Climate Psychology

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Climate psychology is a field which aims to further our understanding of the Psychology psychological processes that occur in response to climate change, biodiversity loss and their resultant effects. It also seeks to promote creative ways to engage with the public about climate change; contribute to change at the personal, community, cultural and political levels; support activists, scientists and policy makers to bring about effective change; to nurture psychological resilience to the destructive impacts of climate change happening now and in the future.

Climate Psychology is a trans-disciplinary approach to research and practice. It focuses on the society-wide reluctance to take appropriate action in relation to the escalating threat of climate change. It sees the problem as requiring a deeper approach, that examines our resistance to knowing and acting, rather than seeing it as an “information deficit” to be treated by cognitive or behavioural approaches. It stresses the significance of human emotions,identities and cultural assumptions. Furthermore, it acknowledges the human subject as nested within their social and ecological context.

In order to meet its aims and develop its approach, Climate Psychology draws on a broad range of perspectives, including: literature, philosophy, world =religions, the The arts|arts, humanities and Systems theory|systems thinking[1]. The core of the approach is based on various Psychotherapy|psychotherapeutic traditions and psycho-social studies, allowing climate psychologists to understand the unconscious or unacknowledged emotions and processes influencing people’s thoughts, motivations and behaviours. This applies especially to these processes that manifest in the broader context of the wider society and culture.

The origins of Climate Psychology can be traced back to the work of psychoanalyst Harold Searles and his work on the unconscious factors that influence the estrangement of people from the rest of nature[2]. It has also been strongly influenced by the field of Ecopsychology and its emphasis on the relationships of people with the natural world[3]. Due to the increase in society-wide acceptance of the dangers of climate change, there has been greater interest in understanding the psychological processes underlying the resistance to taking appropriate action, and in particular, the phenomenon of climate change denial[4]. More recently, a literature base by climate psychologists has started to focus on the powerful emotions associated with climate change and planetary-wide biodiversity loss[5].

Climate Change and Emotional Responses

As climate change becomes increasingly threatening[6] to both the biosphere and human livelihoods, the feelings aroused in response are a focus for exploration. Strong, difficult emotions such as grief, mourning, Guilt (emotion)|guilt, feelings of loss and anxiety are common responses to the threats posed by climate change[7]. These various emotions have been collectively referred to in the literature as climate distress[8].

Many of these emotions have been studied independently in relation to climate change. Feelings of loss have been identified as being multi-faceted, and can originate in anticipation of loss soon to occur, as well as actual destruction[9]. The corresponding ‘anticipatory mourning’ has been explored[10]. The feelings of grief and distress in response to ecological destruction[11] have elsewhere been termed ’solastalgia’[12] and the response to pollution of the local environment has been termed ‘environmental melancholia’[13].

However feelings in response to climate change and its broader ramifications can be undeveloped or not fully recognised. This can result in unconscious feelings of despair and unease, particularly in young people[14] and those attending therapy[15]. This makes it difficult to give name to what one is feeling, so it is generally termed as eco-anxiety- particularly when this negative affect takes on more intense forms such as Sleep disorder|sleeping disorders and Rumination (psychology)|ruminative thinking. Rather than see eco-anxiety as a pathology requiring treatment Bednarek[16] has suggested that it be construed as an Adaptive behavior|adaptive, healthy response.

It is often difficult to conceptualise emotions in response to the unseen or intangible aspects of climate change. Theoretical approaches have suggested this is due to climate change being part of a greater construct than human cognition can fully comprehend, known as a ‘hyperobject’[17]. One of the techniques used by climate psychologists to engage with such ‘unthought knowns’ and their unconscious, unexplored, emotional implications is ‘social dreaming’[18][19].

Awareness of climate change and its destructive impact, happening in both the present and future, is often very overwhelming[20]. When communities have been affected by Natural disaster|natural disasters, often as a result of climate change, there is a strong, direct impact on mental health as they have to adapt to the damaging effects.[21][22] This can also be a positive effect, developing Psychological resilience|resilience in both communities and individuals. Researchers are interested in understanding the mechanisms for how this happens. Doppelt suggested ‘transformational resilience’ as a property of social systems, in which adversities are catalysts for new meaning and direction in life, leading to changes that increase both individual and community Well-being|wellbeing above previous levels.[23]

Climate change and Psychological Defences

The realisation that an individual’s actions contribute to climate change can threaten their self-interest and compromise their psychological integrity. The threat to self-interest can often result in ‘denialism’- a refusal to accept and even deny the scientific evidence- manifested across all levels of society. Large organisations that have a strong vested interest in activities directly responsible for climate change, such as fossil fuel companies, may even promote climate change denial through the spread of misinformation[24].

