Climate fear and anxiety on MDI inspired a movement poised to grow across Maine
It's a rainy evening in early December, and a small group of Mount Desert Island residents are gathered around a table in the basement of the library in Bar Harbor. A few more are watching online.
Dennis Kiley, a therapist and the founder of the Eco Psychology Initiative, is leading a discussion on climate change and mental health.
"Notice how on really subtle levels you might respond when I'm just going to say some words," he says. "Climate change across the globe is already causing geopolitical instability, starvation, mass migrations, death..."
This story is part of our series "Climate Driven: A deep dive into Maine's response, one county at a time."
It's the final meeting of a six-week workshop offered by A Climate to Thrive, a nonprofit organization that wants to achieve energy independence on MDI within the next eight years.
The participants are members of the first group of climate ambassadors on Mount Desert Island. And they begin to share that the verbal image depicted by Kiley makes them feel fear, disappointment and anger. Some say they begin to tune out the message.
More than three-quarters of Americans say they're concerned about climate change, according to the American Psychological Association. And a growing number, 25%, report feeling alarmed.
These feelings are most acutely felt during the immediate aftermath of a specific climate-related event, such as a hurricane or a wildfire. But the APA says changes in the local environment can also cause stress, disorientation, exhaustion and feelings of powerlessness.
Those same feelings are what prompted a few MDI residents to launch A Climate to Thrive seven years ago, said executive director and founder Johannah Blackman.
"We weren't seeing a lot of leadership at the national or international level," she said. "And we didn't want to wait anymore. We wanted build a model of what was possible."
That model, Blackman said, is built on the idea that allowing people to talk about their worries will inspire them to seek change where they live. Focusing on solutions can serve as a remedy to feelings of climate grief.
"Negative emotions only breed short-term action," said Kiley, who is also a founding member of ACTT and Blackman's husband. "But positive emotions keep people sustaining involvement, and they keep them engaged, and they keep them enjoying the process."
The ambassadors program is designed to expand the conversation, provide education about the basics of climate science and local initiatives and then teach ways to communicate with others about the problem and the solutions.
The 20 participants range from retirees to students from the College of the Atlantic.
The only requirement? A concern about the planet, and an interest in using their skills to continue the conversation in their own their communities.
It hasn't always been easy.
For climate ambassador Liz Morrison, she struggles to connect her concerns about the changing planet to her family members back in Tennessee.
"I don't want to say 'convince,' but to get people to see that it's not just political, I don't know how to do that," she said. "And it's something that plagues my mind every single day and every time I come back home to Tennessee."
Conversations about climate change shouldn't be confrontational, said Naomi Albert of A Climate to Thrive. Avoid using too many statistics or doomsday scenarios, she added. And since a majority of American are concerned about climate change, she urged the ambassadors to focus on those need who to grasp the urgency of the problem.
According to new data from Yale University's Program on Climate Change Communication, 72% of Americans believe global warming will have a great or moderate impact on future generations. But fewer Americans, 47%, believe it will harm them personally.
"We really encourage folks to connect with the values of the people that they're talking about, and really help those that they're communicating with understand that climate change is impacting the things that they value, the things that are their community," Albert said.
The ambassadors are also discussing how they can use their own skills to get involved in climate solutions.
"We really want to be encouraging people to be thinking circles beyond themselves," Albert said. "How they can impact the organizations they're part of, moving up to the town that they're in, and even looking toward state and national?"
As a start, climate ambassador Elly Preston said she's warming up to the idea of hosting a small gathering with friends to share what she's learned.
"It's such a huge issue, so it's easy to say there's nothing I can do," she said. "And I'll just wait until they figure it out. But I do feel like that there are things that I can do."
For Preston, that means using her organizational skills to help her town of Southwest Harbor get more involved in climate planning.
A new cohort of climate ambassadors will launch in March. This time, A Climate to Thrive says anyone in Maine can apply.