Three months after Gretchen bought a house in Grass Valley, California, the most destructive and fatal wildfire in the state's history ravaged the towns about 40 miles northwest of her.
"For a long time, I kept on having this vision of what my town will look like if one of those firestorms happens, and I felt like I needed to work on that."
The Camp Fire of November 2018 was noteworthy not just because of its damaging scale but because of what started it all: a spark from a faulty transmission line owned by the Pacific Gas & Electric Company, which services nearly two-thirds of California.
PG&E reacted by announcing almost a year later that in advance of days with a high fire risk, it would proactively institute power outages in 17 counties throughout the northern part of the state, including the one where Gretchen lives. The binary options seemed to be: cause another fire or intermittently plunge tens of thousands of people into literal and figurative darkness, impacting emergency services, health, food, internet, gas, and any other electrified necessity or convenience of modern life.
This summer, in between the end of the Camp Fire and the beginning of the blackouts, Gretchen, who asked to keep her last name private, decided it was time to seek counseling for climate-related anxiety.
"That was a very traumatic experience to go through," Gretchen, 39, says, describing what it was like to have recently settled in this increasingly fire-prone part of her home state, and later witnessing a colleague flee California altogether after his own home burned down and he couldn't afford to stay. "For a long time, I kept on having this vision of what my town will look like if one of those firestorms happens, and I felt like I needed to work on that."
While research on climate anxiety—or, more broadly, the effects of climate change on mental health—has been slowly but surely piling up, the actual experience of diagnosing and treating it is less well-documented in both media and academia. An ongoing Yale University study of American perceptions of climate change shows an increasing proportion of concern: In 2018, 29 percent of 1,114 survey respondents said they were "very worried" about climate change, up from 16 percent in 2008. But there are no parallel large-scale studies of whether a similar proportion of people are in therapy for climate change-related mental health issues.
That might be because many would-be clients don't yet realize that this is a valid concern for which to seek out professional support. It could also be because there are no definitive or unifying resources for therapists who are counseling people on the topic. Climate anxiety is notably absent by name from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the psychological gospel for everyone from clinicians to lawmakers. The manual was last updated in 2012 (and published in 2013), just when the first documents of climate anxiety were beginning to crop up.
A small 2013 study surveyed college students in the U.S. and Europe to try and answer the question: Is habitually worrying about the environment a mental health concern if it's a response to a real threat? The study concluded: "...those who habitually worry about the ecology are not only lacking in any psychopathology, but demonstrate a constructive and adaptive response to a serious problem." In other words, worrying about a concrete external concern like the state of the environment is on a different plane than habitually worrying about an internal concern, like feelings of inadequacy. Therapy may still help with the former, but the diagnostic framework could ultimately look different than what is typically used in generalized anxiety.
For now, the best resource for therapists counseling patients battling what is sometimes dubbed "ecoanxiety" is a 70-page booklet called "Mental Health and Our Changing Climate: Impacts, Implications, and Guidance," whose publication was co-sponsored by the American Psychological Association, which publishes the DSM. It's been through two editions already, the first in 2014 and the second in 2017.
"It's not clear to me that [climate anxiety] would merit its own diagnosis, at least at this point," says Susan Clayton, who was the lead author on the 2017 edition and who studies this area at The College of Wooster, but doesn't counsel people directly. However, she says, "I do think that there are some differences [from generalized anxiety], and one of the important differences is, of course, that there's some realism here."
Clayton says that group therapy may be a particularly useful way to affirm for people that they're not the only one experiencing climate anxiety, especially in communities where it might be taboo to not only affirm the existence of climate change but to be openly affected by it.
On drawing therapeutic inspiration from historical examples of other global dangers—such as the widespread fear of nuclear threat during the Cold War—Clayton says: "That was such a different time and they were thinking differently about mental health, but I think in many ways the fear is very similar. It's not like worrying about your finances, it's worrying about the end of the world. So that sort of existential component, and the fact that it's shared, both are very similar here."
There are precedents that therapists can refer to for guidance on helping clients managing climate anxiety, like the approaches used to support people dealing with a terminal illness or battling systemic racism. Such treatments need to stay rooted in the reality of the trigger.
