By Dr Susie Burke PhD, FAPS
Dr Susie Burke is a senior psychologist at the Australian Psychological Society working on the environment and disasters. A significant part of Dr Susie Burkes' work in the Psychology in the Public Interest team is to examine and promote the role that psychology can play in helping us understand the causes, impacts and solutions to climate change. Her current areas of interest include psychosocial impacts of climate change, communicating about environmental problems, psychological barriers to climate change, coping with climate change, and promoting pro-environmental behaviour
The feeling part is very important. Environmental psychologists know that knowing about climate is not enough for most people to take action; as George Marshall 2015 explains in his book, there are many, many ways in which people can ignore climate change or choose to do nothing about it. But when we feel the threat, then we are more likely to be motivated to take action. But it’s also then, of course, that we feel the most distress and worry. Common feelings are fear, anger, guilt, shame, grief, loss, helplessness. These strong feelings might result from direct fears about climate related weather events affecting us, or vicarious distress about future threats, or about climate change impacts in other places, or even distress in response to the existential threats to civilisation as we know it.
Reser et al. (2012), in a large scale survey of Australian’s perceptions and understandings of climate change in Australia reported that 20% of people show appreciable distress about climate change. A similar survey from the Yale Climate Project in America reported that a large percentage of people surveyed about climate change report feel disgusted, hopeful, helpless, sad, depressed or guilty about the issue.
These are uncomfortable and upsetting emotions to feel. The challenge in relation to climate change is to get people to cope with the feelings they have about climate change so that they:
- don’t become overwhelmed by these feelings
- don’t try to avoid the problem and hence the feelings
- don’t burnout
- stay engaged with the problem of climate change
- keep functioning well, whilst accepting the reality of climate change, both in their everyday lives, as well as on the changes that they are making to reduce the threat of climate change.
Psychologists who study coping techniques for distress often categorise them into two broad classes: emotion focussed coping which involves trying to reduce the negative emotional responses; and problem-focussed coping which aims at changing the problem which is giving rise to the distress. Within each of these broad categories there are many adaptive techniques which can help people to manage the feelings and stay engaged with the problem of climate change.
Emotion focused coping techniques include things like emotional expression (acknowledging and expressing the feelings), cognitive reappraisal (construing a potentially emotion-eliciting situation in a way that changes its emotional impact), distraction, and a host of techniques for learning to increase distress tolerance so that the uncomfortable feelings are not so aversive.
Acknowledging the feelings we have about climate change is very important. Psychologists for a Safe Climate speak about this in their publication Let’s Speak about Climate Change. ‘Often we don’t know how strongly we feel about something until we find ourselves speaking about it to someone else. It can be amazingly therapeutic to give voice to feelings, rather than leave them swimming around inside our hearts or heads’.
George Marshall, in his final chapter of ‘some personal and highly biased ideas for digging our way out of this hole’, talks about the importance of being emotionally honest, talking openly about their hopes, fear, and anxieties. Psychotherapists argue that unless we recognise and articulate the strong feelings that climate change generates, there’s a risk that the feelings lead us to disavowal and outright denial. It can also be helpful for people to acknowledge their own tendencies to ignore, deny or avoid thinking about environmental problems. Talking about this will help others to identify and acknowledge similar reactions in themselves.
Environmental psychologist Susi Moser, also talks about the importance of acknowledging our underlying fears and distress about climate change as an important coping strategy. She argues that this is a necessary step for developing ‘authentic hope’ about climate change. Moser (2012) calls it ‘the bravest thing’ – getting real, accepting reality without illusions, and accepting that better tomorrows may not come. To develop authentic hope also requires a willingness to bear pain and suffering, to grow our capacity to deal with crisis, deep uncertainty, distress, worry, anxiety, fear, denial, grief, hopelessness.
