Last year, during the summer of 2021, I experienced my first severe heat wave on the West Coast. With temperatures reaching up to 120°, I was one of the many Portland residents living without air conditioning in my apartment. I was fortunate enough to have support from my family across the country, who helped me to temporarily camp out in a hotel room so that my dog and I could avoid the dangerous heat.
As we move through another summer of heatwaves and other climate-related environmental disasters, it’s difficult to know how to cope with the physical challenges that arise, as well as the emotions that come up as a result of this new reality. It’s difficult to know what personal actions we can take that make a difference, while also taking care of our health and wellbeing.
Transgender people may face disproportionate impacts of the climate crisis. Individuals in the trans community have a higher likelihood of having a disability (39% of trans people compared to 15% of the general population), or living below the poverty line (29.4% compared to 13.2%).
50-66% of transgender people experience sexual violence at some point in their lives, and many of those who experience violence are disabled or have a long-term health condition as a result. These overlapping realities put some trans individuals at higher risk when it comes to climate-related weather events. At the same time, the messages we receive about taking climate action can feel at odds with what we need to do to take care of ourselves.
In this blog post, we will explore some of the ways that transgender people with overlapping marginalized identities are impacted by climate change, and discuss strategies for meeting our needs during a time of upheaval and uncertainty.
How are trans people impacted by climate change?
Individuals in the trans community often have multiple, overlapping identities that may create additional risk factors when facing climate-related disasters. Higher numbers of trans individuals living with disabilities may make it difficult to adapt to the challenges of climate change, and many of the solutions available were not created with accessibility in mind.
Power outages may impact people who rely on electric devices like power wheelchairs, CPAP machines for sleep apnea, refrigeration for insulin, or oxygen machines. Cooling center locations that open during heat waves may not be accessible. In addition, efforts to combat climate change by banning single-use plastics (for example, plastic straws) negatively affect disabled people who need these tools. These impacts may not only be inconvenient, but could be dangerous or even life-threatening for people living with disabilities.
“The term ‘eco-ableism’ is now being used to describe this sort of discrimination. It refers to the failure of decision-makers and activists to consider that some environmental actions make life more difficult [or unsafe] for disabled people – such as removing disabled parking bays to make way for cycle lanes.”
Some medications, such as antipsychotic medications, can have side-effects that cause heat intolerance, which is especially dangerous during heat waves. Atypical antipsychotic medications are often used to treat post traumatic stress disorder, as well as anxiety and depression that stem from abuse and violence. Mental health issues can impact people’s social lives and connections, which would provide physical safety and emotional support.
There are also significant overlaps in trans individuals, people with disabilities, and low-income individuals. Lacking financial stability and access to resources can impact how a person copes during a climate event.
Lower-income people may not have access to air conditioning, transportation during climate disasters, or a place to stay away from home. Research shows that people in low-income communities are most directly impacted by climate change.
These disproportionate effects also intersect with race. A 2021 study from the EPA found that “racial and ethnic minority communities are particularly vulnerable to the greatest impacts of climate change.”
50-66% percent of trans community members experience sexual violence at some point in their life. Studies show that climate-related natural disasters are linked to increased sexual and domestic violence in their aftermaths. When people are displaced from their homes, trans people may be denied access to housing shelters. In these environments, gender minorities may experience increased risk of sexual violence.
These increased rates of violence are likely due to a combination of factors, like economic shock, social instability, enabling environments, and stress. For trans survivors, these risks may make it unsafe to access shelters and other resources following natural disasters, and can also exacerbate previous trauma, particularly for survivors with post-traumatic stress.
While not all trans people may be impacted by all of these factors, those in our communities with overlapping marginalized identities are more likely to feel the effects of climate-related disasters.
What are some strategies for coping with climate dread?
Recent studies have found that “climate dread” or “eco-anxiety” have become very prevalent, with people feeling more anxiety, dread, and grief about climate change. For trans survivors, who may already be feeling increased stress about anti-trans legislation and attitudes along with trauma related to previous victimization, this is another added layer that can be difficult to cope with.
First, it’s important to know that the way you feel about climate change is valid. “Anxiety is a rational response to the growing risks of climate change.”
One support to lean on during this time is connection with others. Spending time with friends, family, and community, can help to build resilience. For some ideas about finding support and connection with others, check out this webinar on creating meaningful relationships. Connecting with nature is also a helpful way to reduce stress and symptoms of depression. One way to do this is forest bathing.
Some people may find other strategies helpful for reducing stress, such as doing something physically active or practicing meditation. Headspace offers guided meditations intended to reduce climate-related stress. There are also many free guided meditations on YouTube.
Seeking mental health support from a “climate-aware” therapist or other mental health provider can also be beneficial. While therapy might not work for everyone (or be affordable for every person), talking with a mental health professional can help with feelings of hopelessness, loneliness, anxiety, and dread. This website maintains a directory of therapists who specifically work with clients on climate-related anxiety.
A growing number of trans and queer people are pursuing training as certified peer specialists, which is a great option for low or no cost support from someone who shares your experiences.
Research also shows that although individuals can’t “fix” the climate crisis on their own, taking small actions to reduce your carbon footprint can be a “meaningful and positive way forward.” One resource is the Soap Box Project, a newsletter offering “bite-sized action plans for climate justice.”
The University of California at Davis offers 18 simple things you can do about climate change. Although it would be difficult for one person to do all of these things, choosing a couple of action items that are easy for you to achieve can make a difference!
Some of these potential action items include:
- Bringing your own reusable water bottle or mug instead of using disposable plastics
- Turning off the lights when you leave the room
- Walking or biking somewhere that you would usually drive to
- Spending time in nature
- Planting something! (for example, using these seed balls to plant wildflowers that attract pollinators)
- Choosing slower shipping options when online shopping
- Unplugging appliances like toasters and computers when they’re not in use
- Washing clothes in cold water, which reduces the energy needed to heat the water
- Helping a neighbor to build community resilience
- Shopping for clothes second-hand, and donating old clothes to projects that help trans youth access gender-affirming clothes (like this one!)
It’s important to remember that while individual actions contribute to a greener world, it’s especially important for people who are disproportionately impacted by climate change to take care of physical, emotional, and mental health needs. This means that it’s not always possible to take major steps toward climate action. Climate change can feel like an insurmountable challenge, and it’s often difficult to see how our individual actions make a difference. Making small changes to our everyday habits, along with connecting with others, spending time in nature, and seeking mental health support, can help to ease climate dread and anxiety.