This article is part of an ongoing series where experts talk about the link between climate change and mental health.
How can communities become more resilient—socially and ecologically—in the face of climate change? Krista Singleton-Cambage is trying to find out.
Singleton-Cambage, PhD, is the founder and CEO of Sustainability Connections, a consulting firm that focuses on inclusive, sustainable development. She started her career in the Australian government working on international environment issues, ocean governance, law of the sea, climate change and environment industry issues in the Environment Department and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
Singleton-Cambage also worked on the UN’s Millennium Development Goals and Sustainable Development Goals from a perspective of climate resilience. In this interview, she talks about why sustainable planning is of personal and professional interest, how to make climate change planning include those most vulnerable to the changing world and how she finds inspiration.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Thrive Global: The idea of resilience in facing climate change or recovering from natural disasters is something that I’ve come across quite a bit in my research. I’m wondering what that looks like on the ground level.
Krista Singleton-Cambage: I think it looks like many different things. To me, some of the words that come to mind when I look at resilience are strength and flexibility. I’m interested in how the planning components, as we adapt to the impacts of climate change, are helping to build the strengths of an entire community. So how do you help groups of people who are vulnerable in different ways to build strength, and to increase their chances of being able to bounce back, and to thrive again when something happens and they’re responding to climate impacts?
I think it looks like planning. It looks like good government policy. You need national level frameworks that are supportive of on-the-ground capacity building. Capacity, in order to build resilience, needs to occur on multiple fronts. It needs to be in terms of financial management, project management, ecosystem management, but also really community collaboration. Reaching out to members already in a community overall that may geographically be very vulnerable. Reaching out to other members within that community who also have other types of vulnerabilities. There’s a lot of work being done at the moment on including women more in conservation planning in different aspects, and building up women’s leaders groups around the world, and I think we are also starting in the disability community space, generally, to look at how we include different types of needs in planning. Both physical disabilities and people with various mental health concerns and challenges. How do we include them? So really, I think resilience means being inclusive and giving an entire community your best shot at being diversified in your planning across social issues, economic, financial planning issues, and certainly environmental and ecological planning issues.
TG: I would imagine that part of that is short-term response, like how to get people to evacuate if needed, but also long term infrastructure.
KSC: Yes, that’s exactly right. So looking at, for example, how you can use natural systems in a coast or a small island state. How can you use natural systems such as mangroves, wetlands, coral reefs, the natural architecture of a beach—how do you use that as natural infrastructure, which gives protective services to storm surges and sea-level rise, and helps a community to plan and buffer those effects? And I think for some people with mental health challenges, that’s particularly difficult to, at times, plan ahead and to have the flexibility to react quite quickly to situations as they’re changing.
TG: It seems like there’s a many-fold effect of climate change on mental health in the sense that it affects both people who haven’t dealt with mental health challenges before and those with existing issues. Is planning for both those types of mental health concerns a challenge because there’s still so much stigma around discussing mental health?
KSC: My finding so far is that this is quite new. I certainly at the moment don’t have the expertise on where these issues really intersect, because I’m struggling to find planning that follows those lines. And I think it kind of comes back to different structures within public policy settings, so at the national level, and at a sub-national level, different organizations in different parts of a bureaucracy that don’t necessarily speak the same language or focus on the same issues, learning how to come together around inclusive planning for events that will impact an entire community at all levels. Generally speaking, agencies of different governments at different levels don’t often work in a holistic, long-term planning way like that.
So connecting issues around public health, and then more specifically, around mental health with issues like environmental stewardship and natural resource management, those issues aren’t usually put together. Those professionals don’t really speak the same language, and that’s something to me that’s fascinating, and seems to be a huge gap that needs to be filled as we are exponentially really feeling the effects of climate change at all levels of society.
TG: I’m curious about planning for people with mental or physical concerns. What would that look like?
KSC: On different levels organizations like, disaster-relief organizations like the Red Cross, for example, they have the perspective of being on the ground in terms of responding to disasters and evacuations. I think organizations and professionals like me who focus on long-range resilience and planning need to be better at talking to organizations about disaster relief and recovery, and what that looks like.
