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Climate Psychology and Engagement in Further and Higher Education


CPA logo ScotlandHeld on 12th May 2017 in Glasgow School of Art (GSA) the comunities of  Universities and Colleges in Scotland joined together to engage with climate change issues. The meeting was open to all interested in climate psychology and progressed work from the last Community Engagement TSN meeting, where there had been a discussion on why people are apathetic towards climate change, and what professionals in the tertiary education sector could do about it in order to increase climate change engagement. From this work there was an aspiration to develop application ideas across HEI and FEI campuses and curricula.

Attendees who wished to were invited to give 10 minute presentation on why they are interested, how they see climate psychology as being part of this work or how it applies to their roles/institutions as part of the agenda.


What is ‘climate psychology’? According to Paul Hoggett and Chris Robertson, both colleagues of mine in the CPA Executive Committee,

‘Climate psychology is concerned with understanding the non-rational dimensions of our collective paralysis in the face of worsening climate change.’ This perspective on climate change has until very recently only had a background presence in the climate change debate.

As recently as 2011, Swim tells us in the journal American Psychologist that:

“Although psychologists have been investigating climate change and related subjects for decades... the value of psychological contributions is not yet widely accepted, nor are psychological insights and findings widely applied” (p. 246, quoted in Andrews 2016)

In a brief article post on the Climate Psychology Alliance (CPA) web page, (, Nadine Andrews who is working in an advisory role for the IPCC, points to a shifting attitude among the climate scientific community that - in the face of continuous difficulties in communicating the seriousness of the effects of human-produced climate change – are now showing signs of accepting the need for a psychosocial approach.

This emergence of a potential new acceptance of the need for a psychosocial approach to climate change, comes about firstly as a result of the failure in communication of the ‘hard facts’ of human-induced climate change being accepted on a general scale, in the wider public and by many political leaders, and secondly the continued work of psychoanalytically informed and psychosocial writers and researchers, some of whom are affiliated to the CPA.

An early pioneer in the use of psychosocial approaches - (as opposed to psychoanalytical or ‘ecopsychological’, for example) - to climate change comes in the work of Ro Randall. Her chapter, ‘Fragile identities and consumption: the use of “carbon conversations” in changing people’s relationships to “stuff”’, is notable in that the ‘carbon conversations’ it describes are a shift from general reflections, theory and a focus on the individual to attempting to deal with the issues of C02 emissions by approaching the anxieties of climate change psychosocially, with groups of people who are able to discuss their emotions and psychological challenges when faced with trying to change their lifestyles.

Sally Weintrobe’s Engaging with Climate Change (2013) is maybe the first book to bring a collection of chapters that truly take on board a psychosocial approach to climate change... Weintrobe’s own contribution, for example, deals with the central psychosocial concern of socially and psychologically produced anxiety in relation to climate change denial.

Anxiety and how we defend ourselves against such anxiety is one of the central emotions that often forms part of psychosocial approaches to climate change. Others typically include fear and anxiety; grief; guilt; helplessness; feeling threatened in one’s identity/status...

Ideas and knowledge frameworks based around the work of thinkers such as Melanie Klein, Wilfred Bion, Donald Winnicott... Technically speaking, these are concepts and theories such as Klein’s Paranoid Schizoid and Depressive Position; Bion’s container/contained and his Basic Assumptions; Winnicott’s transitional object and potential space; theories of transference and counter transference, all as applied to the nexus between the individual and society.

In a recent use of psychosocial theory, Paul Hoggett, the Chair of the CPA, and Ro Randall suggest other psychosocial reasons for the relative silence of scientists in communicating climate change to society based around the idea of socially constructed defences against anxiety. In this theory, the scientific community creates social or institutional defences in order to maintain an idealized state of logical, rational scientific engagement that can remain untouched by the outside world. This social defence mechanism protects scientists from the anxieties of engaging with realities (believing in private that global temperatures might rise by 6 degrees, for example) and colluding with a socially constructed silence.

