Miko Vergun is set to start her third year at Oregon State University this fall. The 20-year-old student, adopted as an infant from her native Marshall Islands, says she’s noticed summers getting progressively hotter in Oregon. Vergun says she’s especially wary of this year’s wildfire season, wondering whether she’ll have a future home in the state.
And of the Marshall Islands, she says they and other Pacific Island nations are “frontline communities” facing the real threat of climate change. The chain of volcanic islands are “in danger of going underwater,” if appropriate climate action isn’t taken, she says. The U.S. Geological Survey says some of the country’s islands will be submerged by as early as 2035.
“That scares me a lot because … that’s where I’m from,” Vergun continues. “And I want to be able to show my kids, or … have a place to be able to visit. And land is a huge part of our culture in the sense that we pass it down.”
She can’t vote in the U.S., but Vergun says she has watched with alarm as adults “who are supposed to protect our future, protect our rights,” and who “quite literally have our futures in their hands” are “playing with it.”
So in August 2015, she joined a group of 21 youth plaintiffs – the oldest among them is now 25, according to the climate advocacy group, Our Children’s Trust – and filed a lawsuit against the U.S. government alleging that its conduct has harmed their “constitutional rights to a livable planet and a sustainable future,” Vergun says.
Young people aren’t alone in their concern about the changing climate. In 2019, a majority of people around the world were concerned about climate change, according to the Lloyd’s Register Foundation World Risk poll. It found that 41% of people worldwide see climate change as a very serious threat, while 28% are somewhat concerned. More recently, a survey released last autumn of 14 wealthy countries placed climate change as a top global threat to security, even as the COVID-19 pandemic spread around the world.
The impact of climate change is not new, and has especially affected those in developing nations and in the global South for decades. But a United Nations report released Monday warned that changes to the earth’s climate are “irreversible” and a series of climate-related events in recent weeks such as heat waves in the Western U.S. and flash floods in Western Europe, may be making the global climate conversation more urgent.
In the wake of these disasters, mental health is too often an afterthought. But according to the American Psychiatric Association, “climate change and related disasters cause anxiety-related responses as well as chronic and severe mental health disorders,” while events such as flooding or prolonged drought have been associated with elevated levels of anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorders.
The degree of distress an individual feels about climate change is often related to how directly their environment is altered or threatened, according to a 2020 article published in the Lancet on tackling the “invisible injustice” of climate change’s effect on mental health. But even in places not yet directly impacted by climate change, “subclinical depressive emotions, despair, and guilt associated with the climate crisis” can exist, the article says.
Five of the 21 youth plaintiffs in a federal climate change lawsuit against the federal government, including Miko Vergun, who wears a flower crown, celebrate on the courthouse steps in Eugene, Oregon after U.S. District Judge Ann Aiken rejected requests from the federal government and trade groups representing many of the world’s largest energy companies to dismiss their lawsuit in November of 2016.(Chris Pietsch/The Register-Guard/AP)
Some experts characterize the phenomena as “eco-anxiety” or “climate anxiety” related to the existential threat of the climate crisis. For many, “the ominous reality of climate change results in feelings of powerlessness to improve the situation, leaving them with an unresolved sense of loss, helplessness, and frustration,” the paper says. “For others, the anxiety they have can become debilitating.”
Janet Lewis – a private practice psychiatrist and a member of the Climate Psychiatry Alliance – notes the impact of direct exposure to climate-related events on mental health. But she also emphasizes the more general experience associated with knowing that climate change is happening, and feeling helpless against it.
Lewis calls the present moment a “time of tremendous change and threat and real losses.” But she also sees this as a pivotal time – a time of opportunity.
“What can help is working to kind of look at the converse side of what’s happened and kind of turn the perspective inside out – without denying how very serious and very sad and even heartbreaking circumstances are,” Lewis says. “Recognizing that, because we are in such a pivotal time, what we do really matters. It’s the opposite of being helpless, actually. What we do now really matters.”
Lewis says the way to break away from helplessness associated with climate change is to confront the issue with others.
“We tend to think, ‘If I – little me – can’t have a big impact here, then things are hopeless, and there’s not much point in doing anything,'” she says. “When actually, that’s not the case because, at the level of the group, collective action can actually be extremely influential. There’s a great deal of power and creativity at the level of groups that doesn’t exist at the level of individuals. And so, one important shift in thinking is that we need to be thinking more in terms of group action.”
That’s what the plaintiffs in Vergun’s case, Juliana v. United States, have done. And they aren’t the only ones who have sued their respective governments in response to their climate practices.
In Canada, 15 youth plaintiffs brought a similar fight to their government in October 2019. Those plaintiffs are even younger – currently ranging from 10 to 19 years old. Their suit, La Rose v. Her Majesty the Queen, claims that Canada’s climate practices have likewise impacted their rights to “life, liberty, security of the person and their right to equal protection under the law under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms,” according to Our Children’s Trust.
