Climate Anxiety Counseling: Climate Change Science in an Age of Misinformation

Weather: Warm and sunny, but I was inside, in a warm airless fluorescent-lit room.

Number of people: 4 stoppers, probably 9 or 10 walkbys

Number of hecklers: 1, kind of? Does “Of course you’re a trained professional…You get what you pay for” count?

Pages of notes: 10

Conversations between people previously unknown to one another: 1

People who commented on the Peanuts reference: 1

Picture-takers with permission: 4

Money raised for Environmental Justice League of RI: $1.05



This was a conference, with speakers, so most of the time I was set up people were sitting and listening to someone else. People could only really talk to me in between things. I took notes on the speeches, but I’m not going to post any of them here. I also noticed that the conference setup seems to bring out a lot of self-justification and defensiveness in people, including me.

I hate doing the booth indoors. It’s too echoey and I feel cut off from the outside air and light.

Theme of the day: the idea of “doing what I can,” which is a very tricky one for me; worrying about the world that one’s kids or grandkids will have to live in. Relatedly, I’m very out of practice at probing people’s assumptions without putting them on the defensive.

Spotted: a URI student retwisting her twist-out while listening to a speaker. (This was, however, quite a white crowd generally.)


Some conversations:


I’m anxious about Gina Raimondo and Sheldon Whitehouse not speaking out against the proposed power plant in Burrillville . Escaped methane doesn’t know about borders … I’m upset. It’s discouraging, and there’s some hypocrisy–“We’re doing something about the environment,” but they’re supporting this huge plant that encourages fracking. Methane is 100 times more deadly than the emissions from coal.

Why do you think they’re supporting it, knowing that?

It’s political, it’s a “jobs program.” I’m a union person, but I’m not in favor of a jobs program that will ultimately be unemploying a lot of people because of loss of land, rising tides and so forth. … I’ve been at demonstrations, my friends have been arrested–Lisa was arrested a couple of days ago  … We’re all in this together. The biggest motivating factor is my grandkids–or their children, I really, really worry. It’s frightening.

Have you noticed the climate changing in your own lifetime?

 Oh yeah. When it rains, it really rains. When those storms come, with the extraordinary high tides, I’ve never seem that kind of flooding. I’m not so much here [at the conference] to educate myself but to be in solidarity–I mean, there’s always something to learn–but I’m here to bring up the plant. I hope that they would put pressure on the political people on the stage today. The representatives from Burrillville came out against it because of pressure from the organizations and the people in that town–they were just inundated by the people. …You can see how difficult it is for politicians to be [in favor of] something that’s perceived to be a job loss. It takes courage and if people don’t have that, you have to apply pressure.


I just think it’s great that someone’s keeping in mind that the trauma that’s gonna come with the change in weather is gonna need some kind of response

What are some of the things you expect will come along with that trauma?

Trauma rewires the brains of young children–if we don’t set them up adequately, it affects them for their entire lifetime. That’s for children. And for everybody else, stress and anxiety makes mental and physical health problems worse.

So this more chaotic, more uncertain time is coming–how can we take care of each other in this time?

We need better infrastructure for the health care system writ large. We need to build enough sense of community so that we do continue to care for each other, so that people won’t be left helpless and alone [in the face of] coastal flooding, fires… I think as academics we get somewhat siloed. We know a lot about how to help people change their behavior, but without policies that support climate [action]…

Let’s say someone came to you, as a psychologist, and said, “I’m feeling this anxiety about the future, how do I deal with it?” What would you tell them?

I’d probably try to find out if there’s anything going on personally that’s feeding it.

But this is personal, it’s affecting people personally.

But it’s not acute, it’s not happening right now. When people are freaking out about it they’re not being effective, they’re not separating what can be done from what is a fear–separating the fear and the reality.


[This person came up while another person was telling me they work for the Rhode Island Sea Grant; they stood by while this person was talking to me.]

I have four kids, between 18 and 26, and I worry about the kind of world they’re going to have. For the first time it’s made me almost wish I hadn’t brought kids into the world. I go back and forth between thinking there’s a reason to be hopeful and thinking there’s reasons to not be optimistic. I keep telling them, Your generation has to figure this out, because mine really messed it up.

People often talk about it like that, but you know, you’re still here and you’re going to be around for a while.

But I’m almost 55, and I feel like the politicians who are now in office who are around my age are not being responsible, and it’s going to take the next generation to come in and make change … These days it’s just really scary. On the one hand I think it’ll be okay, everything’ll work out, but then you see what some of these people post on Facebook. I can walk on the beach and it seems so far away–

[The listening person]: There’s a lot of things happening on the beach.