"You don't want to say to them, 'That's not a real thing,'" Clayton explains. "So I think of [climate anxiety] like that. It does mean that the therapeutic focus is not going to be on trying to get people to be reasonable," which is to say that their anxiety is not inherently unreasonable.
"I think it is important to recognize that the anxieties have a legitimate basis," she adds.
"I feel more comfortable now being prepared, being prudent, but not dwelling on it all the time."
Gretchen's reality is now one of adapting to living an off-the-grid lifestyle that she didn't intentionally sign up for. She puts gas in her car in advance of blackouts, and waits to see week-by-week if the school where she teaches second and third grade, in the foothills of Tahoe National Park, will be closed. Her union has yet to figure out how this stop-and-go schedule will affect her salary; she has to keep rescheduling parent-teacher conferences; and she no longer knows when the last day of school will be—existing summer plans for her personal life be damned. Even her interview for this story was affected by this instability.
While trying to schedule a time to talk, she wrote, "Speaking of climate change, I may not have work the rest of the week due to PG&E power outages. If so I will have a very flexible schedule." Later, she suddenly had to decline. "As it turns out, the power's not going out. I will be at work."
In therapy sessions, she works with her counselor to focus on preparedness, where possible, and to specifically frame that preparedness as a source of regaining some of the stability she's lost rather than a sign of imminent trouble. That nuance became necessary after a training at work had the opposite effect.
"We've gone through scenarios [where] if a firestorm happens and we don't have time to evacuate, we have to gather all the children into the cafeteria and fend off the flames ourselves with help from the fire department, and keep them alive if we can't get out in time," she says. "After that day, or that training, that really scared me."
Her therapist uses a type of psychotherapy called eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) to help Gretchen move away from traumatizing images, such as picturing her town on fire, while emphasizing what it is that she can control, such as making sure her car has a full tank, in case she needs to evacuate. EMDR has been shown to help people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and the World Health Organization offers practice guidelines around it.
"I feel more comfortable now being prepared, being prudent, but not dwelling on it all the time," she says. "I feel a little less heightened anxiety and have stopped replaying [those images] in my mind."
Overall, the type of support Gretchen receives is based on pre-existing tools for managing other well-established mental health burdens like PTSD and generalized anxiety. Although no definitive, new practices have specifically emerged around climate anxiety on a comprehensive scale yet, Gretchen says she was nonetheless met with compassion when she first approached a therapist about the topical source of her anxiety, and doesn't feel that her care is lacking in any way.
"I don't know enough to know whether or how it should become its own diagnosis, but I feel like it's something that is still evolving. Down the road, as we see more populations having to move, more refugees, more real effects, that might change," she says. "For me, using the old tools in a new way has been effective at this point."
Gretchen hasn't yet explored with her therapist the more existential worries that climate change dredges up for her—worries about whether or not to have children, and if it was a mistake to settle down in Grass Valley. She's only been in therapy for her climate anxiety since the summer (although she has intermittently sought out professional mental health support for other reasons over the last eight years), and it will take time to get to these bigger issues, she says. She's not sure yet whether that part of her counseling will look different than what's she's done so far.
But she does wonder about the overall usefulness of pathologizing what, as Clayton said, are legitimate anxieties. She has the same question when it comes to providing mental health support for her students, many of whom live in poverty.
"Is it just putting a bandaid on something that is unfixable, or is unfair?" she ponders. But de-escalating the psychological toll that climate change can have on people is crucial to giving them back the energy to deal with the problem itself, not just their reaction to the problem. Clayton believes that engaging in climate activism can provide solace for the people who do have that energy.
"This is a social issue, and there's obviously lots and lots of climate activism," she says. "You might not be comfortable being politically active, but I think getting involved in some way, and addressing the issue, would help people feel much more empowered, and would help with the experience of climate anxiety."
"Remember that nature is not just a source of anxiety, it's also a source of replenishment and restoration."
As far as what shape this personal involvement takes, an increasingly vocal movement of people is calling for a refocus. They say the onus of reversing, or at least stymying, the situation should fall on the big businesses and governments that have been too slow to act, not on individual consumer actions, like buying sustainably made clothes, divesting from the meat and dairy industry, or driving an electric car.
