Climate Change Psychology

Climate psychology is a new way of understanding our collective paralysis in the face of worsening climate change.

Climate change is not a problem waiting to be solved. It is a paradigmatic challenge to an economic system driven by fossil fuels and consuming life styles. At the deepest level, the psychological/cultural challenge lies in the belief that, as a species, we are different and special compared to other species; that nature is a resource for us to use.

Feelings matter

Climate change and environmental destruction threatens us with powerful feelings – loss, grief, guilt, anxiety, shame, despair. These are difficult to bear and can mobilise defence mechanisms and coping strategies, which can undermine our capacity to get to grips with the issue. Climate psychology seeks to understand how this plays out both in our individual lives and in our culture.

The focus of climate psychology

Climate psychology seeks to further our understanding of:

  • the defences, such as denial and rationalisation, that we use to avoid facing these difficult feelings – and how such defences have become integral to sustaining our exploitative relations with both the non-human and human worlds
  • the cultural assumptions and practices (e.g. the sense of privilege and entitlement, materialism and consumerism, the faith in progress) that inhibit effective change
  • the conflicts, dilemmas and paradoxes that individuals and groups face in negotiating change with family, friends, neighbours and colleagues, and
  • the psychological resources – resilience, courage, radical hope, new forms of imagination – that support change.

The problem with psychology

It is now widely accepted that facts and information about the risk of climate change, taken alone, do not promote change. There is a growing acceptance that the climate change movement could be enriched by incorporating deeper psychological perspectives. But mainstream positivist psychology is often part of the problem, especially when it reduces the human being to an object to be measured, controlled and then harnessed to the profit-making machine that now threatens our collective future.

A deeper psychology

We need a different psychology. Our richest psychological insights have come from literature, philosophy, world religions and the psychotherapies. From such sources, we glimpse some of the complexity and mystery of the human: the raw passions that often dominate our thoughts and behaviours; the internal conflicts and competing voices that characterise our internal lives and give colour to our different senses of self; the effect of systems of domination on the way we think and feel about ourselves.

Cultural assumptions

Viewed from this perspective, it is possible to see how our attempts to defend ourselves against the feelings aroused by worsening climate change are mediated by deep-seated assumptions about ourselves and society. For example, as western consumers, a powerful sense of entitlement may help us to shrug off guilt and shame, or a touching faith in progress can mitigate anxiety and induce complacency. Typically, we will feel torn between different impulses to face and avoid reality: between guilt and cynicism; between what is convenient for us and what is necessary for the common good.

A psycho-social perspective

Climate psychology draws upon a variety of sources that have been neglected by mainstream psychology, including psychoanalysis, Jungian psychology, ecopsychology, chaos theory, continental philosophy, ecolinguistics and social theory. It attempts to offer a psycho-social perspective – one that can illuminate the complex two-way interaction between the personal and the political.

Practical application

It uses this understanding:

  • to promote more creative approaches to engaging the public with climate change
  • to contribute to change at the personal, community, cultural and political levels
  • to support activists, scientists and policy makers seeking to bring about change, and
  • to build psychological resilience to the destructive impacts of climate change that are already being experienced.