What do your kids say when you say that to them?

They’re like, Thanks a lot … Hopefully they’ll all contribute. I feel like I’m doing what I can to raise good citizens. I don’t want o be super anxious and make them worry–they think I worry too much, but then I wonder if that’s just youth, when you’re not responsible for anyone other than yourself.


Do they feel responsible for each other?


I think they do feel responsibility for each other. [The 18-year-old] wants to make a difference. In your own little corner of the world you can make a difference, or you can actually get involved, you can try to make change. You can be a Senator Whitehouse. I guess it’s maybe a matter of coming to terms with what you’re actually in control of.





Tipping points. Deforestation tipping points. Tipping points of rising seas, tipping points with ice melt.


What scares you about that?


Every species will eventually come to an end, whether it’s when the universe ends or the sun turns into a red giant. The human condition will come to an end, but we’re doing so much to make it happen faster.


What do you do when you feel like that, or think about that?


I keep reading books, I always have an environmental book going. Or I go to lectures or conferences like this. I study it, I study it, I study it. I try to be an example to people, but I do not tell people I know what to do. …I try and avoid conversations [with climate change deniers], but if I have to have them, I say, This is what I think, it’s my point of view, but it’s based on research. I explain the scientific method. I ask them where their information’s coming from. And I have seen people come up to me and ask a question. I pick up books for people–I’ll just give them a copy.



Today’s poem


It’s not acute, it’s not happening right now

it is acute, it’s happening right now

in the here of our woods

in the where of where you were

liable to go for predictive suprise

of news that comes from elsewhere

if you’re actually acute

if you’re here it’s not news

where you’ve lived for years

for thousands of years

in your own self-interest

of painful action

if you’re already alive

if you’re asking for hurt

it’s a demonstration

if all of us are right

to be roared through horribly

before it’s not news


Snap the Shore, See the Future: 9/28-30 and 10/28-29

A chance to see and show the rising tide, from the Rhode Island Sea Grant:

“September and October have the highest predicted tides of this year, with Rhode Island tides running 1.5 times higher than average. Head to the shore on September 28-30 and October 28-29, 2015 and join the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council, URI Coastal Resources Center and Save The Bay to capture this year’s highest tides, often called King Tides, Spring Tides or Moon Tides. These extreme tide levels provide a glimpse of what the state can expect as sea level rise accelerates with climate change, where this could be our daily high tide by mid-century. Participating is easy: simply grab your camera or smart phone and head to the bay, tidal river or ocean during the high tides, install the free MyCoast app (links below) and submit your photos!

If you don’t have access to a smart phone, simply go to and upload your photos on the website.

All times indicated are for Newport (for other locations see below):

Sept 288:20 AM; 1.4 feet above mean high water
Sept 299:11 AM; 1.5 feet above mean high water
Sept 3010:02 AM; 1.5 feet above mean high water
Tide data provided courtesy of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

What if I don’t live in Newport?

Check online for your local high tide times. For example, high tide varies at different locations, referenced to Newport High Tide:

Newport: 0 minutes
Wickford +3 minutes
Providence: +13 minutes
Weekapaug: +41 minutes
Bristol: +13 minutes
Block Island – Old Harbor: -13 minutes

If you are in enclosed tidal body or salt pond, the tides can be an hour or more later than in the open ocean/bay.”

Alternate Histories: 5/14, 6/9


I’m anxious about everything. I guess I’m anxious about the next big storm. We invest in stormwater management issues and infrastructure with the Coastal Resources Management Council, and given the rising sea levels, residents have really built too close to the water. Especially when hurricane season starts, I think about it. We bemoan the fact that Sandy hits and costs us billions of dollars and in terms of infrastructure and human lives. We need a long-term strategy as opposed to avoiding it.

What do you think would shift people, get them to stop avoiding it?

There’d need to be a change in the public sentiment that it only happens once in a blue moon … After the initial incident, people regroup and forget about it. And then that change would need to translate into political will, social will, to find the money to invest in long-term planning. Increased awareness in everybody’s mind, more particularly in people who are most impacted by that … And eventually it would have to become a priority for taxpayers. The type of housing, the money spent–people will say, “You choose to live there, so it’s your problem,” and it is a combination of all those things, the wisdom of choosing to be near the water, near the coast, wanting to live there. We’d need to rethink whatever zoning or regulations that determine that. Getting people to see that, to be that selfless.



The next day, L wrote to the office of people who turned her and her wife’s money into more money by buying and selling invisible things, and to the office of people who did the same for the organization she worked for. She wrote, “I want to offer as many people as I can enough money to move their houses back from the water, or to buy a new house far from the water.” She wrote to the CRMC and the Graduate School of Oceanography at the University of Rhode Island: “Is there any way we could use parts of houses to reinforce and restore wetlands somehow?”

