety.
Muhich: What advice do you have for students on how to manage climate anxiety and/or other climate emotions? This could perhaps be advice that you use yourself or share when teaching/in the classroom.
Overpeck: What I advise students to do is to get involved and focus on what you can do about the climate problem. This includes getting involved politically, because ultimately, if we elect those who aren’t going to do something about climate change, things aren’t going to get better. One really great thing about SEAS is that our students learn the tools that are necessary to have agency, to make a difference, and to do their part.
Muhich: What would you like to see happen differently at SEAS or U-M to help students turn their climate emotions into action?
Overpeck: When I first came to U-M, there was a very strong student and faculty movement focused on carbon neutrality on campus. U-M’s previous president worked extraordinarily hard to try and understand what that meant for the university, and he made a commitment to take the university to carbon neutrality. In the time since then, we’ve ratcheted up our campus efforts thanks to a much more proactive executive vice president and chief financial officer, Geoff Chatas. And then we got a really committed president, Santa Ono.
So, I would encourage students to learn about the campus carbon neutrality plan and get involved with making it happen. There’s still a huge amount to do. One of the things we’re focused on is growing the undergraduate sustainable living experience and building a much more substantial residential sustainability program in a dormitory for freshmen and sophomores, who would then serve as ambassadors of carbon neutrality and sustainability across campus during their time here. We’re hiring a vice provost and we just got a new vice president for sustainability. These two individuals will be developing lots of programs for students to get involved in to speed up this whole process. And probably the biggest way we’re going to have an impact is through our students and what they do—here at U-M and for their entire careers. So people like you are just what we want. Our goal is to accelerate carbon neutrality on campus and off, and to ensure that what we are saying here isn’t just academics, but it’s walking the walk and getting the job done.
Muhich interviewed Dean Overpeck as part of the Leadership for Turning Climate Anxiety into Action course taught by Michaela Zint, SEAS Associate Dean for Academic Affairs and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor. The course explores the emotional impacts of climate change and empowers students at SEAS and within the larger U-M community to harness their climate emotions into action. In February, an event will be held to share course findings and recommendations with faculty and students. Stay tuned for more details.
More information: Coping with climate stress: A Q&A with Carolyn Scorpio of U-M CAPS