I think there are really different planning tools needed for looking at what is necessary for people with physical disabilities, and people with mental health challenges, and my sense so far in what I’m finding, is that I think some organizations are doing a better job of being inclusive of those with physical limitations, in terms of sort of logistical evacuation planning processes. For those with mental health issues, my preliminary look into this is that we still have quite a long way to go in just even raising the level of awareness and responding to people’s sensory needs. As to what that would look like, and what those tools might be, I think there are a range of tools that can be used for people in different circumstances, but I think there’s still a long way to go to bring professionals who deal with different members of the disability community together into disaster planning processes so that we can be, over time, less reactive and a little bit more proactive, particularly for communities that are in vulnerable situations.
TG: It’s hard to wrap your head around, at least for me as someone who’s not an expert in this field, how to encourage people to be proactive when so many people don’t even believe that what is happening is linked to climate change.
KSC: I think that it may be fair to say that that’s a very narrow and mostly American phenomenon. I don’t think there are many other places in the world who are struggling to make that link, and I think also that most good, solid policy focuses on the precautionary principle. Let’s plan for what we think we need to do to be pragmatic, and longterm, give everyone the best shot of being able to adapt to what’s coming. But I think that sometimes the discussions that you hear about whether or not this is an actual real effect are an unfortunate minority that sometimes take more of the discussion space than really I think reason would allow.
The jury came in some time ago, and we need to focus on what we do, both in terms of mitigation and in terms of adaptation. It’s very unfortunate when public officials take a view that is distracting, and unfortunately, I think takes away needed resources and a great sense of urgency. But I also think that we shouldn’t let that distract us, because I don’t think that is the dominant factor in good policy making here or elsewhere.
TG: How do we plan for people with existing mental or physical health concerns?
KSC: As I’ve started to look into this across disability, very broadly speaking, I’m finding in my own mind some similarities between conversations from about a decade ago about including people who in some cases were marginalized from decision making—it’s reminding me that here’s where we are in including the disability community. This is in terms of natural resource management, sort of broadly speaking. Approximately 15 percent of the world’s population lives with some form of disability. So a billion people approximately identify with having some form of disability. And another interesting statistic that I wasn’t aware of until I did some recent research, was that at least 20 percent of the poorest people in the world have a disability.
And when you take that into consideration across planning, it’s basically: disasters due to climate change will disproportionately impact that population. Again, that’s very broad. That’s any form of disability, but it’s interesting in terms of again, putting different groups of people together in a planning phase of various projects, who normally don’t come together. Anyway, that’s what interests me looking into the future.
I think folks like me who look at long-range resilience planning and capacity building, it would be wonderful to come together with some mental health experts in the medical community, and in the education community to look at the impacts of some of the very recent events that we have seen, and what the planning was. I mean, my own two children have autism, and a couple of other disabilities, and I couldn’t imagine what that would be like, being in the convention center in Houston, for example. How on earth, you know?
And that’s just through my own family lens, but thinking across the range of issues and challenges, people without access to medication that they normally take, if they had to evacuate quickly. Or people who, as you noted, have some needs going into the situation, and then people who are impacted by that situation, and how do you rebuild after that, and how do you take that into consideration in your resilience planning overall?
TG: Something that I’ve been asking people in this field is how you find hope and inspiration in the work you’re doing.
KSC: I think I’m hopeful in looking at opportunities to make people’s lives better now and in the future. And I think by having processes of planning and resilience building which are more inclusive, you are making people’s lives better right now because you are helping to raise awareness, and you are helping voices to be heard right now in communities. I think that’s incredibly important wherever you live, and whoever you are.
Long term, it gives me hope because I think if we are able to do that, as we get better everywhere at listening to one another—and taking different perspectives, and needs and challenges, and diversity into consideration—then I think we will build a more inclusive society overall, more accepting of difference, more understanding of difference, with more flexibility, and therefore you will be more resilient. You will be more able to adapt to what lies ahead because you are more resilient every day.
And so for me, the inspiration I get is looking in parallel both at the immediacy of how can we help people with disabilities have better lives in their communities, and give them a voice right now today. And how do we help translate that overall through a big global lens of how do we adapt to environmental challenges that we all share, and that we all have a stake in solving?
My inspiration comes from trying in my work to see through both of those lenses at the same time. I think if we look at just one, it can be very difficult. If you just look at what can I do today, it can be hard to see how that links into the future, and if sometimes we’re just looking away into the future it can be very overwhelming. You know, what does this all mean? Where do I fit? What difference am I making? How can I do this? For me, I try to look through both a telescope and reading glasses at the same time. How do we see both, and how do we help build resilience from both perspectives?