Kenny Alton, a counselor at Vashon Youth and Family Services, wants to help islanders in disbelief start to process the emotional toll of climate change — a vexing threat that for many of his adolescent patients, he said, is like fighting a ghost.
On Jan. 9, Alton hosted the third meeting of a new support group called Climate Chaos, attended by more than a dozen islanders including young parents, educators and retirees. They quietly filed into seats at VYFS’s Family Place, with some expressing dismay over the latest news about Australia’s bushfires that burned across the mainland from coast to coast.
Alton said he wanted to create a space that promotes awareness and education in a facilitated, therapeutic setting. He hopes that by targeting what for some feels paralyzing — the sense of dread and powerlessness that can accompany constant news reports about natural disasters, the damage wrought on the environment by the use of fossil fuels, and the seemingly endless political gridlock — it might help to inspire action.
Islanders are no strangers to conversations about climate change or adverse impacts of human activities on the environment, from King County’s efforts to promote awareness of sea-level rise potentially swallowing up Vashon’s shores someday, to the ongoing plight of Southern Resident orcas.
The outlook looks bleak: Last week, NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported that Earth’s global surface temperatures in 2019 were the second warmest since modern record-keeping began in 1880. That doesn’t bode well for the Greenland Ice Sheet, one of the largest ice sheets on Earth, which lost 3.8 trillion tons of ice between 1992 and 2018 according to a paper in Nature Magazine last month from NASA and the European Space Agency. Scientists are concerned the melting could open up vulnerable coastal communities around the globe to storm surges and high tides, exacerbating events like hurricanes and ultimately speeding up global warming.
On Vashon, some in the community say they are doing what they can with their available time to make improvements, even if only on the island, hoping that the next generation will take up the cause before it’s too late.
At the Climate Chaos meeting, there were stories of feeling anguish over the state of the environment, but in an interview with The Beachcomber, Alton said that some young people he has worked with — on the cusp of inheriting the worst of what may be yet to come — feel it acutely.
“It feels like to me that it’s fragmenting them. They’re losing a sense of incentive, they are losing a sense of purpose, there’s a lack of meaning in their existence. If you don’t have anything like ‘I have a future,’ all those things go out,” he said, adding that adults can’t relate to their experiences to reassure today’s youth because what is happening is unprecedented.
“It’s creating this ennui, this existential angst. It’s hard for them to have joy. There’s just so much weighing on them and their potential,” he said.
But while living in England several years ago, Alton said he saw a glimmer of hope at an outdoor school where his daughter was enrolled. To him, many of those students seemed better equipped to think about and deal with the prospect of climate change because they already had established a deep relationship with nature.
From there, Alton said he became inspired after reading “The Nature Principle,” by author Richard Louv. The book argues that greater personal immersion in the natural world can lead to transformative breakthroughs, something that Alton said he believes can be tremendously powerful for individuals and beyond. To him, those effects can range, from relieving children of symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder to giving rise to anger and frustration born from grief over ecological collapse. Those are the feelings, he said, that he hopes will inspire large movements and progress.
Suzanne Greenberg, who belongs to the leadership team of Vashon Climate Action, said members of that group also recognize the need for emotional support, especially for activists, who can easily suffer burnout. But anyone concerned about climate change today, she said, is vulnerable to despair.
To Greenberg, now is the time to make a choice: Deny anything is happening or face the reality of the situation and then decide what comes next.
“Everyone needs to do their part to turn this around or we’re not going to make it,” she said.
Protection of the environment has a long history on Vashon, a priority of many who have helped to preserve sensitive habitat and open spaces on the island over the years. That work has been imperative for the health and wellbeing of the plant and animal species native to the island, efforts that continue with ample support today. And recent examples show that many islanders are as interested as ever in helping to make whatever difference they can.
Clay Glebb, manager of Thriftway, said that two new electric vehicle charging stations installed in the parking lot of the store earlier this month were the result of customers asking for them, following similar requests for compostable or recyclable packaging for products on the shelves.
Islander Rondi Lightmark, who is creating the Whole Vashon Catalog to share educational resources and highlight the green goals of more than 130 island businesses and nonprofits, said her mission is to take climate change from “a solitary misery in front of your computer” to a front-and-center showcase of the work already being done by those in the community.
“Bigger things can come out of just getting the conversation going,” she said, noting that there is more to the story of climate change than some may realize. She said a fatal misunderstanding of the groundwater cycle and the importance of soil, for example — coupled with modern industrial farming practices — has led to wide-scale drought in parts of the world.
“We could stop all the fossil fuel tomorrow and the planet would keep dying because we have not been good stewards of the earth,” she said.
But things are looking up at home. Tom Dean, the executive director of the Vashon-Maury Island Land Trust, said that wild-spawning Coho salmon, known to be vulnerable to polluted stormwater runoff, still manage to return to the Shinglemill and Judd Creek watersheds each year. While it is difficult to determine why more of them aren’t coming, Dean said conservation work on Vashon may have helped save island salmon runs from going away entirely.
