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According to climate scientists we have been so tardy in responding to burgeoning greenhouse gas emissions that there are now only two possible paths: extreme rates of emission reductions or extreme climate change. The first would require all major polluting nations - within the next five years – to undertake the type of radical economic restructuring previously seen only in war-time. That is not going to happen.

Unless the science turns out to be wholly wrong, we are locked on a path of extreme climate change lasting many centuries. How do we respond psychologically to this?

A paper by Tim Kasser and myself  draws on research into the various “coping strategies” we might use to defend against or manage the unpleasant emotions associated with “waking up” to the dangers of a warming globe. These include fear, anxiety, guilt, anger, depression and helplessness. The strategies fall into three broad types: denial, maladaptive and adaptive strategies.

Denial and maladaptive  strategies

Denial strategies aim to suppress anxiety associated with predictions of climate disruption by not allowing the facts to be accepted in the conscious mind. Denial of the facts means emotions need not be felt. “Climate sceptics” actively reject the main propositions established by climate science.

For many such individuals, acceptance of climate science and the response it calls for conflicts with their fundamental beliefs. This can give rise to “cognitive dissonance”, the uncomfortable feeling people have when they begin to understand that something they believe to be true is contradicted by evidence. The theory was developed by Leon Festinger in the 1950s after observing a religious cult. At its heart was Marian Keech who claimed to have received messages from an extraterrestrial being predicting the world would end in December 1954.

Denial of the facts means emotions need not be felt

Festinger infiltrated the cult and was inside Keech’s house on the appointed day while the news media gathered outside. When the world did not end, cult members invited the media in, telling them that Keech had received a message from a high-density being to the effect that the world had been spared because the cult had spread so much light. Rather than adjust their beliefs cult members proselytised more fervently. Climate deniers too seem to become more active as the scientific evidence for warming mounts.

A less vociferous form of denial - casual denial - is engaged in by many members of the public. Anxiety can be reduced simply by restricting exposure to distressing information by, for example, skipping news stories or disengaging from conversations. Inner narratives are deployed to dismiss the evidence: “Environmentalists always exaggerate.”

The willingness to dismiss the evidence is exploited by some “sceptical” media outlets. The Australian, responded to recent government warnings about sea-level rise with a front-page story next to a large photo of a bronzed bloke named Lee at Bondi Beach. He declared that in thirty years of using the beach he had not noticed any change.

But most of us do not deny the science; instead we adopt what can be called maladaptive coping strategies, those in which we acknowledge and accept the facts up to a point, but cope by blunting the emotional impact. We do so using a number of techniques.

We might “de-problematise” the threat by making it seem smaller, or we use “distancing”, emphasising the time lapse before consequences of warming will be felt: “Humans have solved these sorts of problems before.” We might divert attention from unpleasant emotions by engaging in minor behaviour changes that mollify feelings of helplessness or guilt.

Or we can blame-shift:  a form of moral disengagement whereby people disavow their responsibility for the problem or the solution. Derogation of out-groups can be used to solidify one’s sense of self and ward off threats: “China builds a new coal-fired power plant every week.”

Or we can cultivate indifference. Apathy is typically understood as meaning the absence of feeling, but it can often reflect a suppression of feeling that serves a useful psychological function: “If I don’t care I won’t feel bad.”

Wishful thinking is a further strategy. Cultivating “benign fictions” can be an adaptive response to an often-unfriendly world. Yet among benign fictions it is important to distinguish between illusions that respond and adapt to reality, albeit slowly, and delusions that are clung to despite the accumulation of evidence.

Against these maladaptive strategies, we have identified adaptive coping strategies that are activated when one accepts both the facts and the accompanying emotions, and then try to act on both. They are adaptive in the sense of promoting psychological adjustment to new circumstances and stimulating appropriate actions. There are three broad types.

Adaptive coping strategies

First, expressing and controlling emotions such as anger and despair may be a healthy response to anticipated climate change. However, remaining indefinitely within these feelings can be debilitating, leading to apathy and resignation, so the objective is to manage and transcend them.

Secondly, to overcome fear of the unknown, one healthy response is to find out more and form a clearer picture of the future. Adopting problem-solving might impel people to act – itself an effective response to depression - with others so as to prepare for a changed climate.

Developing a new value orientation is a means of healthy adaption

Thirdly, developing a new value orientation is a means of healthy adaption. Talk of climate disruption triggers thoughts of death. Studies show that when given brief reminders of our mortality we are more likely to seek means of enhancing our self-esteem by attaching greater importance to money, image and status. On the other hand, people who have experienced traumatic episodes, often discard materialistic and self-centred pursuits and adopt a more compassionate and reflective worldview. This phenomenon has led to the development of “post-traumatic growth theory”.

It seems that fleeting thoughts of death tend to promote more self-enhancing and materialistic behaviours, while more conscious and careful processing of death brings about the opposite reaction, the adoption of goals that are less materialistic and more pro-social.

Evidence in Western countries indicates that a minority of the population resists or ignores the facts of climate science, while a majority seems to use maladaptive coping strategies. Another minority, including many climate scientists and some environmental campaigners, has made the transition to adaptive coping. This leaves governments with a huge problem: the science demands that we act at once. Yet the kind of actions we need now will not be countenanced until a large proportion of the population abandons the maladaptive strategies that allow them to filter the facts and blunt the emotional meaning of scientific warnings.


Clive Hamilton FRSA is Charles Sturt Professor of Public Ethics at the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics, based at the Australian National University. His book, Requiem for a Species: Why we resist the truth about climate change, is published by Earthscan. He will also be speaking at the RSA on 12 May about Facing up to climate change.

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