The Climate Psychologist

Meet the Other Climate Psychologists– TIME Article on the Psychology of Climate Change Denial

Last week, TIME ran an article on the contributions that psychologists are making to understanding inaction on climate change. This is a good opportunity to acknowledge the work that other psychologists have contributed to this issue, and also to delineate differences in thinking between them and myself—particularly, that I think the focus on “individual action” to reduce ones’ carbon footprint through consumption reduction and lifestyle changes is an apolitical red herring that has no hope of solving climate change. Instead, we must focus on building a social movement that fights denial and demands collective action, in the form of a WWII style Climate War.

Psychologists are specialists of individuals, so it is understandable that they have a tendency to focus on action on the level of the individual. Though this is a fundamental disagreement I have with all of the other “Climate Psychologists” I have encountered thus far, their contributions are still well worth attending to, and have been very helpful to me in formulating my own views.

The article focuses on Renee Lertzman, a psychoanalytic researcher whose work on “The Myth of Apathy” is an extremely valuable contribution, and one that I have found very useful. A video of her presenting her work at a psychoanalytic conference is available here.

Lertzman argues that, while people may appear apathetic to climate change, they in fact have powerful, overwhelming feelings about the climate. Everyone has a relationship with the natural world, and the climate. Everyone is affected. But because they feel helpless, they dissociate their feelings: zone out, focus on other things; put it out of their minds. This is a crucial insight, and speaks to the necessity  for a Human Climate Movement to make containing anxiety a central part of their strategy.

Rosemary Randall, also featured in the article, is a psychoanalytic psychotherapist, who blogs about climate change and psychology. One of her focuses is how to talk with people about the difficult topic climate change. Randall helped create the program Carbon Conversations, in which 2 trained facilitators run meetings with 6-8 people, with the goal of all participants halving their carbon footprints.

The article also mentions Robert Gifford, a psychology professor who has identified 30 “Dragons of inaction,” or cognitive barriers that keep people from taking action on climate change. In the article, he identifies “Lack of perceived behavioral control” as the biggest cognitive barrier to action; that people feel helpless because they recognize the limits of their actions: “I’m only one person, what can I do?”

Gifford identifies this as a cognitive bias that needs to be addressed and ameliorated, but I see it differently. The perception that people have that their individual consumption choices are inconsequential is true. I could go totally carbon neutral and climate change would still continue its ruthless march forward. Rather than attempt to make people believe (falsely) that they can have an individual impact on emissions, we must encourage them to become involved in collective, political action: a social movement that demands a WWII level response to the climate crisis.

The article also mentions Daniel Gilbert, a Harvard Professor of Social Psychology, who has examined what types of threats humans are predisposed to responding to. Namely, humans have evolutionarily attuned brain-machinery for responding to: intentional threats (people plotting to hurt us), threats that violate our sense of morality and trigger feelings of repulsion or alarm, immediate threats, and threats that happen abruptly.

In this 10 minute video, Gilbert argues that climate change doesn’t trigger our brains’ evolved threat-response system because it is unintentional, it doesn’t trigger repulsion, it is not immediate, and it is happening over time, giving us time to get used to it. Gilbert makes the point in the video that, if our brain could adequately comprehend the threat of climate change, we would go to war to stop it. He is correct, and his insights can help us understand how to craft rhetoric and strategy to encourage that response.

The TIME article, unfortunately, does not mention Mary Pipher, the author of the popular book Reviving Ophelia, and more recently, Green Boat which discusses the emotional impact of our climate crisis. A 20-minute video of her discussing the book at a TedX conference is available here.  Pipher’s main argument, one with which I heartily agree, is that the best psychological response to the climate crisis is active engagement. That once people accept the reality of the climate crisis, once they mourn the loss of stability and bounty which they had believed would last indefinitely, they can pick themselves up and get to work. Pipher also makes the crucial point that facing the climate crisis is something that people must do together; that relying on human relationships is one of the best coping mechanisms we have. Pipher describes how she helped form “The Coalition,” a group of Nebraskans against the Keystone XL pipeline, which is planned to go through Nebraska. The Coalition, which met for planning and debriefing potluck dinners, engaged in a variety of protests, lobbying, and advocacy.

Though Pipher provides a model for a successful political group, she does not envision or advocate for a nation-wide Human Climate Movement. Because she does not imagine that a national social movement could be successful in launching a Climate War, the book has a defeatist tone. Pipher spends a significant amount of the book bogged down with the notion of convincing individuals to alter their consumption patterns, and individuals finding psychological calm during the ecological storm.

Hopefully, Pipher, and all of the Climate Psychologists, will realize that a problem as massive as climate change cannot be tackled through individual action, and that advocating for changes in individual consumption distracts from the desperate need for organization.  Humans are not powerful when we act alone. It is when we band together, in coalitions, in unions, in armies, in movements—that we change the world.

Until then, their work is still immensely helpful to enhancing our understanding of climate change, and I am glad it is getting coverage in the mainstream media. May the other Climate Psychologists continue to study how the human mind responds to the climate crisis, and share their insights. May more and more psychologists realize that the humans need their talents in coping with and responding to the Climate crisis; and the ranks of Climate Psychologists continue to grow!

2 thoughts on “Meet the Other Climate Psychologists– TIME Article on the Psychology of Climate Change Denial

  1. KWM

    I totally agree with your assertion that our individual consumption choices won’t make a big difference without a massive collective effort. I wish more emphasis was put on this in the climate change conversation and I’m glad to see you’re doing that!

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