Moreover, while pesticides detected in Puget Sound waterways are known to be toxic to salmon and can kill the insects they eat, Dean noted there is no evidence of polluted stormwater runoff harming salmon on Vashon.
But Elizabeth Loudon, grant manager for the county WaterWorks Grant Program, said there is broad recognition of the need to better protect and improve water quality in the region.
“People know that storm runoff is the main source of pollution going into Puget Sound,” she said.
That’s why the Vashon Nature Center was awarded a $55,000 grant last month to support education around watershed health and community science monitoring work, one of 69 projects in total to receive funding.
Bianca Perla, director of the nature center, said in an email that rain gardens — designed with support from the King County Groundwater Protection Committee — will be constructed in the IGA parking lot adjacent to the Shinglemill watershed, helping to curb stormwater runoff into the creek. She added that better island stormwater management practices and greater research will go a long way toward ensuring the health of the creek, from assessing populations of insects found there to testing water samples for pollutants after large storms.
As part of the grant, islander Michael Laurie, a sustainability consultant, and his wife, Diane Emerson, an organic landscape gardener, have partnered with the nature center and will help island home and business owners better understand how to control and treat their stormwater. The couple will conduct outreach through their organization Garden Green to urge the reduction and elimination of pesticides and inorganic fertilizer in gardening and landscaping.
Laurie said he believes the rate of climate change can be slowed. He added that doing as much good for the environment as possible, and talking and working with other people, leaves him feeling hopeful.
“None of that is to say that I don’t think we’ve got a very difficult job ahead of us and that I don’t feel bad that we’ve taken so long to put those actions into place,” he said. “We’re going to have to make major changes, and I think that’s doable, but it’s going to have to be a big effort.”
Perla added that because climate change is expected to increase extreme winter rain events, putting extra pressure on island creeks, efforts such as the rain garden project will be critical. Meanwhile, legislators continue to push for sweeping actions that would help bring Washington closer to achieving its own ambitious environmental targets.
At a press conference earlier this month, Gov. Jay Inslee was joined by Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon, Sen. Joe Nguyen and the Port of Seattle to call on the Legislature to adopt a statewide Clean Fuels Standard in its 2020 legislative session.
Calling emissions a mortal threat to the health of children and the future of the state, Gov. Inslee said a clean fuel standard — requiring fuel providers to reduce the total carbon intensity of fuels by phasing out gasoline and diesel for electricity, blended biofuels and natural gas — was one of the most effective and least expensive ways to deal with transportation pollution.
Fitzgibbon told The Beachcomber that the technology to produce alternative fuels and make it work is already here and only needs a political willingness to utilize it.
“We have huge oil refineries and trillions of dollars of infrastructure in getting petroleum out of the ground and into cars,” he said. “We don’t really need to reinvent anything new, we just need to grow the technology that we already have available.”
Fitzgibbon added that a clean fuel standard has support in the House and is nearly there in the Senate. If passed, Washington would follow British Columbia, Oregon and California in instituting a clean fuel standard.
To get it done, Nguyen said people will need to show up and keep working.
“We need folks to take bold and courageous action to take the steps we have to take,” he said, adding that many living in fire-stricken areas including California and Australia are facing climate change realities now.
That has some who work with children on Vashon preparing them for how to care for and live in a warming world, knowledge they say is more vital than ever.
Stacey Hinden, the executive director of the nonprofit Vashon Wilderness Program, echoed Alton’s faith in the restorative power of nature when describing the organization’s approach to mentoring youth. She said children enrolled in their courses learn to value the land and resources it provides by learning survival skills such as animal tracking and harvesting. Moreover, she said, she and her staff are first-hand witnesses to the transformations that can occur when children feel connected to nature and each other, as though they belong to something larger than themselves.
“We can see that in kids who become more self-regulated, they become more peaceful and centered, they increase their patience and problem-solving capabilities,” she said.
That growth inspires them to become leaders in their community, said Hinden.
Young people have already been waging a fight against climate change, from striking worldwide last fall to suing the federal government to reduce carbon pollution. In 2016, more than two dozen plaintiffs under the age of 24 claimed in court filings that officials have failed to take necessary action to curtail fossil fuel emissions and guarantee them a livable world. But judges for the ninth circuit court of appeals dismissed the suit, Juliana v. United States, last week.
Amy Bogaard, leader of the Chautauqua Elementary School Green Team, said her fourth and fifth-grade students are influenced by what they see and hear, such as teen activist Greta Thunberg and her message about humanity’s responsibility for the planet. Bogaard’s goal is for each of her students to understand why making changes that will safeguard the future of all life on earth is necessary.
“We’ve talked about that as a Green Team. How can we as leaders have an effect on the culture of our community? Because once you change the culture of our community, we can go further,” she said.
Climate Chaos will meet at 7 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 13, at Family Place.