Joanna Macy says that ‘when we touch into our depths, we find that the pit is not bottomless. It is enlivening to go with, rather than against, the flow of our deep felt responses to the world. Repressing emotions and information dampens our energy. When people are able to tell the truth about what they know, see and feel is happening to their world, a transformation occurs. There is an increased determination to act and a renewed appetite for life’ (Macy and Johnstone, 2012). Clearly, then, recognising our feelings of grief and anxiety about environmental threat, and providing the space for others to recognise and voice theirs, is an important step in coping with the feelings and at the same time staying engaged in the problem and the solutions.
Another type of emotion focussed coping is cognitive reappraisal - changing how you think about the threat of climate change in a way that changes its emotional impact. This strategy is based on the theory underlying cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), that it is the way in which we think about things that generates particular emotional responses. Thus, to change the emotions, we need to change the thinking.
Professor Thomas Doherty, environmental psychologist, psychotherapist, and wilderness therapist, uses cognitive reappraisal techniques in the work that he does with people in his efforts to improve human functioning in the context of climate change and other environmental threats. Thomas helps people to develop what he calls personal sustainability practices. He encourages us to think of ourselves as an ecosystem, and to develop the insight that it makes no sense to run oneself down in service of saving the world. We are nature. He does thought experiments with students to encourage more resilient thinking. For example, he asks, ‘Imagine you could travel to any other era in history. What would be the great moral or ethical challenge of that era? Every era has its challenges. Would you change then for now?’ This exercise helps to inoculate people to the conceit that we are somehow unique or have it worse than in the past. This is not the case (Doherty, 2016).
Reappraising the way in which we think about climate change is not to minimise or deny the severity of the problem; nor is it blithe positive thinking or bright-siding. The aim of reframing is to attain a more realistic and also empowering perspective based on the evidence. It might even be that some of the thoughts we have about climate change are actually quite rational and realistic, given the state of the environment, but they may not be particularly ‘helpful’, if they are leading to overwhelming feelings of despair or anger, and getting in the way of people coping and getting on with the important work that they have to do.
Let’s assume that you’re concerned about the environment and the future of the planet, and you want to do something about it. Perhaps you want to change some things in your own lifestyle as well as encourage others to change. Feeling better about the environment, optimistic about the possibility of change can help get you motivated to make positive changes, and prevent you from getting disillusioned about people’s capacity to make a difference. Thinking that ‘there’s a lot that we can personally do, starting today’ can help to motivate you to get on with the job of switching your car for a bike, or signing up for green energy. Then there’s the thinking ‘We are not alone’, which can remind you that there are hundreds of thousands of environmental organisations strung around the globe. ‘All together we can make a huge difference’ is a way of thinking that fosters a belief in ‘collective efficacy’ – the idea that if people work together a much greater outcome can be gained than if they all work in isolation. And then there’s the sort of thinking that has been sweeping the country thanks to Paul Kelly – ‘From little things big things grow’. This thinking helps us to see that change is often incremental – it is fine to sometimes start with little steps and progress to more difficult tasks until we reach the final goal’ (Blashki & Burke, 2009, unpublished manuscript).
Cognitive reappraisal and emotional expression are just two examples of strategies that can be used to deal with the feelings and thoughts that come up when you face up to climate change. There are many other ways, like cultivating gratitude, and gathering support for yourself, some of which are covered in the excellent publication (2013) by Psychologists for a Safe Climate called Let’s Speak about Climate Change.
The second major class of coping strategies that people employ to cope with distress are called problem-focussed strategies. These are ways of reducing the distress created by a problem by tackling the problem. Let’s see how this can be applied in the context of climate change.
A number of different researchers have investigated climate change coping strategies, and each seems to use slightly different ways of grouping and defining coping strategies. One strategy that is always included in their categorisations, however, is problem solving – in this context, this means the behaviours or actions that we can do to solve the problem of climate change. So we can confidently assume that this coping strategy is of central importance.