Paul and Chris:
‘Climate psychology is concerned with understanding the non-rational dimensions of our collective paralysis in the face of worsening climate change.’ This perspective on climate change has until very recently only had a background presence in the climate change debate.

So, the purpose of Climate Psychology Scotland would be, for the members to decide, but whatever the purpose, it would be dedicated to this perspective of understanding climate change.


First of all thank you for having me – and to come along to the launch of the CPA Scotland too. I first came across the CPA when they contacted me to come to speak at a conference which was held in London last year – and in many ways I was quite surprised to be asked, because I didn’t immediately see the overlaps with what I do as a sociologist. However, over the course of that conference, and through my discussions with John and Julian, I see the shared themes and objectives more clearly. So a founding assumption is that climate change is much more than just scientific or environmental problem, but it’s a social, cultural and political problem, a psycho-social one too. As such, it’s one that perhaps can only be subjectively and culturally understood. Second, that there has been a widespread failure to promote an understanding that effectively engages the public and has led to demands for action– so it’s not an issue that people are going to vote on next month. Denial and dismissal of climate change are not barriers to Trump getting elected. There’s no widespread collective commitment to action on this.

The dimension I’m particularly interested in is the role of media and communications –though as you’ll hear that’s not all I talk about because I see media and communications not simply operating in a vacuum, but as part of a wider circuit in which corporate and political actors, experts, journalists and publics interact dynamically to construct the range of possible societal outcomes we might see. That’s not to say that the media simply promote power – although there are dominant patterns, and powerful groups have disproportionate access to the media. It’s also not to deny that individuals have any agency to resist media messages, though the social embeddedness of these messages, their overall coherence with power dynamics, means that can often be difficult.

So there is a struggle over meaning – and what I’m most interested in is this ongoing relationship between the publics or audiences, media, society – why are people pre-disposed to accept these perspectives and reject others? How is meaning constructed through media and ideological processes – and how does this relate to engagement?

To come back to climate change,I’ve done a lot of research with audience groups in the UK and in the last couple of years at the international level, in China, Brazil and the US, too. I find the differences very illuminating in relation to these questions.
So when mapping out the social, cultural and attitudinal environments around climate change – what I find is that the way in which climate change is made meaningful is very much shaped by local experiences and reflects the priorities of particular media cultures. In China and Brazil, climate change isn’t in the media all that much, so connections are made across lived experience, social interactions and other sources of information. For China, a strong association is with pollution, which is very real to them, because it’s making people ill. In Brazil, climate change resonates with deep concerns about deforestation, something which has huge cultural importance. So climate change is seen as having direct, tangible and negative effects on health and well-being. And there’s also more of a visual language.

Some of these associations are there in the English speaking countries, and this is a quite crude generalisation but participants here tended not to connect the issue with their lived experience. They just as often thought immediately of climate change as a ‘debate’, a ‘dispute’, it’s a controversy’, a ‘confusion’. In the most basic terms climate change in China and Brazil is something that is experienced, whereas in the UK and US it is something that is talked about, something that is theorised about, something that can be questioned.

This is not an argument that says sceptical coverage in the media has led directly to widespread scepticism in the public. But I find that even amongst those who state a strong belief in anthropogenic climate change, there is evidence that a conflicted media have helped to construct a nagging and persistent, sometimes quite abstract, sense of doubt. This is about whether, with all these other priorities like immigration and the economy, we should prioritise an issue around which there is such conflict and complexity. In China and Brazil, climate scepticism in the media doesn’t really exist –participants don’t use these phrases and don’t have these hesitations. Climate change is simpler in that people hang it on experiential hooks – which raises questions about what kind of understanding of climate change we might be aiming for, and to what ends?

But it’s not just this sense of complexity, and the uncertainty, I also see the differences in response to climate change highlighting a key axis around which my broader group responses - China and Brazil – and then UK/US – can be organised, and this is again about the ideological and social structures within which these interpretations take place. In China and Brazil, there is still a real investment in expert speakers in the public sphere, and some sense that political action will benefit the public good. In the West, I think we’re living in what I’m calling the post-trust era.