L deleted “somehow” before sending the email. She was visited, as she often was, by a sense of how little she knew, how helpless and exposed she felt when she stepped outside the inherited snail shell of her habits and patterns. L remembered picking up hermit crabs with her cousins far out in the ankle-deep waters of Cape Cod Bay. Were there hermit crabs there now? She thought of acidifying oceans etching the shells of snail larva into fragility, leaving fewer and fewer to grow large enough to house hermit crabs after a certain stage of growth. How long until there were no shells left to let them grow large enough, old enough, to mate and make more?

She thought, can we live without shells? It’s not just a question of learning. We can learn all we want, but our bodies will always be soft.

Six years later, when the next big storm came, it shook to pieces the empty houses there hadn’t been time to move or reshape, and inundated the lower levels of the infant terraced marshlands and the new rocks and channels and baffles where some of the houses had been. “I guess that’s ocean now,” said people settled near their former neighbors in houses and apartments built or rebuilt to shake in the wind, trailers and campers half-buried in the earth to hunker down. They sipped eel soup made from a careful harvest of the elvers nurtured in the marshlands, and ate bread made from flour shipped in on trucks before the storm came. Someone DJed through battery-powered speakers when the lights went out, and a few people danced. L shivered like a dog. She couldn’t love the storm. She couldn’t shrug. Her wife held her hand.

Thirty years later, L slipped on the slick wood of a saltmarsh work dock, hit her head, and died.

Doctor’s note: for another version of this story, see the alternate history from 4/1/15.

Metcalf Institute for Marine & Environmental Reporting: Public Lecture Series

There’s a great and FREE public lecture series this week at URI’s Graduate School of Oceanography. Climate modeling, human impacts on ocean ecology, adaptation for coastal communities, and citizen science!

Here’s the full schedule, location and list of speakers. 

Metcalf Institute for Marine & Environmental Reporting

2015 Annual Public Lecture Series: Scientists and Journalists: Getting the Point Across

Coastal Institute on Narragansett Bay, Auditorium
University of Rhode Island
Graduate School of Oceanography
218 South Ferry Road
Narragansett, RI 02882

Full Disclosure

I went to the Metcalf Institute’s Data Visualization Workshop yesterday, and so did a bunch of other people: it was neat to be there with oceanographers, designers, marine biologists, people from the EPA and the Coastal Resources Management Council, and people like me doing independent projects. I got to see Kathie Florsheim, whose project Living on the Edge and whose conversation at the beginning of Climate Anxiety Counseling helped shape it. Lynsy Smithson-Stanley, who worked on the climate change campaign for the Audubon Society, and sculptor Nathalie Miebach, who makes sculptures out of data, helped me think about how to get information and ideas all the way from the world, through someone’s mind, into someone else’s mind and back out into the world.

But my major takeaway from this workshop is that listening to people, working together, and agreeing on a plan of action–just agreeing! Not even doing it!–is slow.

After some panels and talks and things, people formed groups to do an exercise:

1) Look at this information about climate change in Narragansett Bay.

2) Choose an element of it.

3) Decide who you want to understand it that element and what you want them to do in response.

4) Based on all of that, decide how to present the information to them.

Well. These were all people who acknowledge climate change and its effects as present, complex, far-reaching, and frightening; people who are already working to respond to it well, and were there because they want to be doing more. I had to leave after an hour to go teach my class, and my group still hadn’t decided what element of information they wanted to talk about to whom.

In a way, an hour–or two hours, which is how long the workshops were–is nothing, a tiny shard of time in which to get from “this complex thing, intertwined with a bunch of other complex things, is happening” to “here’s what I want you, specific group of people, to know and do about it.” But two hours were what we had.

I, at least, had a lot of trouble finding the sweet spot between “doing it right” and “doing it soon” that’s crucial when time is short. I also know that without listening to what somebody thinks is important, you don’t have a chance of adding anything to their list of important things. That was true within our group of real humans sitting there, as true as it was for the hypothetical humans to whom we would have presented our hypothetical data campaign.

As I move into the next phase of Climate Anxiety Counseling, I’ll build in what Kathie said about evidence being necessary to move beyond narrative, what Lynsy said about deciding what I want the people who talk to me to tell someone elsewhat Nathalie said about how presenting information changes it. I also want to build in what I learned about false starts, dead ends, ways to fail, and the need to listen through frustration in my group’s first hour. Maybe they came up with something amazing after I left. Maybe I was the problem.