Are Our Emotions Preventing Us From Taking Action on Climate Change?
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This article was published in partnership with GlobalPossibilities.org.
The vast majority of reporting on climate change is about data and facts. Temperatures have risen by this amount, glaciers have melted by that percent, Hurricane Sandy has cost this many billion dollars of damage. This type of discussion, though obviously necessary, speaks almost purely to the intellect. It fails to address what changes to our climate make us feel, and discussion of whether these feelings are rational or productive: do our emotional reactions to climate change help us make the massive political and cultural shifts necessary to halt its devastating progress? Or do they hold us back from taking rational, collective action? As a psychotherapist, I help clients examine and think through their feelings. I will attempt to do the same for Americans, broadly, coping with the difficult emotional challenge of climate change.
Emotions are complicated—people can experience many feelings, often contradictory, in when reacting to an issue as important and complicated as climate change. I will consider various emotional reactions that people may have, bearing in mind that most people will feel a shifting combination of these emotions in response to our changing climate.
Many Americans feel guilty about climate change. This is largely due to the narrative about “individual responsibility” for climate change that is prominent in American culture. Adults are implored to “reduce their carbon footprint,” and children are taught to “reduce, reuse, and recycle.” Climate change makes us feel guilty because it makes us feel that we haven’t done our moral duty; we have consumed more than our fair share. Now, we shall suffer the consequences of our moral lapses. We deserved Hurricane Sandy because of our wanton, consumptive ways.
These feelings, though understandable and common, are not rational or productive. It would be masochistic for individuals, acting alone, to renounce the non-sustainable conveniences and pleasures that modern life has to offer. Our society is constructed with modern conveniences in mind. Homes are far away from job sites, because people are expected to drive. Cities are built in areas that reach very high temperatures, and people are expected to be productive even during summers—because they are expected to use air conditioning. Attempting, individually, to rectify the damage of climate change would be alienating, and it would put a person at a disadvantage from others.
Further, the idea that climate change should be dealt with at an individual level makes no sense. Even if a large number, say 10 million people, go totally carbon neutral, climate change would continue its ruthless forward march, nonetheless. No one of us created this mess, and no one of us can solve it alone.
More importantly, guilt about climate change is counter-productive. Guilt is an uncomfortable feeling. In order to avoid feeling guilty, we avoid thinking about climate change, the increasing severity of weather, and what life will be like for our children and grandchildren. We overlook the failure of our leaders, because we are too busy blaming ourselves. We fail to demand, large-scale, coordinated action from our government. Every day we are fooled into thinking that climate change is a problem caused by individuals and solvable by individuals is another day we fail to move towards large-scale, coordinated, societal action. We fail to exert our influence on the fate of the only planet we have.
Another common emotion that climate change inspires is anger, which, when directed thoughtfully, is more rational than guilt and can be more productive. The fossil fuel industry and other corporate interests have prioritized profits over our collective future. Our politicians have lacked the foresight and courage to protect us. Beyond these specific grievances, people may feel diffuse anger at the unfairness of our situation. We didn’t ask for such a dangerous, precarious world, but that is the world we inherited.