Elyse Kiehn (far left) during a discussion on climate change at the Mark and Emily Turner Memorial LIbrary Friday, with library director Sonja Eyler (left), John Kiehn of Caribou, Kati Corlew, University of Maine at Augusta assistant professor of psychology, and Orpheus Allison of Mapleton. Credit: Melissa Lizotte | Star-Herald

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — Thanks to a statewide project aimed at climate change awareness, people in Aroostook County have an opportunity to share their thoughts, concerns and real-life observations about global and local trends.

On Friday, a group of four area residents gathered at the Mark and Emily Turner Memorial Library, along with climate change researcher and University of Maine at Augusta professor Kati Corlew. The Presque Isle library is the last of five libraries in the state to host discussions and focus groups as part of Corlew’s most recent research on how communities respond to climate change.

Amidst statewide concerns over the increase in extreme storms and temperatures due to climate change, library administrative assistant Elyse Kiehn said that she has been concerned about the city’s most vulnerable members.

“At the library, we see a lot of elderly people who struggle with respiratory issues during the winter because of the cold air,” Kiehn said. “I worry about how hot the summers are becoming and how fall seems to be over in an instant once the leaves fall.”

Participants acknowledged the difficulties of talking about climate change as the topic becomes increasingly political and socially complex.

As many Maine cities and towns enact or consider bans on plastic straws and polystyrene food containers and the state moves toward a ban on plastic shopping bags, the conversation at the library turned to how people might be able to make small changes to help the environment without forgetting about the bigger picture.

“I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for plastic. All my medicines were delivered through plastic,” said Orpheus Allison of Mapleton, referring to plastic pumps used in his past dialysis treatments for diabetes.

Other topics discussed during the 90 minute community meeting included climate change’s potential effects on Aroostook County recreation, tourism, agriculture and wildlife due to changing weather patterns and how to best move toward positive solutions for future generations.

While Friday’s meeting served as an initial conversation about the ways in which people view climate change from a local perspective, a subsequent focus group meeting on Jan. 17 will allow participants to share photos they’ve taken that they feel best illustrate the local effects of climate change.

Corlew, who is an assistant professor of psychology at UMA’s Bangor campus, plans to return to Presque Isle for a community showcase of the photographs in March or April.

She is using a type of research called PhotoVoice, where participants take photographs and provide personal insight as to how the photographs exemplify their views and concerns about social issues. She has named the project: “Change: Exploring Models of Climate and Social Change.”

The community members who took part in the discussion on Friday plan to continue their roles by taking photographs and participating in the Jan. 17 focus group.

In addition to Presque Isle, Corlew has led focus groups in Dover-Foxcroft, Bangor, Millinocket and Damariscotta. Though the groups have ranged in size from two to eight people, she has been excited by the personal insights that community members have brought to the research project.

“In my field we have a saying that goes, ‘The community is the expert of the community,’” said Corlew. “We know that climate change doesn’t exist in a vacuum. People talk about climate change differently based on their own values.”

Corlew said she is looking forward to embarking on the next stage of the PhotoVoice project — the focus groups — and further engaging with the issue of climate change with the larger community in and around Presque Isle.

“It has been really fun to hear peoples’ stories and create a dialogue about what they’re thinking about when it comes to climate change,” Corlew said.