Environmental science students and faculty keep working despite mental toll

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Daniel Blumstein feels like he has been screaming into the void his entire career as an environmental scientist.

The professor of ecology and evolutionary biology co-wrote a paper in January which reviewed the state of pressing environmental issues. Blumstein and his colleagues found, among other things, that the goals countries have set themselves to tackle climate change – from United Nations Sustainable Development Goals 2015 to the Paris Agreement – are doomed to failure. In fact, the document said the current environmental crisis could be deadly.

Summarizing all the data they collected opened Blumstein’s eyes to dire environmental challenges, like declining biodiversity and overconsumption.

“It’s very depressing to continually realize what we’re doing to Earth and realize that our responses are not of the scale and nature to really respond to it,” Blumstein said.

Some UCLA students and professors involved in environmental studies have found themselves bombarded with grim projections about the future of the planet. Nonetheless, the importance of their field has taught them to be resilient.

When Arely López decided to study environmental studies at UCLA, she said her mother feared it was too depressing an area to pursue.

López, a third-year geography / environmental studies and political science student, feels trapped by the gloomy nature of her classes – which encompass climate change itself and the urgency to combat it. It is extremely stressful to constantly learn about sea level rise and the fact that the Earth will soon be uninhabitable, she added.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicted that intense heat, heavy precipitation and snowfall will increase the severity of natural disasters in North America. In 2020, the California wildfires burned more than 4.2 million acres, making it the worst fire season in the state’s modern history, according to in the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Another stressor for López is the politicization of environmentalism.

“It’s almost controversial to say that you are an environmental science student or to say that you study environmental studies,” López said. “I think that is slowing us down in terms of the progress we can make, because instead of trying to find solutions, we are more arguing about whether this is a problem or not.”

The United States is the second largest emitter of greenhouse gases, but only 57% of Americans say they believe global warming is mainly caused by human activities, according to a Yale study on climate advisories.

But López has found positive sides to his major, such as community outreach and social justice.

López remembers his family being evacuated due to wildfires in his hometown of Riverside County, which sparked his passion for reducing carbon emissions and promoting sustainability in his community. For example, López is currently involved in the Better Watts Initiative, where she is helping research remedies for lead contamination in the region.

Yifang Zhu, professor of environmental health sciences, approaches environmental issues with optimism. Zhu, who studies the effects of air pollution on public health, said she believes Biden’s presidency may bode well for creating federal actions that prioritize climate change.

Donald Trump’s administration lowered spending limits for environmental research, which negatively impacted the work of Zhu and his colleagues, she said. Trump also withdrew from the Paris Agreement and cut environmental regulations around air pollution and climate change, which Zhu says upset her.

[Related link: Some faculty hope UC, US will take more aggressive action to combat climate change]

Facing challenges as grandiose as air pollution, Zhu said that she faces them by articulating the issues in her mind and trying to figure out what she can do to deal with them.

Rena Repetti, professor of clinical and health psychology, said people vary widely in how they perceive and interpret the same situation, and it can be frustrating to study something that looks like an uphill battle.

She added that while environmental scientists may believe they have an important message to communicate, they can fall into despair if people don’t listen to what they have to say.

Venezia Ramirez, who graduated with an undergraduate degree in environmental science last fall, said she was drawn to her major after learning that issues such as pollution and industrialization affect her community unevenly. in South Los Angeles.

The lack of action to help disproportionately affected communities has exacerbated his stress, Ramirez said. She added that she had already felt frustrated when her teacher gave her a reading that did not value the importance of helping communities like hers to tackle climate change, in favor of projects that would compensate more. ‘carbon emissions.

However, Ramirez said she has learned to cope with the understanding that the responsibility for solving environmental problems does not lie with her alone.

Blumstein, who has worked in this field for 20 years, shares the same sentiment.

“If we fail, it won’t be because of my failure, or your failure, or the individual failure of a leader,” Blumstein said. “It is our collective failure that is going to be the reason for our failure.”

Despite the mental burden, environmental studies students and professors feel inclined to continue with their work because of its importance.

“These types of messages can really be a mental health challenge,” Blumstein said. “I want to go down to the fight.”

Instead of dissatisfaction with her job simply in an archive, Zhu’s research into the effects of poor air quality can be used to help people, she said. As a doctoral student at UCLA, Zhu said she studied the health of people living near freeways, which helped pass California Senate Bill # 352, which banned the construction of schools in air pollution hot spots.

For Ramirez, finding solutions to the environmental problems his loved ones face is a moral obligation. As long as the problems persist, she will continue to fight for answers, she said.

“I have no choice,” Ramirez said. “These are issues that impact my friends, my neighbors, my family.”


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