Climate cafés at the London Climate Action Week

The table set for a climate café

The forward-thinking London Climate Action Week has recognised the value of climate cafés. They are running every day this week. Book here (search for ‘climate café’). So I thought I would refresh my earlier blog about what climate cafes are and why I offer them.

Do you remember the really hot summer of 2018? Probably not, because we have had two more even hotter summers since then. It was during that summer I started to see and hear people expressing a lot of anxiety about the climate crisis – even those who hadn’t previously talked about it much. 

That was when I came up with the idea of a place where that anxiety could be shared: climate cafés. Others around the English-speaking world were having the same idea, so I’m not claiming to have invented climate cafés. They are an idea whose time has come.

What are climate cafes all about?

A café is friendly, warm and human. There is a chance to connect with others over food and drink (even if, now, you have to bring your own cake and join via Zoom). 

Climate cafés, hosted in existing cafes or online, have two simple aims. One is that if we are to mobilise the kind of public support needed for ambitious climate policies, talking about climate is really important. 

The second is that coming together to discuss how we feel about challenges to the environment is a way of caring for those experiencing climate distress, including ourselves.

Difficult feelings about the climate crisis

Climate change or eco-anxiety is real. It is a relatively new term but not a new phenomenon. A growing number of psychological bodies (like the American Psychological Association and the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, BACP) recognise it as a condition. But many experts say – and I agree – that we should not treat climate anxiety as an illness, arguing that anxiety is an inevitable and even healthy response to the ecological threats we are facing.

Surveys like this recent one by the BACP are finding that a majority of British people feel climate anxiety. That feeling is particularly strong in 18-24 year olds, 70% of whom are more worried about climate change than they were a year ago, according to a national YouGov poll in January, commissioned by Friends of the Earth.

As one young person said: “If you look in the sky and see a comet hurtling towards earth and you are trying to warn people and they are not listening, that’s going to make you feel pretty anxious.”

Why we don’t talk about the climate crisis

One reason why people don’t talk about the climate crisis is that our feelings of guilt make it more difficult. We might feel guilty that we are not doing enough. And of course we aren’t, collectively, and that collective guilt can get turned inwards on ourselves, so that we feel we’ve got no right to be worried because we are still flying, still eating meat. 

Guilt can link with anxiety about joining a group. If you’re beginning to worry about climate change and feeling guilty about your own contribution to it, you probably don’t (yet) want to go to some earnest meeting where you might get bounced into doing work you aren’t ready for yet. 

Our anger or frustration at the lack of progress can also make it hard to talk. If you are protesting or campaigning or lobbying or designing a better future, and you’re furious at governments’ and individuals’ inaction, you might avoid talking with friends and family in case your frustration spills out. This can affect us at work, as I wrote earlier this year.

A judgement- and action-free space

So we need a space in which we do not talk about what we or others are doing or should be doing. Where we just talk about climate change and how it is making us think and feel.

I am not saying that we shouldn’t talk about what to do about climate change. Just that for many of us, now and again, there is a need to talk about how we feel and what we think. This helps free up our capacity to act – and helps us to bear the distress.

The focus of discussion in a climate café is participants’ immediate thoughts and feelings about the climate crisis. There are no guest speakers and no talks – though there is always a facilitator, usually two. It is an advice-free zone, with no pressure to take action, join a group or change your mind on anything. A café is likely to run for just over an hour. Cafés can be community-based or they might be within a workplace or educational setting.

Climate cafés are growing

With others in the Climate Psychology Alliance, a coalition of climate-aware psychologists, I am now offering climate cafés at least twice every month. We are looking to grow them so that wherever you are, there will be a climate café near you soon.

There is something really magical about a space where the only task is to think and feel together.