Climate change psychology

Published online 25 March 2015.

The starting point of this piece is a short commentary in the online Toronto newspaper The Globe and Mail, suggesting that “To confront climate change, we must turn fear into empathy.”  Now, Peter Martin is an astrophysicist, and so his piece is not so much a commentary on climate change science (yeah, I know, Freeman Dyson — this is better stuff) as it is a commentary on what a scientist sees in the climate change situation.  It’s also important that Martin comes from Canada.  Canada is a pivotal country in the fight to mitigate climate change, as Canada is the site of vast reserves of oil and tar sands which must at some point be allowed to remain in the ground if a proactive solution to the climate change crisis is to be attempted.

Martin’s piece has a literary tenor and meanders a bit, but what I thought was valuable about it was that it suggests a psychology of abrupt climate change.  His conclusion is an exhortation to develop more proactive attitudes toward climate change:

This silent spring we should pause to cry for our beloved planet but not let future generations become the inheritors of our fear. It is time to reject the scourge of irrationality, resist the opiates that so distract us, and redirect the power of persuasion that has produced so cynically such a socially pre-Copernican century of self. Alongside evidenced-based policymaking we must “give as in yonder valley the myrtle breathes its fragrance into space” and so close the empathy gap.

Martin’s idea, then, is that there is something wrong with the way the public is internalizing news about climate change.  The title given to Martin’s short rant oversimplifies the matter, though — as Martin himself recognizes, it’s not just about fear.  Here, briefly, I will suggest some other possible psychologies of abrupt climate change, besides fear.  For the most part these psychologies are not proactive — they will not tell us where to go.Overconfidence — Martin mentions this one.

On the one hand is hubris: there are no limits to human innovation, discovery, and development. But even then, do we rely on crises and emergencies with unjustifiable deaths to punctuate the process? Should we wait to pull the ripcord when only one metre off the ground, vainly hoping that “geo-engineering” will save the planet?

The voice of overconfidence tells us that everyone will buy a Tesla, you see (well, all of the Important People in the economy of the 7%), and they will all run on solar power, and then the problem will go away by itself.Helplessness — there is no solution, we are all doomed.  No need to bother even with fear — enjoy life while it lasts.

Willful ignorance — climate change will go away like the rest of that fluff they show on the news.

Apathy — it’s not my problem and the experts know more than I do, so why ask me?  This psychology was delineated with expert grace in Nina Eliasoph’s ethnographic study Avoiding Politics, and although Eliasoph didn’t study popular attitudes toward climate change, her study makes a lot of connections to environmental politics.

Cynicism — nobody really wants to deal with climate change; they just want to look good.

False hope — we can solve the problem, and it’s really easy.  Or: we are doing enough already (omigod California AB 32!) or we just need to be doing a little bit more and that’s it.

So there are some other psychologies with which one may contend — each individual can mix and match, or reject them all together.  My own analysis is below the noodle.

Some conclusions:

1) Climate change psychology only matters if one thinks that ordinary people can work together to (as Naomi Klein put it) “save the climate.”  If it’s really up to the experts, then climate change psychology isn’t important.

2) If ordinary people are to “save the climate,” there must be some sort of “plug-in” in which they can join social movements which can, themselves, potentially become climate change movements.  This is, of course, the overall strategy given by Naomi Klein in her book This Changes Everything.  PLEASE NOTE that all that is required now for this solution is that the various movements must have the potential to be climate change movements — the whole package does not have to be complete right away.

3) If climate change movements are to “save the climate,” they must emerge from their current defensive orientation (“Stop Keystone XL!“) to champion outside-of-the-box thinking with regard to the climate change crisis.  Martin only hints at this, through his criticisms of the most recent IPCC report:

In discussing scenarios of mitigation and adaptation the IPCC report is hardly sanguine, but rather on the melancholic side of apocalyptic. The report is intentionally non-prescriptive on policy. Not ideally then, the report is a “here are the facts” hand-off to policymakers (and their political masters – us?) who are to run with the ball.

and then saying:

The post-Kyoto record is not impressive, what with running in the wrong direction on targets and changing the goal posts – charitably, backsliding. Even assuming no outright fumble and some eventual traction, might gradualism with its emphasis on trade-offs, process trumping results, bring new meaning to studying something to death?

So clearly some sort of out-of-the-box social thinking needs to be added to the mix.  We are not going to survive the 21st century on facts alone.  Here are some out-of-the-box suggestions:a) The nations of the world can, if their representatives care about the future survival of civilization, nationalize all oil and coal reserves and infrastructure.

b) Oil and coal production, then, can be phased out.  In conjunction with this phasing-out, a heroic, World War II-style effort to bring free solar and wind power to the world will be enjoined.

c) Given that climate change is only a small portion of the damage done by the capitalist system to planet Earth (as it threatens human existence), governments across the globe will attempt a phase-out of global corporate economic domination, replacing said domination with institutions of global governance and with nonprofit agencies in the spirit of Harry Shutt’s books.

This is, of course, just a small sampler of the sort of thinking that will be necessary in the coming era of abrupt climate change.

4) Ideas are like seeds — they will not grow unless given favorable conditions.  More generally, ideas need social traction — they need to be picked up by other people and used as the basis for social activity of some sort.  We’ll need an academic infrastructure, a protest movement, and utopian experimentation at a minimum.

5) At a more general level, then, what is needed is not just ideas or traction but a general transformation of public thinking.  From Naomi Klein:

… the real reason we are failing to rise to climate movement is because the action required directly challenge our reigning economic paradigm (deregulated capitalism combined with public austerity), the stories on which Western cultures are founded (that we stand apart from nature and can outsmart limits), as well as many of the activities that form our identities and define our communities (shopping, living virtually, shopping some more).

For a deeper analysis of the cultural revolution Klein suggests, please consult her book.

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