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

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1 Business as usual?

Climate Psychology Alliance’s (CPA) strap line is ‘facing difficult truths’ and this reflected the situation in the first years of the twenty-first century when there seemed to be a massive failure to face the difficult truth of climate change. Al Gore, previously US vice president, made a renowned and influential film in 2006, called An Inconvenient Truth. CPA’s emphasis has been on the importance of understanding how and why it was that there was not an attempt, at every level, to reverse greenhouse gas emissions.

Bruno Latour, a prominent French intellectual, has argued that ‘we can understand nothing about the politics of the last fifty years if we do not put the question of climate change and its denial front and center’ (Latour, 2018, p. 2). The denial of climate change has operated at many simultaneous levels, all mutually influencing each other. We call this psycho-social: psychological and social interacting (here the ‘social’ includes the political, economic, technological, corporate and cultural). This is a key reason why Climate Psychology goes well beyond documenting the psychological defence mechanisms that work to achieve denial at the individual level.

We can start with the recognition, central to a dynamic depth psychology, that when a thought or an experience is too painful or difficult to bear, it is likely to be met with a protective defence mechanism which involves getting rid of it. This enables us to carry on as if the thought wasn’t there; carrying on with business as usual. It is then necessary to expand our understanding to the social dynamics. Large, global culture has been carrying on pretty much as usual, despite knowing about climate change, for the last fifty or more years.

According to Bruno Latour, the agreement about the climate that was reached in Paris in December 2015 (COP21) was hugely important, but not for the reasons usually recognised:

What counts as a measure of the event’s real impact is not what the delegates decided; it is not even whether or not the agreement is carried out (the climate change deniers will do their utmost to eviscerate it); no, the crucial fact is that, on that December day all the signatory countries, even as they were applauding the success of the improbable agreement, realized with alarm that, if they all went ahead according to the terms of their respective modernization plans, there would be no planet compatible with their hopes for development. They would need several planets; they have only one.

(Latour, 2018, p. 5)

The record since 2015 suggests that, one way or another, governments and organisations at every level have continued to carry on as if COP21 need not interrupt business as usual.