But outside of formal therapy and even activism, however that looks, Clayton has another suggestion for combating climate anxiety, and it's one that is surprising in its simplicity: Go outside, and take stock of that which boldly continues to exist.
"People who are anxious about climate change, it's partly about the survival of the species, but it's partly about the sense that, 'Something I care about is being destroyed,'" she says. "Remember that nature is not just a source of anxiety, it's also a source of replenishment and restoration."
The white two-seater car that rolls down the street in the Sorrento Valley of San Diego looks like a futuristic batmobile, with its long aerodynamic tail and curved underbelly. Called 'Sol' (Spanish for "sun"), it runs solely on solar and could be the future of green cars. Its maker, the California startup Aptera, has announced the production of Sol, the world's first mass-produced solar vehicle, by the end of this year. Aptera co-founder Chris Anthony points to the sky as he says, "On this sunny California day, there is ample fuel. You never need to charge the car."
If you live in a sunny state like California or Florida, you might never need to plug in the streamlined Sol because the solar panels recharge while driving and parked. Its 60-mile range is more than the average commuter needs. For cloudy weather, battery packs can be recharged electronically for a range of up to 1,000 miles. The ultra-aerodynamic shape made of lightweight materials such as carbon, Kevlar, and hemp makes the Sol four times more energy-efficient than a Tesla, according to Aptera. "The material is seven times stronger than steel and even survives hail or an angry ex-girlfriend," Anthony promises.
Co-founder Steve Fambro opens the Sol's white doors that fly upwards like wings and I get inside for a test drive. Two dozen square solar panels, each the size of a large square coaster, on the roof, front, and tail power the car. The white interior is spartan; monitors have replaced mirrors and the dashboard. An engineer sits in the driver's seat, hits the pedal, and the low-drag two-seater zooms from 0 to 60 in 3.5 seconds.
It feels like sitting in a race car because the two-seater is so low to the ground but the car is built to go no faster than 100 or 110 mph. The finished car will weigh less than 1,800 pounds, about half of the smallest Tesla. The average car, by comparison, weighs more than double that. "We've built it primarily for energy efficiency," Steve Fambro says, explaining why the Sol has only three wheels. It's technically an "auto-cycle," a hybrid between a motorcycle and a car, but Aptera's designers are also working to design a four-seater.
There has never been a lack of grand visions for the future of the automobile, but until these solar cars actually hit the streets, nobody knows how the promises will hold up.
Transportation is currently the biggest source of greenhouse gases. Developing an efficient solar car that does not burden the grid has been the dream of innovators for decades. Every other year, dozens of innovators race their self-built solar cars 2,000 miles through the Australian desert.
More effective solar panels are finally making the dream mass-compatible, but just like other innovative car ideas, Aptera's vision has been plagued with money problems. Anthony and Fambro were part of the original crew that founded Aptera in 2006 and worked on the first prototype around the same time Tesla built its first roadster, but Aptera went bankrupt in 2011. Anthony and Fambro left a year before the bankruptcy and went on to start other companies. Among other projects, Fambro developed the first USDA organic vertical farm in the United Arab Emirates, and Anthony built a lithium battery company, before the two decided to buy Aptera back. Without a billionaire such as Elon Musk bankrolling the risky process of establishing a whole new car production system from scratch, the huge production costs are almost insurmountable.
But Aptera's founders believe they have found solutions for the entire production process as well as the car design. Most parts of the Sol's body can be made by 3D printers and assembled like a Lego kit. If this makes you think of a toy car, Anthony assures potential buyers that the car aced stress tests and claims it's safer than any vehicle on the market, "because the interior is shaped like an egg and if there is an impact, the pressure gets distributed equally." However, Aptera has yet to release crash test safety data so outside experts cannot evaluate their claims.
Instead of building a huge production facility, Anthony and Fambro envision "micro-factories," each less than 10,000 square feet, where a small crew can assemble cars on demand wherever the orders are highest, be it in California, Canada, or China.
