Climate Therapy: Meditations on a Changing World

Dec 11, 2014

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As the planet gets warmer, Virginia forests will die.  Our coastal cities will see massive flooding, and our weather will be like that of Louisiana or Alabama. 

We could make changes to head off catastrophe, but the state continues to burn fossil fuels while offering no incentives for a transition to solar and wind power. 

That's according to Stephen Nash, who has spent years writing about climate change, and his latest book - Virginia Climate Fever, which forecasts terrible troubles for the Commonwealth if people don’t stop pumping carbon into the atmosphere.  He supposes we are not embracing change because we’ve never faced this problem before.

“I think this is a new situation for humankind.  Beyond that, politically it’s not a happy or a comfortable thing to look at.”

But at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, Senior Scientist  Jeffrey Kiehl offers another explanation.  He’d been giving speeches on climate change for decades.

“I realized at some point that going in and giving a 50-minute presentation on the facts of climate change, asking for questions and walking out, that I was leaving my audience in an extremely emotionally distraught state.”

So he decided to talk less and leave time for people to say how they were feeling.

“There was dead silence in the room, and then one woman raised her hand and said, ‘I’m feeling completely hopeless.  This problem sounds so overwhelming, it’s so massive.  What can I as an individual do to solve this problem.”

Others expressed  anger - or simply stopped listening after the first few minutes of Kiehl’s talk.

Jeffrey Kiehl, National Center for Atmospheric Research

“You go the library and you pull a book on trauma off the shelf, and you look at the classical signatures of trauma, they’re all there - helplessness, hopelessness, spacing out, a feeling of anger, denial - people would sit there and say I just can’t believe this.”

And over time he met people who got so anxious about the topic that they insisted Kiehl, who holds a PhD in atmospheric science, was wrong.

“There are people who are very anxious around change, and if you imply that there’s going to be a disruption to that, their anxiety is really high.  In fact they’ve done FMRI scans of the brain to show that the amygdala, which is the fight or flight part of the brain - I becomes highly active when presented with this sort of information.”

Kiehl  concluded we’ll need therapy to get through this.  He went back to school and got another PhD - this one in clinical psychology, so he could help the public talk about climate change.

“That’s what you do with trauma. You don’t certainly bury it.  You admit that something is disturbing you. Y’know it’s not strange to be disturbed by this issue, and the more you admit that, the more you’re willing to talk about not only how you feel about what’s happening, but then - what can we do about it.”

When he gives speeches now, he leaves time for positive thinking, talks about how some countries in Europe are making the transition to wind and solar power, and how some states in this country are moving forward.

“I talk about California - as an example of what they’ve done in just 20 years in terms of halving their emissions of carbon.  You know, it’s a problem with solutions.”

Kiehl will offer more hope in his new book - expected out next year.  It’s called Meditations on a Changing World.