FEATURE

MFTs and Climate Change: A Call to Action

 

Several weeks ago, I asked my six-year-old son if he wanted to go outside. It’s been unseasonably warm here, and after a year of COVID restrictions, we’ve found the outdoors to be a necessary respite. But upon opening the backdoor we were greeted with the distinct smell of wildfire smoke. It had been a blustery day already, and I immediately recalled the all-too-frequent “red flag” warning I received that morning. Several years ago, I might have confused the smell of wildfire for a backyard BBQ or bonfire, but unfortunately now, I’ve been sensitized to the unique smell of burning wildfire.

My son, having also developed this sensitization, quickly looked at me wide-eyed. Any parent knows this look. The look that is the beginning of fear and panic. The look that calls for reassurance. “It’s ok, buddy,” I assure him. But my actions speak louder as I quickly grab my phone, turn on the TV and radio, and begin searching the sky for any ominous dark plumes. All of which communicate more clearly that this might not be ok. 


I know this look from my son because it was the same look he gave my wife and me on November 8, 2018, when my family and I quickly evacuated from what would be the deadliest wildfire in California’s history.

The historic Camp Fire took the lives of 85 of our neighbors and all but destroyed the foothill town of Paradise. We reside about 15 miles west in the town of Chico. On that day, as we received reports of a giant wall of fire moving the length of a football field every few seconds down the hill toward us, we were unsure if we’d ever see our house again. As parents, we did our best to reassure our children that they were not in danger. But my oldest son, who was four at the time, still remembers.

Now, two years later, I am still surprised that this event had such an impact on him. As a mental health professional, you’d think I would understand the long lasting impact of trauma on the brain and body. I should know how simple cues like the smell of smoke would trigger a response of fear and panic. But as a parent, I am heartbroken and helpless as to how I alleviate the burden of his trauma.

Thankfully, the smoke we smelled on that day was from a small grassfire, only a few hundred acres, that was quickly contained. It was, however, a reminder of the impact this event had on our emotional wellbeing. 

This experience with my son, and others like it, has over the past few years led me to consider a series of professional and personal questions. How can parents best help children cope with the trauma of natural disasters? As a family, how do we best prepare (emotionally, psychologically, and relationally) for the next inevitable disaster? What long term impacts will these disasters have on us and our children?

These questions and others are becoming more relevant as my family and I continue to navigate living in a state that seems to be continually ravaged by wildfires. As a native Californian, wildfires are nothing new. I grew up seeing the occasional smoke-filled orange sky. But never had I experienced a wildfire that brought so much death and destruction so quickly. And unfortunately, these extreme wildfires are no longer occasional. Last year’s wildfire season was one of the worst on record, burning over 4 million acres in California.

Beyond wildfires, the frequency and intensity of natural disasters are increasing across the globe. A report from the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC, 2020) notes that natural disasters, or “extreme weather events,” have been rising in frequency and intensity since the 1960s. They also note how the overall increase in global temperatures is a factor in this rise. Here in California, a warmer climate has made for hotter and drier summers, sapping the forests of moisture needed to mitigate such “mega-fires.” The report notes that the proportion of all “extreme weather events” that can be attributed to rising global temperatures has also grown from about 76% from 2000-2009 to about 83% from 2010-2019.

Data such as this is probably not news to you. If you are like me, this information leaves you with an overwhelming sense of dread. As a therapist and social scientist, I often feel personally and professionally far removed from any meaningful impact. And until recently, I was generally adverse to the overall discourse about climate change. Not because I didn’t believe it, but simply because I felt helpless. How could I possibly make any sort of meaningful impact on such a huge issue?

However, my family’s experience with the Camp Fire has led to a change in attitude about my role in our changing climate. First and foremost, I can no longer be ignorant of the impact of a warming climate. Although I understand there were many factors that made the Camp Fire so destructive and deadly, I can no longer in good conscience deny that climate change played a role. To do so would be to dishonor those who lost their lives that day. Furthermore, I can no longer shrug my shoulders about the future of our planet. The Camp Fire was a terrible wake-up call to the potential devastation of a warming climate. The impact is no longer conceptual, it is real. 

Up until recently, this awakening has been largely personal. This last fall, however, I had the pleasure of presenting at the annual conference on the role MFTs in Natural Disasters. As I prepared for this presentation, I was left with more questions than answers. Not only did I want to address how MFTs can manage the emotional and relational blow-back of a changing climate, I wanted to address how our profession could help in preventing it in the first place.

I recognize it might seem like a wide gap exists between our field and climate science. I often feel overwhelmed and helpless when I think about how I, as an individual and an MFT, can impact a warming climate. I am encouraged, however, that other MFTs are already recognizing the impact of climate change on mental health. Although there is room for further development, trauma-based therapies are being adapted to meet the needs of individuals and families who have experienced natural disasters. But as MFTs, we can offer more to the discussion about climate change than simply healing from its impacts. As systems experts, we are uniquely positioned to innovate ways in which humans can mitigate a warming climate. We are comfortable with the idea that small, seemingly insignificant changes can have big ramifications. We understand how innocuous behaviors can have devastating unintended consequences. We understand that change is often slow and hard, but possible. I won’t deny that the issue is complex, but like most complex problems—more perspectives are usually beneficial.

I write this not as an expert in climate change, but simply as a fellow MFT concerned about the future of our planet if we continue to standby. If you are reading this article looking for actionable steps, I have none (yet). I don’t believe we are there yet. But it is time for MFTs to pull up a chair to the climate change table and ask “how can we help?”

Collectively, let’s start by asking more questions: What role does couple and family therapy play in the battle against a rapidly changing climate? How can couple and family therapy be best used to heal from and prevent natural disasters? How should our professional organizations be involved in issues of climate change and sustainability?

Like the American Psychological Association (APA) did in 2009, I’m calling on AAMFT to develop a task force dedicated to better understanding the relational and systemic factors contributing to climate change. Now is the time to develop an Interest Network devoted to MFTs, climate change and sustainability. We need organizational leaders who will advocate for sustainable practices throughout the organization. And we need to imbed sustainability into our organization’s governance documents.

Beyond our organization, I’m also calling on you, my fellow MFTs, to innovate efforts at sustainability and combat climate change. Let’s amplify our discussion about how we can become critical players in the fight against global warming. We need MFT thought-leaders and researchers to center ecological issues in their work. It’s time for us MFTs to do what we do best and find workable system-level solutions.

But most of all, I’m calling myself out to no longer sit with my hands folded worrying about the smell of wildfire smoke.

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The proportion of all “extreme weather events” that can be attributed to rising global temperatures has also grown from about 76% from 2000-2009 to about 83% from 2010-2019.

horst

Kyle Horst, PhD, LMFT is an AAMFT Professional Member and holds the Clinical Fellow designation. He is an associate professor and program coordinator at California State University, Chico.


REFERENCES

American Psychological Association. (2009). Psychology and global climate change: Addressing a multi-faceted phenomenon and set of challenges. Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/science/about/publications/climate-change-booklet.pdf

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. (2020). World disasters report 2020. Retrieved from https://media.ifrc.org/ifrc/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/20201116_WorldDisasters_Full.pdf

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