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Some thoughts on the psychology of climate change

by Ellie Hopgood

Climate change is understood through many different prisms. It is presented as a scientific problem, an economic problem, a technological problem, and a social justice problem, among other kinds of challenges. But it is rarely presented as a psychological problem.

I think this is a mistake. Climate change is being caused by (some) humans. It can only be addressed by humans. So the reasons why we continue to do nothing, or why we feel hesitant to act even when we believe in the disastrous consequences of inaction, or why we don’t believe the science at all, seem eminently relevant to understanding what is arguably the existential crisis of our time.

A few years ago, George Marshall wrote a book called Don’t Even Think About It, with the subtitle why our brains are wired to ignore climate change. The conclusions and quotes from most of the experts are probably best summed up by Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman, who says that he is “deeply pessimistic” for three reasons: people feel like climate change lacks the qualities that make problems seem urgent, that they are concrete, immediate and indisputable; dealing with climate change requires that people accept certain short-term costs and reductions in their living standards in order to mitigate against higher but uncertain losses that are far in the future; and lastly, that information about climate change seems uncertain and contested. That third point doesn’t resonate with me – climate change is real, guys – but I appreciate that that remains a consideration for many people. A man called Tony Leiserowitz, who works in climate change communications, said “you almost couldn’t design a problem that is a worse fit with our underlying psychology,” as it is designed to address issues that are personal, abrupt, against our moral values and happening right now in an obvious way. For most people, climate change does not press these buttons. Whether it’s consumers on the street or people at our highest levels of office, getting people to believe, understand and start to deal with climate change is almost the entire battle. While its effects are raging in the atmosphere and in our oceans, rivers and rainforests, the fight for the future of humanity is being fought primarily in our own psyches.

Having to accept short-term costs for uncertain gains far in the future that might never affect your life at all is probably the issue that I see most people – including myself – struggling with the most. This speaks to all the moral tossing and turning about going vegan, quitting flying, getting rid of your car and only buying second-hand clothes. Not only are these actions and lifestyles things that people feel are core to the way they want to live, they will only have an impact if everyone does them. We end up in this mass impasse, with everyone waiting until everyone else makes the sacrifices first, in an attempt to lessen the uncertainty inherent in climate change. If we knew that giving up these things individually would have a tangible impact, and ideally solve the problem, then perhaps it would seem more appealing. But we don’t know if it will work, because we can’t know the plans and motivations of billions of other people, so it remains uncertain, and that uncertainty compounds. It’s a loop of diminishing effect and it’s going to kill us.

Another reason why truly grappling with climate change is hard is because we are the bad guys. Not all of us, of course, but ultimately it is humanity – primarily those of us from wealthy Western countries – who are at fault. There is no one else to blame, no external force or action that we can rail against. And yes, we can blame the fossil fuel companies or the governments who continue to do nothing in the face of the evidence and mounting public pressure, as that is where change would be most easily and massively made. But in a more philosophical sense, those of us who benefit from the fossil fuel era through lives defined more than ever by consumption, ease, convenience and choice are part of the circle controlled by a mindset that always wants more, more, more – whether it’s more money, more control, more things or more special experiences. It’s why, no matter how much we know about how small an individual’s impact is, many of us still feel guilty about flying and eating meat (or at least, for not wanting to stop those things). Because we know that the same part of us that doesn’t want to stop travelling or shopping or living lives of unbridled privilege is the same part of the powers that be that can’t turn down that next hefty paycheck, no matter the consequences. I plan to write more about this in the future, but for now, let me just say that I think the existential crisis of realising that humans, especially humans living lives like me (and probably you) are perhaps the worst thing to ever happen to this planet, the natural world and most of the rest of humanity is a heavy reality with which to reckon.

