Are Our Emotions Preventing Us From Taking Action on Climate Change?
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.
Anger, if productively channeled, can motivate people to action—not the futile action of attempting to limit individual consumption—but political action. Anger can motivate us to demand massive action from politicians. Our elected representatives need to be told that they are failing in their most fundamental duty— keeping their citizens safe. Politicians need to know that we will hold them accountable for their inaction. Corporations need to be told that they will be harshly punished if they stand in the way of a sustainable future for the planet. Anger can be extremely productive if it motivates us to harness our power as citizens to work for systemic change: to demonstrate, to demand, to vote and to take direct action.
Fear is the most rational emotional reaction to climate change, and also holds the potential to be harnessed productively. Hurricane Sandy is but a preview, a taste, of the devastation towards which we are careening. Scientific projections of the damage climate change will cause range from uncomfortable to the truly catastrophic. We humans live at the mercy of our climate. Without a stable climate, the most basic foundations of human life—food, water, and shelter—will be threatened. We should fear for ourselves, for our children, and for the future of our civilization. We should be animated by our fear; motivated towards entering the public square and demanding massive political action at National and International levels.
Feelings of sadness, devastation, and grief are also rational responses to climate change. People have already lost their lives due to climate change, through severe weather and food shortages linked to changing agricultural conditions. We are in the process of devastating many species and ecological systems, many of which will be extinguished forever. We have deprived our children of being able to appreciate the same natural beauty and diversity that we experienced. More importantly, we are losing our sense of safety and normalcy. New York is now vulnerable to hurricanes and flooding. Will Colorado continue to be vulnerable to severe wildfires? Will the Midwest suffer from chronic droughts? Will civilization withstand the changes?
We grieve the certainty and security that comes with a stable climate. We have built our society upon certain expectations of the climate. We have chosen where to build our cities, where to grow crops, and how to make our lives based on a set of assumptions about how the climate works, and about the cheapness and availability of resources. These assumptions are being disproved, and we grieve their loss. We grieve because we have suffered losses the safety, security, and abundance that we believed was our birthright. We grieve because we know that the problem will get worse for coming generations.
A grief reaction is a rational response to climate change—but to the extent that it makes us feel helpless, like passive victims—it is a barrier to productive action. We must fight nihilism and passivity, feeling that the problems are too great to be solved, and cultivate a cultural attitude of determination and courage. Yes, it is possible that humanity will lose our battle with climate change. It is even possible that we have already crossed the threshold that the environment is so badly damaged that there is nothing that we can do to save it. If this is true, then grief is the most rational and fitting emotional response. But if there is a chance for remediation of our climate, for preserving our planet for future generations, then we have a moral obligation to adopt the attitude of “Live or die trying.” We owe it to ourselves and to future generations to give saving the planet our very best effort. If we give up now, drowned in pre-emptive grief, we guarantee our own defeat.
Many people claim not to have an emotional reaction to climate change. Some of these people who lack the education, exposure to fact-based media, or intellectual capacity to comprehend the threat of climate change, and thus truly have no emotional reaction to it.
However, most people who feel no emotional reaction to climate change are in denial, meaning they are utilizing a psychological defense mechanism to guard against their true, feelings. Climate change apathy should be regarded in the same way as people who claim to have no reaction to their recent divorce, the death of a parent, or being raped.
The utilization of denial indicates how overwhelming an emotional experience truly is. Many people even claim that they do not believe that climate change exists! This is an indication of emotional overwhelm: denial means that the truth is so threatening that it is easier to distort reality than to face it. This is a general psychological principle that has been validated for the environment specifically. Lertzman (2012) found that underneath a veneer of apathy, people care deeply about the natural world; they have powerful memories and attachments to nature. They feel grief, anger, and fear about environmental destruction—but they are too overwhelmed by those feelings, and feel too helpless to respond to them, that they refuse to recognize them at all.
One important implication of this psychological understanding of climate change denial is that it can be largely solved through effective climate policy. Attempting to convince people that climate change is real treats the issue of climate denial as an intellectual problem rather than an emotional one. Rather, if the government actually showed courage and leadership on climate change, initiating a program of massive, effective action, then deniers will no longer feel so overwhelmed by their emotional reaction to climate change, and will be much more able to face its painful reality.
Utilizing Our Emotions for Massive, Collective, Government-Led Action
As I have intimated, I believe the only way that humanity has a fighting chance against the forces of climate change are to mobilize a massive collective effort, led by the government. To me the most appropriate analogy to guide our response is war, specifically World War II. World War II was the last time the United States faced a true existential threat. We tried to stay out of the conflict for as long as possible, but when we were attacked on our own soil—when we saw our fleet in Pearl Harbor destroyed, and watched Hitler push mercilessly through Europe—we knew that the most drastic action was necessary.
Americans of all kinds rose to the challenge. Young men went to war, risking their lives, braving the ultimate sacrifice, to protect their country and their families. Women went to work in factories—building submarines and machine guns. People did without: meat, sugar, razor blades, and stockings were all strictly rationed. Americans gave their contributions, made their sacrifices, together. That is what made “The Greatest Generation” so illustrious. Because we came together as a country to fight for our survival, and we won. We survived and we prospered. Working together, we were capable of remarkable things. Working together, we became the greatest country in the world.
Since then, the United States has not fought wars for its survival. The military has fought, and soldiers have bravely sacrificed their lives, but in faraway countries that posed indirect and relatively minor threats to the safety of the nation as a whole. Since World War II, our country has not directly faced an existential threat. Until now.
Climate change should be treated as our mortal enemy, because it is. The United States must declare a full-scale war on climate change.
There is a practical difference in how you wage war on climate change. This war cannot be waged through combat. Rather, the government must implement a multi-pronged approach that will call for sacrifice and change from all members of society. The first step must be to price carbon to reflect the damage it does to the environment. This is the single most important policy that the government must implement. Our government will also need to make alliances with other countries, as we do in other wars, to join our collective struggle. The government will have to call on scientists, scholars, community leaders, and everyday citizens to assist in our collective effort for survival.
This society-wide mobilization must start with our government. We need our leaders to protect us. I call on the President of the United States, and our Congress, to declare war on climate change. Join me.