Climate change and its solutions are technically complex issues with significant scientific, engineering, political, economic, legal and social dimensions. It’s difficult for anyone working in climate change to have expertise in every dimension, let alone have the resources to communicate them effectively to the wider public.
My poor husband has had to endure many evenings listening to me vent my frustrations on this topic. He’s not as interested in climate change as I am, but he is quite interested in psychology. Hence, between us, we have come up with a theory about the psychology of climate change that I’ll present in this week’s Climate Friday FAQ: Why is there so little action on climate change?
The other “Big C”- Not Cancer, but Climate
I could scare you (and bore you) to death with peer-reviewed data and projections of what a world in climate chaos means and how close we’re coming to locking that world into place. Instead, I’ll tell you what an eminent international climate scientist once said to me when I asked which fictional Hollywood movie best portrayed what a life in climate chaos could look like: “The Road”. If you’ve seen the movie, you’ll agree that it’s a horrific environment and not a world we would want our grandchildren, great grandchildren, or any human for that matter, to have to endure.
The science is clear about this: The more greenhouse gases we pump into our atmosphere, the more we prevent heat from escaping into space and the more our earth’s temperature increases. We’ve known this since the 1800s based on work by the French physicist, John Fourier, and Irish physicist, John Tyndall. There is no doubt that human activities are interfering with Earth’s climate. The uncertainty only exists in how much global warming we will have to bear and at what rates the warming and associated ecological impacts will occur.
Climate change is a problem that is so big and so bad, it’s the global equivalent of telling someone they’re dying of cancer. As a scientist, I cringe when I read such emotive words, but we really are killing our planet.
Are we a world in grieving?
The five stages of grief do not necessarily come in order or are all experienced by a grieving individual, but Kübler-Ross claimed that a person always experiences at least two of the stages of grief and that some people may never reach the stage of acceptance. It is only once acceptance is reached that “grief work”, or coping and managing the situation, can begin. No doubt these stages over-simplify a complex problem and there are many other reasons someone may not take action on climate change. However, if the theory has any merit at all, to communicate climate change effectively we have to know what stage of grief someone is in and then apply this knowledge to move an individual toward acceptance of the climate crisis so the real work on climate solutions can begin.
The five theoretical stages of climate change grief
It’s only when a denier experiences the impacts of climate change that they’re forced to acknowledge the reality, but by then it may be too late to solve the problem.
Some of us do, but not enough of us demonstrate that anger to our elected representatives (yet) for them to do something about it. Maybe our lack of anger is due to our own feelings of responsibility and guilt for contributing to the problem. The Change.ie campaign told us that we as individuals had the power to fix the climate change problem by reducing our personal carbon footprint. It’s hard to justify getting angry about someone else (i.e. the government) not doing enough when you know you’re not helping the situation with your own behaviour. That personal guilt is a road block to demonstrations on climate action in Ireland. Anger can be a catalyst to action. Angry people get stuff done, and getting angry about lack of climate action can help raise awareness and support about the problem. While I’m generally not an angry person, I think the climate change problem could do with a lot more anger for our leaders to pay attention to its urgency, but just reacting to anger does not provide solutions in the long-term.
Getting depressed about climate change is simply a waste of our limited and precious time.
We can’t get to work solving climate change until we reach the acceptance of our reality, but reaching acceptance in itself is still a long way from reaching the solutions if we put our own self-interest above the good of society and future generations.
Why is there so little action on climate change?
Going beyond acceptance of the climate crisis
The other night I watched the movie Selma, which chronicled Martin Luther King Jr.’s struggle to secure voting rights for African Americans in 1965 through peaceful protest and resistance. There’s a scene in the movie where U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson says he’s not concerned about how people judge him in the present but how people will remember him 20 years from now and in future history books. This personal concern about how Johnson was remembered and how the rest of the world judged the United States based on his actions became the driving force in L.B.J.’s decision to unequivocally support King’s campaign. It struck me that our leaders will face the same personal struggle about climate change. While their actions on climate change today may not affect their re-election and immediate careers, their action (or inaction) will affect how they are remembered in history when future generations are either reaping the rewards of aggressive action on climate or suffering the consequences of insufficient efforts. I wonder if our leaders ever think about how they’ll be remembered in history when they prioritise short-term economic gains over long term consequences and the impacts on future Irish citizens…
Back to you…
The biggest impact we can make with limited time and money is to force our key decision makers to act big – fully committing to a decarbonised economy and fossil free society right now, making them aware of the benefits that could result in swift action. Those benefits could be in the form of votes, job creation, public health, food security, energy security, or even how our leaders are reflected in the history books. If you personally don’t have time to engage with your elected representatives to do this, at least throw some money toward an environmental NGO or a political party who is trying to do so with incredibly limited resources. (My favourites are hyperlinked, but there are several other Irish organisations working to solve climate change.)
Naomi Klein’s best-selling book “This Changes Everything” highlights a paper called "Is Earth Fucked?" by geophysicist Brad Werner, which claims that the earth-human system is doomed unless people resist against the systems that are causing the problem, namely our fossil fuel-driven economy. There are lessons we can learn from previous resistance movements like those of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It only takes a critical mass to create a tipping point toward change. That critical mass is happening now through organisations like 350.org and People’s Climate Ireland. We just need to support those movements to ensure climate action happens fast enough to make a difference.
Keep fighting the good fight!