climate psychology: ask psychologists perhaps?

I was sitting at home, nursing a virus, and happened to turn on a recording of the December 4 Climate One event at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco.

It’s a surreal experience to watch climate scientists and ‘experts’ being asked questions that are fundamentally outside of their area of expertise, the same questions that come up, over and over again:

  • What will it take to see action and response? To “wake up”? (What is the game changer – massive storms?)
  • How can we ‘get to’ those in power, corporations, policy, to recognize the magnitude of the problems?
  • Why are so many people in denial, and what can we do about this?

The responses are also highly predictable. I don’t think anything new has been said – yet – that takes our understandings much further. They are generally the well-worn grooves circulating for years:

  • When people feel the impacts close to home, they will act.
  • If we look at other historical precedents (slavery, apartheid, civil rights, pearl harbor), we can see humans can indeed mobilize.
  • If we make it clear what you can do, in your own world, you are more likely to engage.

We are very familiar with the perceptual issues – most ecological threats (not exclusive to climate) are systemic, abstract, far away in time and space, except for the ruptures such as severe storms, droughts, events. We know this.

We know people like something to ‘do’ – but we also know that people minimize and push away awareness that exceeds capacities for emotional processing. We also know that small acts usually only go so far, when our cognitive abilities (to grasp the scale) create dissonance. This leads to rationalizing and minimizing most actions as meaningless.

Quite frankly, these standard responses miss the mark, are psychologically thin and inaccurate. If we were to pose these same questions to, say someone who practices psychotherapy or is psychosocial (such as myself), this is what you would get:

  • When people feel anxious, they will do whatever it takes to protect themselves, including denial of reality.
  • People hold multiple and often conflicting desires, beliefs and drives. When pushed we will resort to what feels safe.
  • Feelings of inefficacy/powerlessness can arouse acute anxiety, as does loss and anticipatory loss.
  • When defenses to anxiety are mobilized, they are produced socially, and are thus ‘infectious’ or contagious. It’s not about individuals in denial or avoidance, it’s socially produced and constructed.
  • If you boil the issues down to small every day actions, the issues become trivialized and it does NOT get at the core issue of anxiety (above).
  • Precedents from the past fail us, are not helpful because what we are dealing with here are issues that are unique both psychologically and socially (and ecologically). There are several key attributes that make such comparisons ineffective, and require new, innovative ways of both conceptualizing and researching human responses to these threats.

What would I recommend, is first, that we collaborate and partner with psychologically and psychosocially trained practitioners and researchers (as myself) and see what can happen with creative design and collaboration across knowledge areas. Then:

  • We begin with the assumption that there are varying degrees of what I call the ‘Three A’s” in relation to ecological threats (which includes climate but is not exclusive to): Aspiration (to be part of solutions), Ambivalence (particularly when it comes to our way of life and the changes needed, and our desires and passions and pleasures), and Anxiety.
  • If those working in climate communications and outreach acknowledge the Three A’s and incorporated in our communications and engagement, we may be able to innovate creative ways of fostering the “safe space” required to change the game without the need for Category 5 storms and catastrophes.
  • Related to above, if we stop patronizing people and assume people are trying to protect themselves, albeit unhelpfully, we may create more engaging and innovative social platforms for change, such as conversation-based platforms, and ways of eliciting genuine participation in issues that most people feel are entirely out of their control and mandate. Further, conversation or interaction is proven to change behavior (i.e. therapy) as self-relevation happens and solutions to particular dilemmas can be more easily resolved (i.e. traveling, consumption, other areas we may feel deeply conflicted over).

Urgently needed are case studies and research that actually do take our understandings deeper and further. We need creative, innovative research that moves beyond standard methods in just about every way. Conversation-based, affect driven research is needed:  in-depth understandings of what gets in the way for people to engage, what are the dilemmas and sources of anxieties, and how we can skillfully meet and address those knots, those tangles. We need actual psychosocially insightful work. We need to engage with people, as myself, who are trained to explore less conscious aspects of environmental issues. We need to design research that recognizes people are multiple, surveys are simplistic and simply do not help us get where we need to go.

Emotions, dilemmas, conflicts, anxieties – that’s where the gold is.

Contact me if you wish to discuss how we can collaborate and partner, and take this work further, for traction and impact.


  1. Deborah Kingsland

    Hi Renee

    I’ve been reading and watching you this morning and what you say about the myth of apathy makes so much sense.

    I am a documentary filmmaker and a member of Climate Action Canberra,Australia.

    I have been thinking how to make a film about the psychology of climate change. Are you currently working with any filmmakers ?

    Would love to have a conversation with you about this. Very early days, but I am going to a documentary workshop on Monday next 18th Feb and am pitching embryonic ideas.

    I belong to a choir called Chorus of Women and we write and perform songs about climate and loss and grief. ‘Gifts of the Furies ‘is a full length story song we have performed here in Canberra.

    I was living in the UK for many years and have been looking at Cambridge Carbon Footprint.

    One of my thoughts was to engage an advertising agency and get them to commission research that would show them how to reach people. This chimed with your Garrison Institute Vimeo presentation.

    It’s ridiculously early in the process. Obviously we would need to find a story to follow if we are to find a broadcaster.

    I will continue reading, but would love to hear your thoughts,

    For a safe climate

    Deborah Kingsland

    PS I have broadcast credits and have made many films, often for other people. e.g. The Strongest Bond

  2. Kiri

    I have been begun facilitating workshops based on Joanna Macy’s “Work that Reconnects” in my local area. Her work is founded on the notion that we numb ourselves to protect from the despair of environmental degradation and that we need to come together and acknowledge those feelings in a safe space so that we can move on to action.

    Recently I’ve been energised by the work of ‘Common Cause: The case for values and frames’ ( I would be very interested to hear your thoughts on their analysis of intrinsic and extrinsic values and the recommendations outlined there.


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