I’ve spent my working life deciphering emotional tone. I tell you this to establish my credibility in what I am about to say.

By the time I arrive a good crowd has already gathered in the Freeport Community Center. Recently, the temperature rose from minus 17 to plus 50, making the presentation, “Impacts of Sea Level Rise and Weather Events on Freeport,” more than timely.

While the Gulf of Maine Research Institute Climate Center Team fusses with microphones, I take my seat beside the refreshment table and eye the doughnut slices piled like little pyramids of confection. Who eats doughnuts at 6:30 p.m.? Then I examine the team more closely. They are so young. Unlike anyone at any time before in history, these three young people have grown up knowing that all life on the planet is imperiled – which makes me wonder, how are their minds shaped by this terrible reality in ways mine was not?

The last time I was in this room to hear a lecture on sea-level rise and its effect on Freeport’s saltmarshes was exactly five years ago. The young land planner from Maine Coast Heritage Trust spoke carefully, regret layered in his voice.  “It’s hard to talk about, but we have to begin. The good news is you don’t have to worry much about it here where the coastline is so high above the sea, but south of here,” he paused, took a long breath in, went on, “it will be a different story. Managed retreat will be necessary.” A feeling of alarm filled the room, my body.

Tonight, the Gulf of Maine Research Institute team begins the program with a slide show about the science of sea-level rise and reminds us of what, by now, most everyone in the room knows: that the Gulf of Maine is warming three times faster than any other body of water. The graphic they use to display the sea-level rise is different from the one Maine Coast Heritage Trust used. This graphic is static with different colors to indicate different levels of rise, all of which are indecipherable to me.

I feel bored and restless, but I’m not sure why. Eyeing the doughnuts, I dash to the table and choose a toasted coconut-covered one and sit down and slowly eat my quarter-slice.


Conservative estimates of 1.5 feet in 2050 and 4 feet in 2100 are highlighted, as if scientists hadn’t weighed in about how incredibly unlikely those low numbers are. We are told how lucky we are that the Cousins River saltmarsh has been preserved by our local conservation organizations so that when the waters come, all that saltmarsh life can wiggle and fly and swim inland to safe ground.

Aside from a few questions at the end about who would pay for erosion on their waterfront land, the emotional tone of the audience registers as flat and mildly dissociated. Later, it struck me that while the speakers were well prepared and earnest, they stood before us talking about the most life-threatening moment in history without any sense of urgency.

Perhaps this troubling emotional mismatch answers my question about how these young people have adapted. Though much of the presentation was about the adaptation of infrastructure to climate change, perhaps what I saw that night was the mental adaptation that so many of us have, oh so unconsciously, had to adopt to live in this altered reality. This thought makes me sad. And scared.

Again, alarm fills my body, for without urgency, what will become of us? Five years ago, I vowed to do whatever I could to wake people to the reality of climate change. Now the question is: Now that we see the terrible reality of a threatened planet, how do we live a life, go to work, get kids to school, clean the house and at the same time hold the urgency of the moment? Maybe we can’t.

But we have to try.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.