Climate Change and Transformational Resilience

We recently learned that 2014 was the hottest year on earth since record keeping began in 1880. Now more than ever, we need to rethink the ways we conceive of climate change and what we can do to get out in front of its impact on us, our families, and our communities.

We can no longer focus solely on understanding the causes of climate change and trying to mitigate those causes. While many highly effective organizations are working to develop strategies that address the external aspects of climate change, such as improving infrastructure and forecasting models, we also need to focus on building our internal resources to relieve stress from climate change and be of assistance to others in times of need. This is especially true for people working on the front lines of community service and who are called upon to work under very challenging conditions.

The psychological impact of climate change is becoming increasingly evident as people in affected communities experience greater levels of stress before, during and after catastrophic weather events. As sea levels rise and shorelines are washed away, and extreme heat waves affect health and energy systems, it is natural to feel hopeless and fall into despair. Whether it be the acute stress caused by a devastating storm or increased hostility and violence during a heat wave, climate change affects us at our core.

As climate change disrupts our communities in many different ways, we need to develop programs that teach people resiliency skills. Some groups have formed in an attempt to address this need, notably the International Transformational Resilience Coalition (ITRC). The initiative is the creation of Bob Doppelt, Executive Director of The Resource Innovation Group.

Doppelt, who is trained as a counseling psychologist and environmental scientist, says, "The human, psychological aspect of climate disruption is almost always overlooked. If we don't change that very soon we're going to cause great pain and suffering for other people--and for ourselves." The ITRC develops and implements programs that will help us become mentally and emotionally resilient, not only to cope with the traumas brought on by climate disruption, but also to use those adversities as an opportunity to grow and thrive.

This last point is mission-critical to our work at the Garrison Institute. As the effects of climate change become more and more disastrous, we are tempted to just shut down and disengage. To counteract this impulse, we recognize how important it is to strengthen the psyche and build our inner resilience through contemplative and somatic-based methods so that we're grounded enough to defend ourselves against the stresses of climate change while we work to build concrete solutions that will enhance the resilience of our physical infrastructure and reduce the impact of future climate events.

Our recent white paper, "The Human Dimensions of Resilience: A Theory of Contemplative Practices and Resilience," outlines the research studies linking contemplative practice and resilience. We believe that what has already been proven effective in the field of humanitarian aid would prove equally useful in the face of climate disruption. The wide range of climate change related stresses--heat waves, increased flooding, intense storms, cold spells--exacerbate the stresses of poverty and racism that often exists for people living in low-income communities. We saw the way this played out in New York City with Hurricane Sandy. Our work indicates that a critical and highly effective method for developing human resilience in low-income communities would be to enhance the inner resilience of the social service workers who are already deeply engaged with the community.

In doing resiliency work, it quickly becomes apparent that people not only feel better equipped to take on climate-related disasters, but also feel more deeply connected to the world around them. A shift in identity occurs when people focus their efforts on preparing for the psychological effects of climate change.

As Doppelt suggests in his book Me to We: Five Commitments That Can Save The Planet and Change Your Life, when people begin resiliency work in earnest, they begin to act for both themselves and others. Through resiliency work we come to see clearly the ecological and social networks that that we are embedded in. It is crucial to recognize our interrelationships with others and the planet--not only do they make life sustainable, they give it meaning.