If a part of the Sol breaks, Aptera promises to send replacement parts to any corner of the world within 24 hours, with instructions. So a mechanic in a rural corner in Arkansas or China who never worked on a solar car before simply needs to download the instructions and replace the broken part. At least that's the idea. "The material does not rust nor fatigue," Fambro promises. "You can pass the car onto your grandchildren. When more efficient solar panels hit the market, we simply replace them."
More than 11,000 potential buyers have already signed up; the cheapest model costs around $26,000 USD and Aptera expects the first cars to ship by the end of the year.
Two other solar carmakers are vying for the pole position in the race to be the first to market: The German startup Sono has also announced it will also produce its first solar car by the end of this year. The price tag for the basic model is also around $26,000, but its concept is very different. From the outside, the Sion looks like a conservative minivan for a family; only a closer look reveals that the dark exterior is made of solar panels. Sono, too, nearly went bankrupt a few years ago and was saved through a crowdfunding campaign by enthusiastic fans.
Meanwhile, Norwegian company Lightyear wants to produce a sleek solar-powered luxury sedan by the end of the year, but its price of around $180,000 makes it unaffordable for most buyers.
There has never been a lack of grand visions for the future of the automobile, but until these solar cars actually hit the streets, nobody knows how the promises will hold up. How often will the cars need to be repaired? What happens when snow and ice cover the solar panels? Also, you can't park the car in a garage if you need the sun to charge it.
Critics, including students at the Solar Car team at the University of Michigan, say that mounting solar panels on a moving vehicle will never yield the most efficient results compared to static panels. Also, they are quick to point out that no company has managed to overcome the production hurdles yet. Others in the field also wonder how well the solar panels will actually work.
"It's important to realize that the solar mileage claims by these companies are likely the theoretical best case scenario but in the real world, solar range will be significantly less when you factor in shading, parking in garages, and geographies with lower solar irradiance," says Evan Stumpges, the team coordinator for the American Solar Challenge, a competition in which enthusiasts build and race solar-powered cars. "The encouraging thing is that I have seen videos of real working prototypes for each of these vehicles which is a key accomplishment. That said, I believe the biggest hurdle these companies have yet to face is successfully ramping up to volume production and understanding what their profitability point will be for selling the vehicles once production has stabilized."
Professor Daniel M. Kammen, the founding director of the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley, and one of the world's foremost experts on renewable energy, believes that the technical challenges have been solved, and that solar cars have real advantages over electric vehicles.
"This is the right time to be bullish. Cutting out the charging is a natural solution for long rides," he says. "These vehicles are essentially solar panels and batteries on wheels. These are now record low-cost and can be built from sustainable materials." Apart from Aptera's no-charge technology, he appreciates the move toward no-conflict materials. "Not only is the time ripe but the youth movement is pushing toward conflict-free material and reducing resource waste....A low-cost solar fleet could be really interesting in relieving burden on the grid, or you could easily imagine a city buying a bunch of them and connecting them with mass transit." While he has followed all three new solar companies with interest, he has already ordered an Aptera car for himself, "because it's American and it looks the most different."
After taking a spin in the Sol, it is startling to switch back into a regular four-seater. Rolling out of Aptera's parking lot onto the freeway next to all the oversized gas guzzlers that need to stop every couple of hundreds of miles to fill up, one can't help but think: We've just taken a trip into the future.
Last summer, when fast and cheap Covid tests were in high demand and governments were struggling to manufacture and distribute them, a group of independent scientists working together had a bit of a breakthrough.
Working on the Just One Giant Lab platform, an online community that serves as a kind of clearing house for open science researchers to find each other and work together, they managed to create a simple, one-hour Covid test that anyone could take at home with just a cup of hot water. The group tested it across a network of home and professional laboratories before being listed as a semi-finalist team for the XPrize, a competition that rewards innovative solutions-based projects. Then, the group hit a wall: they couldn't commercialize the test.
They wanted to keep their project open source, making it accessible to people around the world, so they decided to forgo traditional means of intellectual property protection and didn't seek patents. (They couldn't afford lawyers anyway). And, as a loose-knit group that was not supported by a traditional scientific institution, working in community labs and homes around the world, they had no access to resources or financial support for manufacturing or distributing their test at scale.
