Behavioral scientists used to believe in the “information deficit model”—the idea that people simply didn’t know enough about climate change to take steps to reduce it. Lay out the facts clearly enough, and action to reduce our carbon emissions would inevitably follow.
Those days are long gone.
With the reality of global warming now widely accepted, another obstacle to action is looming larger than climate denial—climate despair. Or as Shannon Osaka put it in the Washington Post recently, climate doomers are replacing climate deniers.
“Climate change is typically viewed as an environmental problem rather than the psychological issue that it represents,” wrote psychologist Susan Kroger as long ago as 2011. Doubting, blame-shifting, catastrophism, and avoidance are all manifestations of our struggle to cope with something as global and all-encompassing as climate change.
Now, the question is whether such mental roadblocks are harming humanity’s ability to fully address the multiple crises it faces, and what, if anything, we can do about it?
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Apocalypse Fatigue Sets In
1. The good news about bad news is that it can be motivating—up to a point. British researchers have found that eco-horror stories, such as Carbon Brief’s terrifying roundup of the year’s most covered climate research, do increase climate anxiety but also spur people to take action. The bad news about bad news is that there seems to be a dangerous precipice that we might now be teetering over.
“More than 80% of all news and mainstream media play up the issue of doomsday or catastrophe,” says Norwegian psychologist, author and politician Per Espen Stoknes. “From psychological research, we know that if you overdo the threat of catastrophe, you make people feel fear or guilt or a combination. But these two emotions are passive. They make people disconnect and avoid the topic rather than engage with it.”
2. How your brain is tricking you into doing nothing. The Climate Psychology Alliance (CPA), a group of therapists and mental health practitioners, helpfully unpacks the psychological phenomena that can paralyze you. Humanity has evolved a set of defense mechanisms and coping strategies to stop you worrying about things that seem to be out of your control—known to behavioral scientists as the “dragons of inaction.” These range from avoiding climate news to diversionary activity—assiduously sorting the recycling to “offset” your jet travel, for example. “As Western consumers, a powerful sense of entitlement may help us to shrug off guilt and shame, or a touching faith in progress can mitigate anxiety and induce complacency,” write the CPA.
3. Fatalism is the new normal. A study of 10,000 young people in 2021 found that more than half reported feeling sad, anxious, angry, powerless, helpless, or guilty about climate change. Nearly half said their feelings about climate change negatively affected their daily life and functioning. And two thirds of Oregonians now believe that climate change is “unstoppable.”
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Climate Stoicism Steps Up
1. The latest thinking is ancient. In 300 BCE, the Greek school of stoicism believed humanity should live in harmony with nature, take nothing for granted, and accept the possibility of loss and death. “This didn’t mean pushing away distressing emotions,” writes Max Goodman of Columbia University, “But allowing oneself to sit with them and depressurize—resolving to do what one can.” A climate stoic, he says, can get over their apocalyptic dread by being ”both feverishly dedicated to meeting the IPCC’s targets and psychologically prepared to miss them.”
2. What if the future has no tipping points? Here’s a radical idea from Seaver Wang at a think tank called the Breakthrough Institute. In a recent article he takes the position that “there is no tipping point beyond which Mother Earth wrestles control of the whole climate system away from human beings and proceeds to punish us for our sins.” Humanity now has control over the planet’s thermostat. Perhaps accepting that reality could remove the artificial pressure of hitting deadlines and free us to make our best efforts to reduce the harm of climate change.
3. The wrong kind of hope and the right kind of doubt. Jennifer Marlon at Yale wanted to put some numbers on which kind of emotions were most effective at spurring climate action. In a survey of 1000 people, she found that, surprisingly, gloom can be nearly as productive as optimism for positive climate engagements, depending on how those emotions are used. Focused constructively, both lead to positive engagements such as donating money or lobbying for climate causes. But if the hopes were just wishful thinking, and doubt turned into fatalism, both actually reduced useful action.
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What to Keep An Eye On
1. New angles on climate stories. It’s easy to get locked into our own climate narratives. David Wells Wallace shook things up last year with his very personal NYT essay Beyond Catastrophe that walks a tightrope between fear and optimism. Moviegoers are ready for fewer cli-fi disaster movies, says Amanda Shendruck in the Washington Post, while even Greta Thunberg has learned to love nukes.
2. Advances in brain hacking. The Affective Brain Lab at UCLA brings cognitive neuroscience to bear on human decision making and motivation, using everything from web browsing behavior to neuro-pharmacology. Electrically stimulating certain parts of the brain can even induce more sustainable decision-making (not a policy suggestion).
3. Generational shifts. There are signs that a more positive attitude is taking root with those suffering most from climate anxiety. A 2021 Pew survey found that 32% of Gen Zers and 28% of Millennials have taken at least one of four actions (donating money, contacting an elected official, volunteering or attending a rally) to help address climate change in the last year. That compared with smaller shares of Gen X (23%) and Baby Boomer and older adults (21%).
Image: ©Anthropocene Magazine