That paragraph was pretty bleak, right? And that’s the next thing: climate change is bleak. It is! The projections are for untold chaos and devastation (the geophysical causes of which might be so advanced by now that any efforts to curb warming may well do nothing to protect us), fighting it feels impossible at the best of times, many experts say that climate change is perhaps the worst problem for human brains to handle, it involves giving up things you love for your whole life with no promise that it will achieve anything and we are still the villains in this story, and will probably go down in history as the generation of greedy, self-centred narcissists who couldn’t give up our holidays and bursting wardrobes for the sake of our species. Yikes. It is terrible, through and through, and though I do have some optimism on better days I have a fair share of my pessimistic moments too. It is truly existential, and that makes thinking about it all the time an exercise in misery, for the most part. It is no wonder that grappling with this issue in all of its painful and unflattering complexity is not something most people want to – or can – do.

Then, wrapped up with the guilt and uncertainty, is the fear of living on a rapidly degrading planet. As all the protests and signs continue to make clear, the house is on fire. Are we supposed to stay calm about that? Is it not entirely reasonable to be panicked, however privileged you are, about rising tides and extreme weather and food instability? Marshall’s book does talk of dread risk, and how understanding what is truly at stake here may be part of opening eyes to the climate crisis. But when your eyes are open, it is so scary. And not only are we trapped in the burning house, we have no control of the hosepipe and our firefighters are selling kindling. As the sociologist Ulrich Beck says, “we are all now moral entrepreneurs laden with personal responsibility but with no access to the actual decisions.” To have to live on a burning planet, with no way out, and no control over what happens next? That’s tough. For anyone.

And finally, while the climate emergency may be the biggest problem of our time, it is also the longest emergency of our time. The word emergency conjures up images of something acute, immediate and urgent. Climate change is an emergency, no doubt – but what does it mean to live in a state of emergency for a hundred years? For our entire lifetimes? I think about how much energy I have put into understanding the climate crisis this year. I have read so many books, attended protests and panels, written thousands and thousands of words and spent hours turning this new reality over in my head. Am I going to have to do this for the rest of my life?

The anti-climate change movement has suffered from this issue many times, as when each new prediction of “only ten years to save the planet!” – which has been happening since the 1980s – is ‘proven’ wrong when the Earth continues spin as each apocalyptic date passes, people stop believing the hype. But as I’ve written about before, the fear is not that Earth will suddenly cease to exist. The fear is that we will be the frogs slowly dying in the gradually boiling water, crying ‘liar’ because the saucepan hasn’t vanished. The world is getting hotter, every year. Floods and storms are becoming more frequent and more severe. These deadlines are not saying that 2030, or whenever, is going to be magically different. They are saying that at some point, because of various natural tipping points, we will have locked in several feet of warming and it will truly be unavoidable. It is hard to feel that as a threat, but it is. It will be the worst thing that has ever happened to humanity.

Because the thing with climate change is that it is happening, whether we ignore it or not. Having to think about climate change all the time is not something unfortunate that has been unfairly levied on us deliberately. I can’t complain, as such, about climate change, as if it is some great inconvenience that I have to think about the ice caps and the fact that the highest point of Kiribati is only two metres above sea level. This is reality. These are the events by which my life will be defined. And remaining silent doesn’t make it go away and it doesn’t make me feel better.

There is so much more to say about how we make sense of this scary new reality. It is perhaps a bit chilling to admit that the psychology of living on a rapidly degrading planet is intellectually fascinating. What does it mean for the way we live? How do we continue to rationalise our high carbon behaviours? How do we cope with the guilt? Do we give ourselves permission to mourn the fossil fuel era, in all its indulgence? Do we truly internalise our irrelevance in addressing climate change, and just get on with our lives anyway? And that’s to say nothing about the significant proportion of people who continue to deny that climate change is happening at all. All I know is that sticking our heads in the sand will get us nowhere. We are allowed to confront life’s messy realities in all of our hypocrisy and imperfection. It is okay to admit that you struggle with the thought of giving up certain things and want to live on a safe, sustainable planet. Those contradictions are inevitable, and any kind of black and white thinking will only dig us further into this toxic hole. Let’s start to confront what it means to be human right now, head on. It may well be the only thing that keeps us going.

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