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Climate crisis anxiety churns up psychological storm in America

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Kate Schapira, a 40-year-old senior lecturer in the English department at Brown University, mans her "climate anxiety" booth in Providence. Photo by AFP's Lara Henderson.

In the melting Arctic, communities are racing to maintain their way of life. In the rising Pacific, residents are sounding alarm bells. And in Rhode Island, Kate Schapira and her husband are not having a baby.

Fears about climate change are prompting worldwide action, but one knock-on effect in the United States is mounting anxiety about everything from plastics to class-based environmental disparities.

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Schapira, a 40-year-old senior lecturer in the English department at Brown University, is addressing that unease in a number of ways.

The decision not to have children was not just about concern for their future wellbeing amid environmental degradation, she explained, but also about not wanting “my sense of responsibility to the world to shrink down to the size of one person.”

Schapira also says she has likely taken her last flight.

She said she was troubled that people were treating her climate fears “like a personal, individual problem,” she said, and she wanted to “see if that was actually the case.”

So in 2014, Schapira started setting up a “climate anxiety” booth in public spaces, such as farmers’ markets. It’s a bit like Lucy’s psychiatry stall from the beloved comic “Peanuts.”

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“Climate anxiety counseling, 5 cents. The doctor is in,” the booth’s sign reads, welcoming passersby in Providence to talk about their fears.

As it turns out, Schapira was far from alone.

Widespread worry

About six in 10 Americans say they are at least “somewhat worried” about global warming and 23 percent say they are “very worried,” according to a survey conducted by Yale and George Mason universities in March and April.

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Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, said Americans can be broken into six categories based on their reaction to climate change, ranging from alarmed to dismissive.

“The common wisdom is that only upper-middle-class, white, well-educated, latte-sipping liberals care about climate change. Turns out that’s not true,” Leiserowitz said.

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None of the six groups is majorly driven by one demographic, he said, with the exception of the “dismissives” — where “well-educated conservative white men” reign.

They are “dramatically different in terms of how they perceive the risk than everybody else” he said, thanks in large part to “a worldview that we call individualism” — particularly pronounced in that group.

Of course, that same demographic also happens to control the White House, half of Congress and many of the nation’s richest companies, such as in the fossil fuel industry.

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As the world’s top experts head to Spain for the UN summit on climate change opening Monday, Americans must deal with the idea that President Donald Trump withdrew the US from the Paris climate accord.

‘Everyone’ has climate anxiety

For Lise Van Susteren, a Washington-based psychiatrist who has been studying the mental health impacts of climate change for 15 years, refusal to recognize the potential hazards is common for “people who are trying to deny that they too are vulnerable.”

“I actually have no hesitation in saying that on some level, I believe that everyone now has some climate anxiety,” Van Susteren said.

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Psychological responses to climate change such as “conflict avoidance, fatalism, fear, helplessness and resignation are growing,” according to a 2017 report by the American Psychological Association and ecoAmerica.

And they coincide with an array of physical health impacts, such as asthma and allergies.

At a happy hour for environmentalists in Washington, Alicia Cannon — who works in environmental policy lobbying — was asked whether she was experiencing any climate anxiety.

Her response: “Oh God, yes.”

“I think a lot of people that work in climate feel some kind of climate anxiety because it’s such a large-scale issue and it’s overwhelming and you feel that it’s overwhelming because of helplessness,” the 23-year-old said.

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According to Van Susteren, such feelings can lead people to question whether their individual actions are meaningful in light of the vast nature of the problem.

“What we do individually is counted collectively,” she said, indicating that one person’s behaviors can help establish consequential social norms.

Debbie Chang, 43, who organized a group counseling session on dealing with climate anxiety on the National Mall in Washington in May, has also decided not to have kids and tries to follow a zero-waste policy.

She keeps chopsticks in her purse to avoid single-use plastic utensils, carries a handkerchief to substitute for paper napkins, and brings a steel container with her to restaurants for any leftovers she might want.

Chang said until not that long ago, it was difficult to find information on “climate anxiety, climate grief, climate despair, climate counseling.”

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Now “there’s more… people are starting to realize it’s a thing,” she added.


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2020 Election

Here’s how Trump intends to create ‘chaos and deadlock’ to steal the election from voters

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The author of a new piece outlining how President Donald Trump could steal the election from voters explained just how that might happen.

The Atlantic's Barton Gellman revealed the Trump campaign is exploring a strategy to pressure Republican-led state legislatures to appoint electors, instead of letting voters choose, and he told MSNBC's "Morning Joe" how that would work in practice.

"The only other time in history we had a debacle like this with possibility of the multiple competing slates of electors where two groups of people said, 'I'm the state elector for the state of Pennsylvania,' for example, it's supposed to go to Congress," Gellman said. "Congress is supposed to decide who are the legitimate electors, if any, from the state, and the problem is the electorate count act is one of the most garbled statutes ever passed by Congress, which is saying a lot."

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Trump apologist thinks president made ‘huge mistake’ by admitting he won’t peacefully give up power

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A conservative who usually defends President Donald Trump admitted to CNN on Thursday that the president made a "huge mistake" when he refused to commit to having a peaceful transfer of power should he lose the 2020 election.

During a panel discussion on the president's latest controversial remarks about the upcoming election, liberal guest Bakari Sellers argued that Americans should be "very terrified" about Trump implicitly encouraging violence in the event that he loses.

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2020 Election

‘Five-alarm fire’: MSNBC’s Morning Joe explains why Trump is rushing to smash democracy

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MSNBC's Joe Scarborough sounded the alarm that President Donald Trump had no intention of giving up the White House.

The president has admitted that he wants to ram through a new Supreme Court justice to help decide the election in his favor, and the "Morning Joe" host was shocked -- yet not surprised -- that Trump refused to commit to a peaceful transfer of power.

"Some remarkable things that, actually, could be both shocking and not surprising at the same time considering that they come from Donald Trump," Scarborough said.

"For the first time in the history of this republic, you have a president of the United States, who will not commit to a peaceful transfer of power," he added. "At the same time he's asking Republicans to lie to their constituents and go back on what they said four years ago and ram through a Supreme Court justice. Why? Because he needs that Supreme Court justice to vote for him on any election disputes that he stirs up. That is pretty much a five-alarm fire."

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