CA-WN 21 March Meeting Report

CA-WN 21 March Meeting Report

The subject of this month’s meeting was "Climate psychology". Climate psychology can help us understand the roots of the climate and ecological crisis, the psychological impacts and defences, and ways in which we can help ourselves and others to cope and take action.

Our guest speaker was Emmie Williamson, who was until recently a clinical psychologist working in the NHS. She is also coordinator of the climate group in her home village of Flore. Emmie’s slides are available to download1.

Towards the end of the meeting we heard from Dr Declan Ryan of the University of Northampton about a grant application for research into Net Zero. He asked CA-WN members to support the application by completing a short survey. There is a link to the survey at the bottom of these notes.

This meeting was recorded and can be watched on the CA-WN YouTube channel2.

Present: Briony Askew, Caroline Neale, Clare Robertson-Marriott, Clare Slater, Dalian Zhong, David Garlick, David Wragg, Declan Ryan, Eluned Lewis-Nicol, Emmie Williamson, Harry Mellor, Jane Wood, Leonie Beale, Maura Carville, Mick Lorkins, Mike Longman, Ning Gu, Orianne Neyroud, Paul Slater, Peter Nalder, Rupert Knowles, Steve May

Apologies: Carol Blake, Ella Sage, Jonathan Harris

Climate psychology

EW started her presentation with the hockey stick graph which represents 30 years of global warming and may be familiar to many. One of the key questions with climate psychology is why the line of the graph isn’t bending.
Climate psychology is psycho-social and exists at cultural and global levels. It isn’t just about the individual, we also need to think about why all levels are not taking action.
EW recommended watching the film Don’t Look Up as a great illustration of climate psychology and how people respond to bad news with defence mechanisms to ignore what is actually happening.

A quote from Paul Hoggett, a key writer on climate psychology4:

“Our collective equanimity in the face of the unprecedented risk posed by climate change is perhaps the greatest mystery of our age”.

The Climate Psychology Alliance (CPA)3 defines Climate Psychology as:

“concerned with the emotions, and the social and mental processes that have contributed to the ecological and climate crisis and our responses and processes of adaptation to it”

The idea of psychological defences originated with Freudian analysis and explores anxieties and fears.  Individuals really facing up to climate change feel deep fear and anxiety and so also experience the psychological defences which are necessary to help us cope with everyday life and take on the reality of what is happening.

Psychological roots
EW gave a brief overview of the roots of climate psychology with some references for further reading.

Evolutionary psychology - very deterministic, explains how humans came to be the fastest ever species to overshoot the carrying capacity of their ecosystem; we are overshooting the boundaries of the planet at a rapid rate. What is it about human minds and brains that made us expand so rapidly and consume so much? We evolved the ability to adapt, create tools, and to think abstractly, resulting in an ability to use resources very rapidly. We also have a tendency towards peacocking and conspicuous consumption. Consumption has become addictive - adrenaline used to be derived from hunting and is now derived from drugs and shopping etc.

Ecopsychology - a field slightly separate from climate psychology, looks at the problem of disconnection from nature which has developed over time and again results in the need for quick fixes through consumption. Ecopsychological therapy is about reconnection with nature.

Exceptionalism and the culture of uncare, written about by Sally Weintrobe5 in relation to the culture of neoliberalism and pursuit of profit. It adds to disconnection from nature aspects of individualism, individual consumption and particularly narcissistic exceptionalism. The culture of uncare and closing our minds to what is happening elsewhere adds to other problems and contributes to social injustice.

Compulsive consumption6. Aspects of society including social media contribute to feelings of shame and the need for consumption.

Cognitive and behavioural psychology. ‘Don’t even Think about it’ by George Marshall7, subtitled ‘why our brains are wired to ignore climate change’.

Psychological responses
These may be emotional, cognitive, behavioural, unconscious.

