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Introducing Climate Psychology: facing the climate crisis
Introducing Climate Psychology: facing the climate crisis

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1 Facing it

What does it feel like to face the reality of the climate and ecological crisis? This is a core question for Climate Psychology, for if we don’t know the answer to it, how can we rely on human action to make the changes that humanity urgently needs to make?

On 19 July 2022, the temperature in the UK surpassed 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) for the first time. Up until then, the UK was a country relatively little affected by climate change. This is how the weather presenter Ben Rich spoke about it when interviewed by The Guardian reporter Sam Wollaston:

… I went to work for my shift. The station was really hot, the train was really hot, and I remember having this moment. I got a bit emotional about it, to be honest. I thought: this is huge. And if it can happen once, why can’t it happen again?

(Rich, 2023)

In his training as a meteorologist, Rich had learned that 40 degrees C in the UK was ‘nigh on impossible because there are all sorts of factors that should stop that from happening, not least the fact that we are surrounded by ocean. It should be too moist for temperatures to get that high’.

At work, as the temperature rose, ‘There were stories of wildfires in east London and other places [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] , the train network went down, there were reports of runways melting at some airports. All this was happening at the same time’.

A photograph showing an aerial view of a destroyed residential area, following a fire.
Figure 1 The aftermath of the wildfires in London, July 2022.

Wollaston comments that knowing and understanding what’s going on is one thing, but a whole new level of awareness comes from actually experiencing something. ‘I think the human condition is that to really get your head around a problem you have to be able to see it and feel it’, Ben Rich says. ‘That was a real watershed moment, when the climate crisis was clearly happening to us, there and then. It felt to me that was a marker that something had fundamentally shifted in what the weather is capable of – and in our climatology.’

The emphasis on actually experiencing climate change, seeing it and feeling it as well as knowing about it, has been important in the last fifty years. Scientists have been establishing the facts of climate change for that long but it often takes an immediate experience like a record high temperature and wildfires in London for the reality to click. The reality made Ben Rich emotional but he doesn’t feel comfortable about that (‘I got a bit emotional about it to be honest’).

Laura Tobin, another weather presenter, talked of watching the temperature forecasts with incredulity and dread on that same morning,

Then when I sat down and chatted to my producer, I had tears in my eyes. Something I had thought would be a reality in the future was a reality that day. We shouldn’t be reaching these temperatures – it would be impossible to without climate change.

(Tobin, 2023)

As a weather presenter it was hard to know how to present the increased frequency of extreme weather events (record temperatures, rainfall, drought and wildfires): ‘It got to a point where it’s like: another record? We won’t do this one because we did a record the other day.’ Here we see how the requirement to make news ‘new’, to interest the audience, can play into how climate change is communicated.

Laura Tobin spoke of another factor that affected her personal experience of deeply realising about the seriousness of climate change, one that affects many people: she had a baby.

I had already seen how things had changed between my mum’s generation and mine; now it was about how it was going to change for her. Having a daughter has definitely made me want to talk about [climate change] more. Before, it was: this could happen in so many years. Now it’s going to happen in her lifetime; it’s already happening. When you put a value and a feeling on that timescale it makes it more real.

(Tobin, 2023)

Her comment shows up another common feature: that for years people got the impression that climate change was not going to happen in their lifetime, and this was a way of shelving it. Becoming a parent extends this timeline. Not only will it happen in her daughter’s lifetime, but ‘it’s already happening’.

Recording a programme from the melting glaciers of Northern Norway, Laura Tobin found herself crying on camera.

I didn’t mean to. I didn’t want it to be about me crying; I wanted it to be about the science. But I just saw the reality of it and it moved me. I realised that we – everybody – is responsible for that change. Seeing the reality compared to seeing and knowing the science was different. That was the moment for me when I was like: I want my daughter to come back and see this.

(Tobin, 2023)

Note also how she contrasted being emotional with talking about the science, as if they were in opposition. Scientists have been especially beset by the requirement to be unemotional, as if objectivity required being emotion free. Arguably the dry and dusty style of scientific – including many psychological – articles has made it harder to communicate climate change successfully. What do we mean by successfully? We mean communication in a way that makes it feel real and as momentous as it is, so that it moves people – emotionally – to engage in some way, rather than avoid, that reality.

You may well recognise many features of these reactions to climate change in your own feelings. Climate Psychology emphasises how difficult it is for people to fully recognise the extent of the threat that climate change poses. And this difficulty has been mirrored in the language and politics and media information that has been available to us.

Activity 1 When climate change can hit you

Timing: Allow about 10 minutes

Can you locate a time when you felt the reality of climate change more deeply than before? Write down a description of how you felt and describe what was going on at the time.

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