Climate psychology & role of emotions

Here’s a presentation I gave at the Climate Emergency – Raising Ambition conference, in London on 14th Sept 2019, ending the talk with a short guided meditation.

The event was organised by the Green European Foundation with the support of Green House think tank. There was a full day of talks and discussions with a great line-up of speakers and participants – the programme, presentations and videos of the talks can be viewed here.

Climate psychology and cultural change

When we face up to the reality of our situation, we encounter powerful emotions that can be difficult to bear:

We may also feel positive emotions:It is not so much which particular emotions we feel, as we probably all feel all of these at some time, perhaps several of them simultaneously including those that feel in conflict with each other – it is how we deal with them, and how we negotiate the tensions and inner conflicts that we feel. That to a large extent shapes our response to eco/climate crisis and determines whether that response is adaptive or maladaptive.

Climate change and ecological destruction and degradation pose profound psychological threat in these various ways. It challenges who we think we are as individuals & as a society, and our sense of worthiness as moral beings:

(c) Nadine Andrews

A point on language as an aside:

(c) Nadine Andrews

I understand the reason for framing it as an ‘emergency’ or ‘crisis’ and recognise the advantages, however from a cognitive linguistics perspective there are also potential disadvantages. The climate emergency/crisis is a LONG TERM EVENT over decades and centuries – it is a ‘Long Emergency” (James Howard Kunstler). We tend to associate emergencies and crises with immediate danger, and respond in command and control way. As with the ‘war’ frame, the normal rules of everyday life don’t apply. I suggest that the frame invites anti-democratic governance, and a strengthening of oppressive regimes – when there is a fire to put out we tend not to sit around having protracted processes of participatory or deliberative democracy.Perception of threat causes disequilibruim, which creates stress (biological & psychological). The human tendency is to want to alleviate stress and decrease associated emotions through defences and coping strategies in order to return to baseline functioning as soon as possible.

These defences and coping strategies have emotional, cognitive & behavioural dimensions, and have outcomes that can be personally and/or ecologically adaptive or maladaptive. These processes are playing out largely below the level of conscious awareness.

(c) Nadine Andrews

Why would we have maladaptive strategies? There are benefits:

    • defence against feeling
    • protects us from taking responsibility and having to take significant action
    • enhance self-esteem
    • protects sense of self
    • (diversionary activity) mollifies guilt, form of absolution, defends against helplessness and hopelessness, reasserts sense of being in control

These are very attractive, so we can see how tempting it could be to fall into one or other of these.

Adaptive coping strategies helps us to adjust to reality of situation, stimulates appropriate and proportional actions:

(c) Nadine Andrews

Engaging with difficult emotions

The key questions is are we able to engage with these feelings? Because emotions have a purpose, they are cues – they are not an evolutionally mistake, they direct attention and guide behaviour. Often these types of emotions are called ‘negative’ but in climate psychology we prefer to call them ‘difficult’ emotions.

I found in my own research that people even those with strong pro-environmental values have a tendency to want to suppress difficult emotions about climate/eco crisis, out of fear that they will get stuck in them and be unable to function.

But suppressed emotions don’t go away they just steer us from behind, and they can re-emerge into consciousness with more intensity. Suppression takes effort, it is psychologically and physically tiring, and it diverts cognitive resources away from other tasks. There is also substantial evidence of negative health consequences associated with suppression of emotion over the long term.

So – are we able to honour these emotions, and regulate them? Or are we at their mercy,  unconsciously reacting in ways that are unhealthy and unhelpful. Remembering the idea of a long emergency, prolonged stress can create major health problems eventually leading to exhaustion, illness and ultimately death.

I believe we need to create new social norms for feeling, expressing and working with & working through these emotions – so we can use them creatively; acknowledge ethical conflicts and tensions within us. So that rather than driving us from behind into maladaptive responses, they can be brought out into conscious awareness where they can be worked with.

Inner conflict is part of what it means to be human. We all face ethical dilemmas, and experience conflicting emotions when it comes to climate change., and in my view it relates to the call by Green House for honesty in politics. All us to some extent at certain moments are in disavowal, unconsciously defending ourselves against the pain and the horror. None of us are completely right or completely wrong in the way we are responding, and the humility that comes from such a realisation can help us relate to one another with more compassion and forgiveness (Andrews & Hoggett 2019).

I strongly believe we need not just individual but also public and collective mourning for loss in all its various dimensions: loss of wildlife, loss of sense of safety and security, of our comfortable lifestyles and expectations of the future. With mourning we can let go of what is lost, and what no longer serves us and our kin in the community of life.. With letting go we create space for the new, for better ways of living – with each other and the Earth.

Credit: Nadine Andrews

And so to my final point: psychological resources to help build resilience and support positive change at individual, community and societal levels.

We need these resources to help us deal with the trauma that is coming. Of course for some people in the world, that trauma is already here. A key element of these resources is hope, radical hope, which comes from being able to face the worst and which is directed towards as Jonathan Lear says a “future goodness that transcends the current ability to understand what it is”. Such a hope is not just about determination and courage but also about love and a re-finding of all that is benign in the world (Andrews & Hoggett 2019).

This conference today is very focused on solutions, and I would encourage you to notice what feelings arise today & how you are engaging with them, notice what defences/coping strategies are being triggered – then you have conscious choice about whether to keep going with that response or not.

I ended the talk by inviting the audience to take part in a guided 3 step breathing space meditation.

Download the pdf of the talk here Andrews 2019_GEF climate emergency pres 14-9-19


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