Denial is manifest at the individual level where it is used to protect the self from overwhelming emotional responses to climate change. This is often referred to as ‘soft denial’ or ‘disavowal’ in the relevant literature[25]. Here the dangers of climate change are experienced in a purely intellectual way, resulting in no psychological disturbance: cognition is split off from feeling. Disavowal can be induced by a wide variety of psychological processes including: the diffusion of responsibility, Rationalization (sociology)|rationalisation, perceptual distortion, wishful thinking and projection[4][5]. These are all avoidant ways of coping.

Non-avoidant coping has three predominant forms: active coping, which is direct action taken to deal with a stressful situation; acceptance, which is cognitive and emotional acknowledgement of stressful realities; and cognitive reinterpretation, which involves learning or positive reframing[26][27]. A distinction can also be made between proactive and reactive coping. Proactive coping, also known as anticipatory adaptation or psychological preparedness, is made in anticipation of an event. On the other hand, reactive coping is made during or after the event[28][29].

Climate psychologists consider how coping responses can be Adaptive behavior|adaptive or Maladaptation|maladaptive, not just personally but also for the wider environment and ecology. More precisely, do the responses promote positive psychological adjustment and stimulate appropriate and proportional pro-environmental action, or do they serve to justify the individual in their inaction and allow them to refrain from the necessary, radical changes?[30]

Psycho-social Perspectives and Defences

A psycho-social approach to Climate Psychology examines the interplay between internal, psychological factors and external, socio-cultural factors- such as values, beliefs and norms- in people’s responses to climate change[31][32]. Furthermore, it offers a distinctive Qualitative research|qualitative methodology for understanding the lived experience of research subjects, which has been adopted by researchers seeking to investigate how climate change and environmental destruction is experienced by different groups across society[13][5]. In this case, ‘lived experience’ refers to the feelings, thoughts and imaginations and the meaning frames which both affect and are effected by those experiences.  

Coping responses to impending climate destabilisation are psycho-social phenomena, culturally sanctioned and maintained by Social norm|social norms and structures, not simply isolated psychological processes[4]. For example, modern mass consumerism is dictated by the needs of a globalised, deregulated economy, yet it is one of the driving forces of climate change[33]. It has been suggested that this “culture of un-care” performs an ideological function, insulating consumers from experiencing too much anxiety and moral disquiet.[34][25]

Cultural mechanisms also support ways of down-regulating the powerful feelings that would otherwise be elicited by the awareness of potential threats. These include strong, embedded cultural assumptions such as entitlement, exceptionalism and faith in progress [35][30]. Entitlement is the belief that certain groups or species deserve more than others, and is embedded in the unequal relations governing developed and developing human societies[36]. Exceptionalism is the idea that one’s species, nation, ethnic group or individual self is special and therefore absolved from the rules that apply to others, giving licence to breach natural limits of resource consumption. Faith in progress, a key element of post-industrial ideology, results in a conviction that science and technology can solve every problem, therefore encouraging wishful thinking and false optimism[37][38].

Climate Psychology in Practice

In order to properly address people’s psychological processes in response to climate change, climate psychologists are working on new forms of Therapy|therapeutic, Education|educational and communication practice. These are informed by psycho-social concepts and methods, as well as a variety of therapeutic approaches.

Carbon Conversations is a psycho-social project which seeks to address the practicalities of carbon reduction and drawdown, while simultaneously addressing the complex emotions and social pressures which make this challenging. Since the project’s inception in 2006, it has developed and engaged with thousands of people, resulting in a compendium of those experiences in the book In Time for Tomorrow?[39]. An overview of the successes and limitations of the project was conducted by Büchs and colleagues[40].

Another strand of practice has been to facilitate a connected response to climate change through ongoing community groups and workshop programmes. These have been based on the influential work by Joanna Macy, particularly The Work that Reconnects[41] and Active Hope[27].

In recent years, climate psychologists are facilitating support groups for activists, particularly those active in the support of pro-environmental behaviours across society. They are also developing initiatives such as co-operative inquiry, a method of doing research into psychological phenomena where the participants are fully involved and act as co-researchers, allowing for a broader range of richer, qualitative data[42][43].

See Also

  • Ecopsychology
  • Environmental Psychology
  • Ecological grief|Ecological Grief


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This article "Climate Psychology" is from Wikipedia. The list of its authors can be seen in its historical. Articles taken from Draft Namespace on Wikipedia could be accessed on Wikipedia's Draft Namespace.

External Links

Further Reading

  • Head, L. (2016). Hope and grief in the Anthropocene: Re-conceptualising human–nature relations. Routledge.
  • Marshall, G. (2015). Don't even think about it: Why our brains are wired to ignore climate change. Bloomsbury Publishing USA.
  • Rust, M. J. E., & Totton, N. E. (2012). Vital signs: Psychological responses to ecological crisis. Karnac Books.