Eco-anxiety and eco-distress. People who aren’t there yet with their own feelings of eco-distress may think there’s something wrong with those of us who do have these feelings. Such people may be intellectually but not emotionally connected with the climate crisis. If you are fully connected the healthy response is to feel despair and hopelessness. This may not feel natural but it is.

Solastalgia - the pain we feel at the loss of our natural environment

Aggression, violence, polarisation and conflict also play a part in climate psychology

Activist burnout is very common. People tend to be driven to work too hard which combined with the emotions of climate anxiety leads to burnout.

Doomism. Connected with ‘deep adaptation’ literature which takes ownership of the word ‘doomster’ to fight apathy

Paradigm distress and cognitive dissonance. We feel guilt that we don’t always do the right thing. Fossil fuel interests and others want us to feel it is all our fault but a lot of change is needed at the system level.

Psychological defences. Activation of these can be healthy as we need to find a way of  being with the feelings, overcoming intellectualisation and yet not breaking down (although to a degree breakdown is inevitable). However defences which allow us to avoid the feelings entirely are not helpful. 

Models and studies of psychological responses to the climate crisis

Hickman’s climate-change emotional transition curve8 – early stages may be unawareness or denial, moving towards acceptance and meaning. The middle stages can be very painful leading to depression and collapse. Sometimes people can go into a deeply negative place rather than the more ‘positive’ active, altruistic responses. This can include violence or self-harm which can happen when we are feeling a great deal of strain.

Power Threat Meaning framework9 - from cognitive psychology and the field of trauma. Trauma is all about feeling powerless and abused. We are in a sense all being abused by global leaders failing to take action. This framework helps to conceptualise trauma and has been adapted for the climate crisis by Gareth Morgan, youth lead for the CPA.

Threat responses to the threat of the climate and ecological crises. The function of threat responses is to regulate yourself. These can include:
o   Intellectualising - a common response. There can be a gender difference with males tending more towards studying science and solutions with more females at climate cafes talking about emotions.  It’s important to be able to process the feelings in order to cope, otherwise this can come out in other unhealthy ways.
o   Protection from dangers - this can include ‘prepping’
o   Violence and Aggression. Research shows that violence is very much on the increase. Wars are an indirect effect of climate change. Heat is a direct effect but as people get hotter, aggression and violence increase. This is a physiological mechanism. Other indirect effects are failed crops, economic instability, polarisation and migration.

Individual and cultural defences

Climate change denial – still very common despite strong scientific evidence, especially in the US, encouraged by fossil fuel interests.

There is also soft denial which is more interesting to climate psychologists. In psychoanalysis it is called disavowal, where something has happened that we just cannot accept. This can take different forms:
o   Diffusion of responsibility. The ‘what about China?’ response, or someone taking a view that they are doing ok because they don’t fly, for example, so it is others that need to act.
o   Splitting/compartmentalisation. There can be a split between thought and feelings. This is common in climate psychology. We might repress feelings and split them off from thoughts so things become drained of feeling and meaning. Compartmentalising: ‘I can’t think about this now.’
o   Distancing/detachment, which includes intellectualisation. A lot of reading and studying data may not be good if you are also separating yourself off too much from feelings.
o   Routinisation - burying yourself in routine is another way of cutting yourself off.

Narrative/social constructionist psychology. This analyses the ‘Discourses of climate delay’ including through social media. These can include:
o   Doomism
o   Policy perfectionism – criticism of policies because they are not going to deliver the whole solution right away
There are many discourses around what it means to be concerned about climate breakdown. Sometimes the problem may be wrongly attributed to the individual concerned. It’s completely normal to be scared and even to be breaking down.

