Among other impacts, climate change will affect our collective psyche, scientists say

Climate change is sinking into our psyche, one way or the other, but few of us – not even climate scientists – are trained to deal with the resulting feelings of grief and hopelessness, a climate researcher told scientists and advocates Thursday.

Susanne Moser, who lectures on climate change adaptation, science and policy interactions at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and Antioch University of New England, was the keynote speaker at the annual Maine Sustainability & Water Conference in Augusta.

“We’re from New England, right, so what do we do? We put up a stiff upper lip and think well that’s not my issue,” Moser said. “Well let’s just acknowledge it’s been a tough year in Maine. Many of you have lived through the extreme storm events of last year.”

About a third of the luncheon crowd that gathered to hear Moser speak at the Augusta Civic Center raised their hand when she asked who had been directly impacted by the December and January storms. She considers these people trauma victims, even though we don’t think of them that way.

“None of us are trained on how to deal with that,” Moser said. “But there are things that we can do.”

Improving individual and community resiliency is paramount to avoid professional burnout among the climate scientists, nonprofit advocates, government and community officials, and first responders who must help Maine chart a safe path into a precarious future, Moser said.

Moser likened the need for climate scientists to manage their anxiety amid a spate of bad news – such as the record-setting world temperatures or federal disaster declarations in Maine last year – to the need for an airline traveler to put on their own oxygen mask before trying to help others.

And the others will need it, especially Maine’s young people, Moser said.

Earlier this month, scientists who advise the Maine Climate Council talked about climate change’s impact on Mainers’ mental and physical health, the need to prepare to help those who can’t adapt, and the need to communicate climate information with hope.

“We see increasing evidence for a wide range of adverse mental health impacts from direct exposure to a climate hazard, such as an extreme storm or heat wave, as well as indirectly through climate anxiety,” said Rebecca Lincoln, a toxicologist with the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

Efforts to close Maine’s persistent gap between its mental health needs and services must account for the increasing needs driven by climate change, Lincoln said. Emergency preparedness must include increased mental health services as natural disasters become more frequent.

For some, resiliency will not come easy. Maine state geologist Steve Dickson warned about the impact that a changing sense of place will have on some Mainers, especially those who earn their living from fishing, farming or the forests.

“We need to prepare for the inability of some to adapt – that burden falls more heavily on some than others,” Dickson said. “We need to work on the loss of cultural heritage, including a sense of place that is so important here in Maine.”

Susie Arnold, the director of the Center for Climate and Community at Island Institute, a nonprofit based in Rockland, said the question she is asked most frequently when she delivers public talks about climate change is if there is anything that gives her hope in the face of looming climate collapse.

As a scientist, Arnold decided to do some digging into hope.

“It turns out that hope is more than a feeling,” said Arnold, co-chair of the Climate Council’s science and technical subcommittee. “Just as we can measure changes in climate variability, scientists can also measure hope … It can be taught, it can be learned, and thankfully it can be restored.”

The key difference between hope and optimism, or wishful thinking, is action, Arnold said. Climate anxiety has been shown to lead to both action and paralysis, research shows. But hope leads to more climate action than anxiety, without the risk of emotional paralysis.

Even though we are scientists, Arnold said, “we must be hopegivers, too.”

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