One of the Canadian plaintiffs – 17-year-old Lauren Wright, who lives in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan – says Canada’s changing climate, and its government’s lack of decisive action to combat climate change, have directly led to adverse outcomes on her mental health.
“I live with generalized anxiety disorder, (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder), depression and social anxiety disorder,” she says. “So I have kind of a whole realm of mental health concerns,” which Wright says “intersect with the climate crisis, especially here in Canada.”
People take a break from cleaning the debris from the flood disaster in Bad Neuenahr-Ahrweiler, Germany on July 19, 2021.(Bram Janssen/AP)
She describes the climate in Saskatchewan in terms of drought and air quality marred by smoke from wildfires. Wright says the province is usually known for “very long, very cold, intense winters,” as well as “hot and dry summers.”
But recently, she says she’s been able to see the regional climate change within her own lifetime: “We’ve set several new records, and that’s not something that should be happening (continuously) … It’s not supposed to be 40 degrees (Celsius, or 104 degrees Fahrenheit) here in the summer,” Wright continues. “It gets hot, but it should not be getting that hot.” Likewise, she says, temperatures last winter were “absolutely brutal.”
As climate change continues to make natural environments more hazardous for humans, young people especially are “becoming disconnected from the land,” Wright says.
“It’s all very damaging to mental health, especially that of young people,” she points out. Wright also says that disconnect from nature can place an additional mental strain on Indigenous youth, whose cultures tend to emphasize a sustainable relationship with nature.
That impending sense of loss causes young people to confront what Wright describes as their “lack of a future.” She says young people’s lives involve continuing to go to school and planning for a future despite “this ticking time bomb essentially that’s going off.”
Wright criticizes the Canadian government for maintaining an eco-friendly image on the world stage while continuing to contribute to carbon emissions.
“How much time do I have to try and carve out a life for myself before catastrophe strikes?”
“Canada does like to promote itself as a very sustainable nation, and very environmentally friendly, especially with our prime minister, Justin Trudeau,” she says. “But the reality of that is that the federal government is continuing to invest in the fossil fuel industry – in dirty industries in oil and gas, and continuing to also provide … fossil fuel subsidies and tax breaks to massive corporations that are further damaging the planet.”
In October 2020, one year after youth plaintiffs filed La Rose, the Canadian Federal Court in Ottawa granted the government’s motion to strike down the lawsuit, “on the basis that the Statement of Claim discloses no reasonable cause of action,” court documents show.
According to Our Children’s Trust, attorneys for the plaintiffs filed a motion for appeal in November 2020. The lawsuit is currently awaiting a date for oral arguments before Canada’s Federal Court of Appeals.
Both Wright and Vergun talk about the climate crisis as a problem of the present – not the future. And they both maintain that if climate change-induced flooding, wildfires and drought continue as they have been, an ever-increasing number of people won’t be able to live in their homes.
“How much time do I have to try and carve out a life for myself before catastrophe strikes?” Wright asks.
In the U.S., Juliana has had a convoluted past since it was filed nearly six years ago.
After a series of stays, injunctions, motions and appeals, Juliana plaintiffs are engaged in settlement negotiations with the Department of Justice, as well as motions to file a second amended complaint, and a pending motion to intervene on behalf of 18 U.S. states led by Alabama as opponents to the original Juliana lawsuit, according to the chronology on Our Children’s Trust’s website.
Firefighters rest during a wildfire in Yucaipa, California on Sept. 5, 2020. Firefighters trying to contain the massive wildfires in Oregon, California and Washington state are constantly on the verge of exhaustion as they try to save suburban houses, including some in their own neighborhoods.(Ringo H.W. Chiu/AP)
Vergun says the plaintiffs “want the government to recognize that they have been harming us by committing acts that violate our constitutional rights to a livable future by allowing and promoting the use of fossil fuels.”
In the meantime, the climate crisis has loomed large for Vergun, who has watched year after year as fire seasons sent smoke through her hometown of Beaverton, Oregon.
Last year’s wildfire season in Corvallis, in particular “was something I’ve never seen before,” she says. “I’ve never seen ashes fall from the sky, and … I’ve never been in a place where I couldn’t go outside. Not because of COVID, but I couldn’t go outside because the … air quality was so, so dangerous.”
Vergun’s climate activism has taken her back to the Marshall Islands, she says. During one visit, a teacher invited her into a classroom to speak to students about the Juliana case.
“The teacher wanted to show me what (the students) learned in the class,” she recalls. “And … the teacher was like, ‘What happens when the water comes up?’ And the kids said, ‘We will go underwater.’ And then she was like, ‘And what happens if we go underwater?’ Just to see … what the kids would say.”
“I remember one of them said that we die,” Vergun says.