Psychological approaches and support

·     The CPA has a register of psychotherapists who have been through climate anxiety themselves. As a practising clinical psychologist EW came across colleagues who were aware of their own defence mechanisms against climate anxiety but weren’t facing the problem. It is helpful to have a therapist who understands how you feel.
·     Ecotherapy – being in nature with a therapist or talking about ways to connect with nature.
·     Active hope training10 is a great resource to help you connect with your feelings and move on to take action.
·     Climate cafés. It can be taboo to say things are getting worse. Climate cafés are adapted from death cafés which enable participants to talk about a taboo topic. They are not for talking about actions, or science, but trying to bypass those defences and focus on feelings.
·     Radical hope, this a deep hope as opposed to naïve hope (‘everything’s going to be ok’). Radical hope is about connecting with others.
·     The Open University has a free climate psychology course11

·       Ecopsychology UK12
·       Climate Psychology Alliance3
·       XR Psychologists13

George Marshall has done a TED talk14 about not being wired up to deal with this. At a certain age your friends start to die off but we don’t always pay much attention to the fact that we will also soon die. In our area we are not heavily affected by climate change so easier to ignore it. I no longer see Small and Large Tortoiseshell butterflies in the garden.
Things being at a distance from us is a real issue. Even those who have directly experienced climate catastrophes can deny that it is caused by climate change. Cognitive biases can still apply in this case. The neuroscience says that we only see a threat that is right next to us. Shifting baselines is also a real issue though outside the topic of this talk.

It is nice to know what I have and am going through is 'normal’!
Defences can be automatic. Recommend the Active Hope training. This is free and online so very accessible. It aims at unblocking the gap between knowing there is a problem and the amount of action we are taking.
CA-WN and the CPA both run free climate cafes and the CPA also offer 3 free sessions with a psychotherapist.

My current defence mechanism is starting to stockpile tins of food.
This is actually quite adaptive, as our supply chains are rather fragile and food security will become more of an issue.

I get comfort outdoors, reconnecting with nature. Ironically we are moving into a more robotic, AI-dominated world which may lead to more mental health issues especially for young people. We need to connect with nature but are moving away from it.
There are definitely worrying aspects about young people and mental health. Technology is a barrier between people. Growing your own provides an element of self sufficiency as well as connection with nature.

Request for input to a research project

From Dr Declan Ryan, Associate Professor in Physical Activity & Health at the University of Northampton. His research is about trying to stimulate action and change. It includes access to green spaces and active travel. DR works with WNC and Northants Sport - Northampton’s Active Quarter is where most work has been done so far15.
This grant application is about using a research hub to help with progress towards net zero, whether that is developing solutions, assessing effectiveness of solutions or gathering views of the general public to influence planning and policies.
The grant is for up to £5.5m over 5 years and focuses on transport and the built environment.
DR is going to share a short survey16 to be distributed to CA-WN supporters asking us to input as a community voice into the design of the project, specifically looking at how we perceive health.
An online discussion is provisionally arranged for 2pm on Friday 5 April to provide further input to the research grant bid. Please contact if you are interested in participating.
There will be other opportunities to engage through the life of the project. DR is also looking to do community engagement around community spaces. He hopes there will be lots of opportunities to work with CA-WN, support each other, promote active travel and green spaces.

WNC Draft Local Plan

WNC are about to launch a consultation on their new Local Plan. CA-WN will be putting together some guidance on responding to this for those that would like to.

WNC Tree Strategy Drop-In Sessions

ML has attended one – WNC are putting the strategy together so are looking for views. He has followed up on this about More Trees Now with the person he spoke to.
WNC currently only have one Tree Officer whereas they need three, so it is worrying that one of their options is to deliver the strategy as a document but then only implement it reactively.

Date of Next Meeting

Thursday 18 April, with guest speaker Cllr Jonathan Harris on WNC’s Climate Strategy17

1.      Meeting presentation

2.      CA-WN YouTube

3.      Climate Psychology Alliance

4.      Paul Hoggett

5.      Psychological Roots of the Climate Crisis

6.      Compulsive Consumption

7.      Don’t Even Think About It

8.      Caroline Hickman

9.      Power Threat Meaning Framework

10.  Active Hope

11.  OU course

12.  Ecopsychology UK

13.  XR Psychologists

14.  George Marshall TED talk

15.  Active Quarter

16.  University of Northampton grant application survey

17.  April meeting registration