Can Climate Cafes Help Ease the Anxiety of Planetary Crisis?


In a small room in Lower Manhattan, a group of eight New Yorkers sat in a circle sharing kombucha and their climate fears against the background of pattering rain and wailing sirens.

In Champaign, Ill., a psychotherapist facilitating a meeting for other therapists held up a branch of goldenrod, asking the half-dozen participants online to consider their connection to nature.

And in Kansas City, Mo., a nonprofit that runs a weekly discussion on Zoom began its session with a spiritual reading and a guided meditation before breaking into groups to discuss topics like the ethics of childbearing amid a fast-rising global population and concerns of resource scarcity.

All were examples of a new grass-roots movement called climate cafes. These in-person and online groups are places for people to discuss their grief, fears, anxiety and other emotions about the climate crisis.

They are springing up in cities across the United States — including Los Angeles, Seattle and Boston — and around the world. It isn’t clear how many exist, but Rebecca Nestor of the Climate Psychology Alliance, a nonprofit that trains facilitators, said the number of cafes had greatly increased in the past three years. The group has trained about 350 people to run climate cafes in the U.S., Canada, and Europe, and its North American branch lists 300 clinicians in its climate-aware therapist directory.

The alliance examines how mental health is affected by ecosystems — extreme weather and disasters; tainted air and water — and how that intersects with other forces, like racism and income inequality. Psychologists say that such groups help people face the unsettling realities of the climate crisis.

Ms. Nestor first hosted a climate cafe in Oxford in Britain in 2018. She said the idea was modeled after the death cafe, a concept created by a Swiss sociologist, through which people gather to talk openly about death in order to better appreciate their lives.

Many of the climate cafes are free and open to the public, but some have been convened especially for librarians, therapists and other professionals.

Since June 2023, Olivia Ferraro, 24, who works in finance, has hosted more than 20 intimate climate cafes in New York City that have had between five and 20 attendees. She has also trained people online from all over the U.S. and the world — Puerto Rico, Vancouver, England and Australia — who want to facilitate such meetings in their own communities.

On a recent drizzly, unseasonably warm January evening — the temperature was 51 degrees and the high was 56 degrees — Ms. Ferraro prepped for her meeting. She lit her Brooklyn Candle Company Fern + Moss candle, which she has lit for every meeting, and turned on Khruangbin’s chill melodies.

She arranged 10 chairs into a circle near a brick wall, and set out grapes, sparkling water, plantain chips and other snacks on a table, and brought out reusable cups from her mother’s 2016 wedding.

Slowly, people from every part of the city trickled in. The crowd skewed young, with a few older adults in the mix. Each was attending a climate cafe for the first time.

After some small talk, Ms. Ferraro shared the rules for the evening. She explained that it was not intended as a substitute for clinical care.

The attendees, over the course of an hour, described worrying for their future children and future generations more broadly. They described feeling overwhelmed, not only by climate change but also by the political climate. They described oscillating between feeling hopeless and empowered about the planet’s future.

At times, long pauses punctuated the comments, as the attendees took in what had been said, staring simply at each other or into their laps.

“I can’t buy into the narrative anymore that there’s no choice in how this ends and that major corporations have complete control over my future,” said Sheila McMenamin, 32, who lives in Brooklyn.

“They do not have total control, and I refuse to cede that,” she said, as other participants hummed in agreement.

One Black woman wept, saying it was difficult to know that people of color would be disproportionately affected by climate change, but many did not have the time to participate in groups like these.

“I’m enraged about the fact that more Black and brown people are not in these rooms,” said the woman, Syrah Scott, a mother in her 40s who lives in Queens. She said that many people of color were just focused on survival. “They don’t have the money to be concerned about these things,” she said.

The online climate cafe for therapists in Illinois began with Kate Mauer rubbing the dried stalk of goldenrod in her hand that she had plucked from her backyard. The object connected her to the climate crisis, she said, because it was one of the many flowers native to Illinois that she had planted in an effort to restore the natural environment.

But being in her garden had begun to trigger complex emotions, she said. While nature had always given her solace, it now also made her sad.

“I find myself struggling to enjoy the outdoors because of the constant reminders” of environmental degradation, she said.

That paradox reminded Lauren Bondy, a cafe participant, of that morning’s fresh snow, and of a black rhino. Ms. Bondy and her son, then 19, had glimpsed one of the last of the critically endangered species on vacation in Tanzania years ago.

“Appreciating the beauty of it, but also appreciating the rarity and the loss,” said Ms. Bondy, a therapist on Chicago’s North Shore. “We’re holding it all.”

This wasn’t psychotherapy, the climate cafe’s facilitators had said, but rather group catharsis.

Colleen Aziz, a therapist who runs a virtual practice across Illinois, said that she felt a responsibility to bring her professional training to bear, but that few patients brought climate concerns to their sessions.

“It’s really wonderful to meet clients who are stable enough that they’re ready and able to look directly at climate,” Ms. Aziz said after the cafe, “but it usually amounts to privilege.”

Other groups have more of a focus on action.

Around the same time Ms. Ferraro’s group sprang up, Jonathan Kirsch, 32, who works in law and lives in Brooklyn, founded his climate cafe in November 2022. His group started as a private, informal gathering in his apartment but is now open to the public, and the group is more focused on translating feelings into action.

On another recent rainy day in January, more than 30 people crammed into Mr. Kirsch’s apartment in Brooklyn for a climate cafe. The doorbell rang almost without interruption as people slogged up the stairs to the apartment and peeled off their wet coats and piled up their umbrellas.

Many at the meeting worked in climate fields, including one man who worked with Extinction Rebellion, the group that disrupted both the U.S. Open and the Met Opera in an attempt to shed more light on the climate crisis.

The attendees broke into small groups. Though they were frustrated by local, state and national policies, they felt hopeful. They were flush with ideas on how to channel their energy: composting, gardening, propagating, clothing swaps and mending circles, pushing for certain legislation, joining book clubs and writing groups, and even going back to school to further their education.

“The truth is that like this is such a long fight, it’s an intergenerational fight,” one attendee told the large group after the smaller discussion groups reconvened. “We have to come with a resilient mind-set, where we’re ready to lose a lot of battles and just know that our presence in the greatest struggle will be worth it.”

Convening to share climate worries isn’t new. Environmental activists have organized meetings since the 1970s to discuss how to respond to climate threats. Native American communities have long gathered to grieve the loss of land, according to Sherrie Bedonie, a social worker and co-founder of the Native American Counseling and Healing Collective.

Participants have said that gathering to talk openly about their fears provides a kind of lightness.

Sami Aron, 71, a retired software developer, founded the Resilient Activist in Kansas City after her son, a climate activist and urban studies graduate student at Berkeley, died by suicide, citing feelings of hopelessness over the changing climate.

Her group’s cafes try to instill hope, she said.

“The dread, the hopelessness is getting exiled in all of us, and that’s why we’re not talking about it, because it’s too painful,” Ms. Bondy said. “If we can’t heal what we’re all feeling,” she added, “we can’t heal our planet either.”

If you are having thoughts of suicide, call or text 988 to reach the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline or go to SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for a list of additional resources.



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