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

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4 Individual responsibility

As previously discussed, ordinary people can operate disavowal because there are those – in positions of power – in whose interests it is to share material of self-deception, even while knowing that they are spreading lies. In his book The New Climate War (2021), Michael Mann makes a distinction between those parts of the media that have knowingly promoted climate change denial (he cites the Rupert Murdoch empire for example) and those well-intentioned media outlets who unwittingly reproduce the dominant framing of the culture, for example, focusing on the responsibility of individuals for changing their consumer behaviour.

The fossil fuel lobbies’ change of tactic, Michael Mann notes, has heightened the emphasis on individual behaviour change. They have funded and conducted a marketing campaign with this orientation to deflect the blame away from fossil fuel companies. This is a kind of denial because they know full well that changes at the level of individual consumption (however useful and necessary) will not achieve the massive reductions in climate emissions without deep systemic change. For that, governments must refuse the influence of fossil fuel interests.

A photograph of the front cover of The New Climate War.
Figure 1 Michael Mann’s The New Climate War.

The tactic of ‘individual responsibilisation’ – putting blame and responsibility on the shoulders of individual consumers – works particularly well. It does so for at least two reasons. First is that consumer habits will have to change, so it is not a wholly unrealistic ask. But the psycho-social point is for consumers to be offered different choices as a result of change happening at corporate and policy levels – be this in food consumption, travel, fashion or family size. For example, trains could be made cheaper than planes for many journeys; many foods, if handled differently, need not come in plastic packaging; products destructive to the ecosystem (neonicotinoids, PFAS) could be banned.

The second reason is that the culture of modern society is already so individualised that it seems like the natural thing to require individuals to change (Margaret Thatcher, British prime minister in the 1970s, was notorious for claiming that there was ‘no such thing as society’). As individuals shaped by this culture, we are more liable to take on the associated guilt of not doing enough to go green while often not considering that the primary responsibility lies at higher levels.