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Psychology and climate change: Reframing our thinking while we still have time to act

Cars burn in the Dixie Fire in California.

Following the release of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) latest report, United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres called it “a code red for humanity. The alarm bells are deafening.”

What does a code red mean, exactly?

Recently, I went to see a movie, (the first time in what feels like forever) and just as the movie was about to start, the fire alarm came on. At first, there was a moment of hesitation among the audience of moviegoers — was it a false alarm? Or was this the real deal? After a few seconds of murmurs though, with the alarm blaring, and lights flashing, everyone got up quickly and made a b-line for the door.

This is a code red emergency: Your life is at risk, and if you don’t stop what you’re doing — and take immediate action — you could die.

When it comes to climate change though, the latest IPCC findings and even the latest news of heatwaves, fires, floods and droughts, don’t always add up to a “code red” for people — not the way that a blaring fire alarm does. And if it does, most folks aren’t sure what to do about it. This isn’t a well-practiced drill, and there isn’t a well-lit walkway that shows us what we should do in this code red emergency.

This is why understanding the psychology of climate change is really important. Here are a few questions that people may be wrestling with these days:

1) Is there a path forward?

Is it too late? Is it even worth trying to fix our climate? Or are doomed to an unlivable planet? 

Fatalistic headlines like “Major climate changes inevitable and irreversible” don’t help, when many are already feeling cynical about the situation.

The latest IPCC report makes clear that we know exactly what to do to avoid the worst of it. UN secretary general said, “there must be no new coal plants built after 2021. Countries should also end all new fossil fuel exploration and production, and shift fossil-fuel subsidies into renewable energy. By 2030, solar and wind capacity should quadruple and renewable energy investments should triple.”

We have to focus on what needs to be done, not how bad it could get. If we focus exclusively on the scary bits of the report, people will continue to turn away from the issue. 

Psychologist Daniel Goleman writes about the psychological problem that climate change presents in his book “Focus,” noting “Negative focus leads to discouragement and disengagement. When our neural centers for distress take over, our focus shifts to distress itself, and how to ease it. We long to tune out. So instead we need a positive lens.”

In short, no, it is not too late. But only if we move people to action. As Rebecca Solnit put it, “we need people to transmute that dread and horror into determination.”  

2) What is the path forward?

What’s happened to the American public in the fight against climate change is the same phenomenon documented by psychologist Martin Seligman’s seminal research on “learned helplessness.” We’ve succumbed to a narrative of futility — a sense of powerlessness, that there’s nothing that we can do about the problem, and so we have shrugged our collective shoulders in apathy as a result.

A study from the George Mason Center for Climate Change Communication found that if people didn’t know what meaningful actions they could personally take to address climate change, then they were less likely to believe that there is even a climate problem to begin with.

As long as we’re being told that the only ways to take action are to change your lightbulbs, call your senator or show up to a march every few years, many of us resort to feeling a deep sense of disempowerment, lack of agency — and even despair. 

On the one hand, focusing on lowering my personal footprint might seem trivial in the grand scheme of things. And holding our breath for Congress to solve this might seem like a fool’s errand. (Although we’re certainly closer now to serious climate legislation then we have been in decades, thanks to the hard work of organizers.)

Ultimately, as citizens we need to feel empowered with a clear set of actions we can take, that will make a real difference, that are practical, impactful and achievable. 

To me, that shows up at the community level. In our communities is where we can work with our neighbors and achieve real results, whether that’s putting solar panels on the community center, an EV charging station at the grocery store, creating bike lanes, or building a community garden. The satisfaction from seeing our efforts create real change, in real time, builds momentum and creates new narratives of what’s possible that will hopefully spread from one community to the next. (Here are some ideas of ways to get started.)

This new narrative changes the script from “we’re screwed and there’s nothing we can do about it” to “we’re screwed if we don’t do anything about it.” The time is now, and the choice is ours.

3) How do we get others to join?

While politicians are elected to represent us, they also represent the moneyed interests that helped them win their seats and stay in power. So, their strategy for the last 30 years has largely been to pay lip service to the issue, enough so the public doesn’t turn on them — but not take any real actions that would threaten their supporters in the fossil fuel industry.

In order for elected officials to be forced to take serious action, there needs to be a resounding agreement amongst public opinion that we demand our leaders take action.

Thankfully, two-thirds of Americans report that climate change is personally important to them, and 85 percent of Americans would like to see 100 percent clean energy. Given this common ground, we need to collectively talk about climate change way more often and with more fanfare, so that we all realize how much consensus there actually is. In the process, hopefully we can mobilize folks who were previously disengaged or sitting on the sidelines.

And lest you think people can’t be persuaded, climate psychology expert George Marshall, writes in his book “Don’t Even Think About It,” that “even the most unconvinced people can be persuaded by trusted peers who understand their values and can use their common language.”

When we connect with folks at an emotional level about why addressing climate change matters, focus on the momentum we have, rather than the decades we’ve dithered, and if empower people with ways to get involved, we can change how this story ends. 

Ultimately, we have to reframe the issue for ourselves and others, not as a lost cause, but as an opportunity to create a better world.

As climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe reminds us “The world has changed before and, when it did, it wasn’t because a president, a prime minister, a CEO or a celebrity decided it had to… It began when ordinary people — people of no particular power, wealth, or fame — decided that the world could and should be different.”

Andreas Karelas is author of the book “Climate Courage: How Tackling Climate Change Can Build Community, Transform the Economy, and Bridge the Political Divide in America” published by Beacon Press. He is also the founder and executive director of RE-volv, a nonprofit climate justice organization that helps fellow nonprofits across the country go solar. Follow him on Twitter: @AndreasKarelas.

This piece has been updated.

Tags Andreas Karelas Climate change climate solutions extreme weather Global warming IPCC Renewable energy

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