2 Impacts of climate change on our psychology

2.1 Understanding our emotional responses to climate change: denial

Our emotional responses to climate change are often ignored. However, recent research suggests that understanding our psychological response to climate change might help us to respond more effectively.

Since the publication of Silent Spring by Rachel Carson in 1962, environmental campaigners have urged people to wake up to the dangers that lie ahead of us from climate change and other impacts caused by humans. Understandably, activists have tried to inform people through giving them the alarming facts of the situation, believing that this will urge them to act.

What we now realise is that when a crisis is on a global scale, requiring massive and complex change to our lifestyles and thinking, it is very easy for people to feel overwhelmed and disempowered. A typical response is to feel paralysed like a rabbit in headlights, unable to act. When the problems that face us are overwhelming we tend to develop ways to drown out the sound of the alarm bells. This in turn allows us to continue with our daily way of life – which in many cases is at the root of the problem in the first place. We can enter a dynamic downward spiral. The danger is obvious: when we disconnect from the emergency at hand, we do not prepare for what is coming. This is called denial.

Sometimes we turn to drugs or alcohol, or to distracting ourselves though things like celebrity culture and the mass media. Our dependence on these distractions can become quite addictive and can leave us very vulnerable because they divert our attention away from important personal, social and ecological tasks.

The Transition Movement suggests that we urgently need to develop local resilience, to withstand the coming shock waves of global systemic collapse, which we are beginning to experience in our financial markets, and within numerous social and ecological systems. The resilience needed is not only about physical structures, but also about psychological ones. The first step towards developing psychological resilience is becoming aware of our emotional responses to climate change.

Activity 2

Find a friend or colleague with whom you can talk openly about your feelings. Spend an hour together and take it in turns to complete the following open sentences:

  • When I think about what is happening to our world I feel …

  • The feelings I find difficult to tolerate are (e.g. anger, fear, powerlessness, hopelessness, grief, etc.) …

  • The way I deal with these feelings is …

  • What inspires me about living at this time of crisis is …

  • My gift that I have to contribute to this time of crisis is …

(More ‘open sentences’ can be found in Chapter 7: ‘Despair work: owning and honoring our pain for the world’ in Macy, J. and Young Brown, M. (1998) Coming Back to Life: Practices to Reconnect Our Lives, Our World, New Society Publishers. For a summary of this book, see Joanna Macy's website.)

1.2 Recent developments in ecopsychology

2.2 Understanding our emotional responses to climate change: disconnection, projection and repression