By Katherine Rapin for Nexus Media News.
Broadcast version by Suzanne Potter for Commonwealth News Service reporting for the Solutions Journalism Network-Public News Service Collaboration
In 2020, artist Nicole Cooper was conducting research for a painting series when she stumbled upon a NASA chart showing temperature rise throughout history. “I had this realization of, ‘Look at how fast temperatures are rising – and what are we going to do about it?” she said.
Cooper experienced what she described as an existential crisis, feeling terrified of what would happen in her lifetime and worried that it may already be too late to act.
“I needed to be able to talk,” she said, “and express myself about the emotional reaction I was having.”
Climate change wasn’t something she felt she could discuss deeply with the people in her life, as is the case for most Americans. Though most people acknowledge climate change is real, and about 30% say they are “very worried” about it, just 37% say they discuss the issue occasionally or often, according to a 2022 survey from Yale University.
But talking about climate change is important. Researchers have found it can cause greater acceptance of climate science and, among those who already accept the science, inspire action. That, in turn, has been shown to decrease climate anxiety.
Like so many Americans, Cooper felt scared, stressed – and largely alone. “I was reading a lot of articles, listening to podcasts, but I had no real dialogue about it,” she said. Then she heard about the All We Can Save Circles, an initiative created by Katharine Wilkinson, who co-edited an anthology book of the same name. Launched when the book was published in 2020, the Circle is a decentralized, 10-course book club aimed at helping readers develop communities around climate solutions.
Cooper realized she could create a space for the conversations she wanted to have. Using her newsletter, word of mouth and social media, Cooper recruited a group of nine people – some climate activists, others, like her, newer to the conversation – to meet virtually. Over the next six months, they discussed ways they were experiencing the climate crisis and created a shared climate resource list, including ways they could take action in their own communities.
“Coming together with people who had all kinds of emotions and to see them still [taking] climate action – daily, weekly or monthly – that was really inspiring,” Cooper said.
Cooper is part of a growing movement of Americans who are seeking out solace – and power in numbers – in climate conversation groups. More than 3,000 people have formed All We Can Save Circles, according to the All We Can Save Project. The Good Grief Network, a nonprofit peer support network modeled on 12-step addiction programs, has more than 50 climate support groups nationwide. Climate Awakening, founded by climate psychologist Margaret Klein Salamon, convenes small group conversations online that anyone can join for free.
These are all aimed at reversing what researchers describe as the “spiral of silence” around climate change.
“We know that humans avoid uncomfortable emotions,” said Sarah Schwartz, associate professor of psychology at Suffolk University who researches climate anxiety. She explained that climate change is stressful in ways direct (not being able to breathe the air in your city, for example) and indirect (like constant worry about an uncertain future).
“But when we talk about grief processing [or] trauma – we need to turn towards rather than away from these hard emotions,” she added.
Schwartz co-authored a 2022 study that found that collective climate action may mitigate climate distress. But, she said, “If you just jump into action and don’t make any space for conversations, support and sitting with the uncomfortable emotions – that’s a recipe for burnout.”
Conversations, support and collective action all require building community, which is key in addressing challenges that seem insurmountable, Schwartz said. “The role of relationships and social support is huge in the difference between ‘we can do something’ and ‘let’s all just hunker down and isolate in our own anxiety and paralysis,'” she said.
According to an internal 2023 survey conducted by the All We Can Save Project, 89% of Circle participants reported feeling an increased sense of community and 90% said they took climate action, such as switching to climate-focused careers, after joining a conversation group.
For Inemesit Williams, former co-leader of the social justice working group at Climate Action Network for International Educators (CANIE), being part of a Circle inspired her to advocate for public transit funding and spread awareness about local bus routes. “I’ve never owned a car – I’ve always taken public transit, ridden my bicycle, walked, carpooled,” she said. “So that’s something I’m really passionate about: transit equity.”
Williams, who identifies as “a queer, Black American descendant of chattel slavery,” said she was the only participant in her Circle who identifies as Black. It’s a problem, she said, that is reflective of the broader lack of diversity among leadership at environmental organizations.
Williams was familiar with most of the members in her Circle and felt comfortable talking about the ways the climate crisis disproportionately impacts communities of color. “I already had a feeling of safety with this group,” she said, but added that her experience might be an exception. “You can’t really engage in that kind of space if you don’t feel like what you have to say is going to be welcome.”
Creating that safe space is why psychotherapist Taryn Crosby, who is also Black, co-organized We Outside, a climate conversation specifically for Black women and non-binary people.
“We want to create a space where our experiences are prioritized,” she said, adding that generations of trauma in nature due to slavery and lynchings, segregated state and national parks and economic oppression have pushed and excluded many Black Americans from the outdoors.
She said she hopes We Outside helps attendees understand and value their own connections to nature, and prepares them to take part in broader conversations and influence greater climate action.
“Because we haven’t felt necessarily welcomed or invited into other climate conversations, we kind of need this to build that muscle,” she said. “And that can equip us to have these conversations before mixed company.”
Leaders from the All We Can Save Project and Good Grief Network, two of the largest climate conversation networks, acknowledged that the majority of participants are white and said they were currently taking steps – including partnering with Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC)-led organizations and aiming to train more BIPOC facilitators – to diversify their ranks.
“As we think about plans for addressing diversity and inclusion in Circles – across the Project and climate movement broadly – we think partnerships, intentional outreach and relationship-building are vital,” said Amy Curtis, learning and community lead of the All We Can Save Project.
Crosby said she hopes initiatives like We Outside will be a starting point for more inclusive conversations about climate change. The goal, she said, is to hold space “where people can be open and curious about the way that they are affected by their environment and nature, and [also] how they affect their environment and nature-ultimately encouraging them to move that into action.”