But without ethical and regulatory approval for clinical testing, manufacture, and distribution, they were legally unable to create field tests for real people, leaving their inexpensive, $16-per-test, innovative product languishing behind, while other, more expensive over-the-counter tests made their way onto the market.
Who Are These Radical Scientists?
Independent, decentralized biomedical research has come of age. Also sometimes called DIYbio, biohacking, or community biology, depending on whom you ask, open research is today a global movement with thousands of members, from scientists with advanced degrees to middle-grade students. Their motivations and interests vary across a wide spectrum, but transparency and accessibility are key to the ethos of the movement. Teams are agile, focused on shoestring-budget R&D, and aim to disrupt business as usual in the ivory towers of the scientific establishment.
Ethics oversight is critical to ensuring that research is conducted responsibly, even by biohackers.
Initiatives developed within the community, such as Open Insulin, which hopes to engineer processes for affordable, small-batch insulin production, "Slybera," a provocative attempt to reverse engineer a $1 million dollar gene therapy, and the hundreds of projects posted on the collaboration platform Just One Giant Lab during the pandemic, all have one thing in common: to pursue testing in humans, they need an ethics oversight mechanism.
These groups, most of which operate collaboratively in community labs, homes, and online, recognize that some sort of oversight or guidance is useful—and that it's the right thing to do.
But also, and perhaps more immediately, they need it because federal rules require ethics oversight of any biomedical research that's headed in the direction of the consumer market. In addition, some individuals engaged in this work do want to publish their research in traditional scientific journals, which—you guessed it—also require that research has undergone an ethics evaluation. Ethics oversight is critical to ensuring that research is conducted responsibly, even by biohackers.
Bridging the Ethics Gap
The problem is that traditional oversight mechanisms, such as institutional review boards at government or academic research institutions, as well as the private boards utilized by pharmaceutical companies, are not accessible to most independent researchers. Traditional review boards are either closed to the public, or charge fees that are out of reach for many citizen science initiatives. This has created an "ethics gap" in nontraditional scientific research.
Biohackers are seen in some ways as the direct descendents of "white hat" computer hackers, or those focused on calling out security holes and contributing solutions to technical problems within self-regulating communities. In the case of health and biotechnology, those problems include both the absence of treatments and the availability of only expensive treatments for certain conditions. As the DIYbio community grows, there needs to be a way to provide assurance that, when the work is successful, the public is able to benefit from it eventually. The team that developed the one-hour Covid test found a potential commercial partner and so might well overcome the oversight hurdle, but it's been 14 months since they developed the test--and counting.
In short, without some kind of oversight mechanism for the work of independent biomedical researchers, the solutions they innovate will never have the opportunity to reach consumers.
In a new paper in the journal Citizen Science: Theory & Practice, we consider the issue of the ethics gap and ask whether ethics oversight is something nontraditional researchers want, and if so, what forms it might take. Given that individuals within these communities sometimes vehemently disagree with each other, is consensus on these questions even possible?
We learned that there is no "one size fits all" solution for ethics oversight of nontraditional research. Rather, the appropriateness of any oversight model will depend on each initiative's objectives, needs, risks, and constraints.
We also learned that nontraditional researchers are generally willing (and in some cases eager) to engage with traditional scientific, legal, and bioethics experts on ethics, safety, and related questions.
We suggest that these experts make themselves available to help nontraditional researchers build infrastructure for ethics self-governance and identify when it might be necessary to seek outside assistance.
Independent biomedical research has promise, but like any emerging science, it poses novel ethical questions and challenges. Existing research ethics and oversight frameworks may not be well-suited to answer them in every context, so we need to think outside the box about what we can create for the future. That process should begin by talking to independent biomedical researchers about their activities, priorities, and concerns with an eye to understanding how best to support them.
Christi Guerrini, JD, MPH studies biomedical citizen science and is an Associate Professor at Baylor College of Medicine. Alex Pearlman, MA, is a science journalist and bioethicist who writes about emerging issues in biotechnology. They have recently launched outlawbio.org, a place for discussion about nontraditional research.