Researchers have found that engaging in mitigation behaviours – doing something to reduce your carbon footprint – is a significant coping strategy, with the action that people take seeming to help them manage their experienced distress. So this would include changing individual or household behaviours like using less water, turning down heaters, riding or using public transport, as well as participating in climate action groups, lobbying politicians and industry leaders etc. Climate action is definitely the number one behavioural strategy for managing climate change distress.
You don’t need to go far in the psychology literature to find a robust evidence base for the importance of action as a way of dealing with distress. Behavioural activation (getting a person to engage in activities, thereby counteracting the tendency to be inactive and to isolate themselves) is a tried and proven technique for treating depressive symptoms. Simply put, it is difficult to feel depressed if you are regularly engaging in activities that bring you a sense of accomplishment (and/or pleasure).
Psychologists Marc Pilisuk and Jamie Rowen, in their 2005 handbook Using Psychology to Help Abolish Nuclear Weapons, also point out the importance of action as a way of dealing with distressing feelings about a problem. Substitute ‘climate change’ for ‘nuclear war’ and you get the picture. They argue that participation in an activist group is beneficial to one's mental health and can serve as an antidote to depression and despair. “Participation in activity with others [to control the proliferation of the most destructive weapons known] can represent a confidence in overcoming deeply entrenched giants. It can make people more powerful in matters that count in their roles as parents and as citizens and give them a psychological sense of community and of empowerment. Psychological health requires such feelings of efficacy. Good mental health is not the absence of problems but rather the capacity to work on them constructively. Large threats to humanity can only be addressed by cooperative action and by working together with other caring people. This can be as rewarding as it is empowering. Cooperative action encourages creativity and aligns people with what is healthy in the world.”
What Pilisuk and Rowen are also highlighting is the importance of group action as compared to individual action. Of course, both are important, but it’s worth noting that taking climate action together with other people builds a sense of group efficacy, and can amplify the effect that you would have if you just work alone. It also invites another coping strategy, that of social support, so ends up ticking several boxes. By working together with like-minded others, we get support, ideas, reinforcement and encouragement, and build our identity of ourselves as someone who cares about the environment. Group approval and identification is a great source of reward.
And finally, taking action on climate change is also very achievable and measureable. Indeed, George Marshall, in Don’t Even Think About It reminds us that climate change stands out from all other global problems because our individual contributions can be measured down to the last gram. We cannot identify our contribution to any other wicked problem such as poverty, terrorism, or drug abuse – let alone quantify it. But we can with climate change. People often feel powerless in the face of climate change, when in fact there is no other issue over which we have more personal control or involvement. Marshall goes on to describe climate change as an informed choice between desirable and catastrophic outcomes. Inaction is itself a choice in favour of severe climate change. This is a pretty compelling reason to choose action!
The reality of climate change is actually very frightening. The projected environmental impacts of climate change will substantially change the natural environments and human-made environments everywhere on the globe. Climate change threatens the very way we live and everything that we have come to count upon. It is inevitable that facing this threat brings up a host of uncomfortable and upsetting emotions. In the safe climate psychologists’ words, it is important to stay alive to what is stirred up in us, rather than avoid it. Then these emotions can be used constructively to engage in what needs to be considered now and in the future to restore a safe climate.
Blashki, G. & Burke, S.A. (2009). A Climate Change of Mind. Unpublished manuscript.
Macy, J. & C. Johnstone (2012). Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We're in Without Going Crazy. Navato, CA: New World Library.
Moser, S. (2012). Getting real about it: Navigating the psychological and social demands of a world in distress. In: Sage Handbook on Environmental Leadership, Rigling Gallagher, Deborah, Richard N. L. Andrews, and Norman L. Christensen eds.
Reser, J.P., Bradley, G.L. & Ellul, M.C. (2012) Coping with climate change: Bringing psychology in from the cold. In B. Molinelli & V. Grimaldo (Eds) Handbook of the psychology of coping (pp 1-34). New York: Nova Science Publishers.