To me, this is related to the common experience of neoliberalism in the West: at the ideological level, the system offers freedom of choice in respect of health, of lifestyle, of jobs but in fact these choices are largely illusory. The ideology of a level playing field in respect of opportunities is undermined in practice by increased state intervention in the marketplace to redirect power to large global corporations. That’s led to a huge lack of transparency and corruption at the highest levels. Arguably journalism in the neoliberal era is fundamentally dishonest. The reporting of the financial crash, of the Leveson inquiry, of the justification for austerity – the media has suffered from a systematic failure to expose the gap between what politicians say and what is actually happening. We’re not dupes, we see the dishonesty. The nature of these processes might be opaque but there is a strong emotional sense of distrust and feelings of powerlessness.

Isee the recent election of Trump as a howl of neoliberal rage. Trump speaks to this emotional outpouring with his talk of a rigged system and corrupt elites. It’s a reference to the fact that the contract is broken in respect of information and action, image and response, journalist and audience, politician citizen. I’m afraid this affects climate scientists and all those who speak on climate in different ways too, because they often can be seen as part of this system playing by these rigged rules in a corrupt public sphere.

But if we think Trump’s speaking to this rage might see off neoliberalism – actually if we look at his take on climate change, in particular, it’s clear it’s not going to be shrugged off quite so easily. Because even if we’re all railing at its worst excesses, it’s structurally very solid. That’s because it’s in the everyday, in the normal, mundane things that people do. As freedoms are reduced through casualised, low security labour, bureaucracy, we are heavily restricted – we need cars which buy us a little more free time, we need flights to London for meetings where the train would take too long, the cheap meat sandwiches make life easier.

Part of this is because the moral framework is one of competition – we are constantly in competition with other people, we are positioned as competitive individuals, because it’s a market for jobs, for schools, and so on, that’s how we survive. Changing behaviours on climate change – or supporting governments which may impose changes – requires us to step outside our immediate individual interests. It weakens our competitiveness for what have been constructed as scarce opportunities. If we put ourselves in a collective, we lose our edge on other people.

So think of Trump’s take on climate change in his election campaign – climate scientists and supportive politicians are positioned as wanting to take away opportunities – so one of his proposals is to invest in coal again - again meeting short term interests in that in theory it might bring back old jobs. But the heart of it really is that only the powerful can have the privilege of thinking about the longer term. ‘Ordinary people’ need to think about the short term – they can’t concern themselves with climate change. Whilst I think that the majority of people really don’t think pouring more money into coal is a good idea, and that science shouldn’t be dismissed, short term interests largely prevail. The conflict often is clearly shown in the more liberal press where climate science is promoted – alongside consumerism. It’s full of contrasts.

So these are some of my arguments, but I want to raise some related questions too, to which I don’t have the answers:
I want to quickly say something about social media in all of this – I’m conflicted on this. So social media you could say is the perfect vehicle for an unarticulated howl of rage, but it splinters that in different directions. So for some the target is immigrants, others elites like scientists, for others the media are the big problem, although for others it might be corporate culture– so Occupy largely mobilised online. But it also promotes competitiveness – so think of young women trying to make their way in the world, Facebook, instagram telling them they need expensive eyebrows, endless dresses cheaply made in Bangladesh, to compete.

On the other hand, social media holds huge potential for alternative visions to emerge, for the silenced to speak and for inaccuracies such as scepticism in the media to be exposed. It may hold the potential to bring collectives together. I wonder if it’s a place where trust might be built – Brazil was very interesting in this respect. There was there a strong sense of being part of a collective, and there they saw social media as a huge vehicle for spreading collective sentiment, rooted in consensual knowledge which doesn’t have the agenda of the mainstream media . So social media as a vehicle – but does it translate here?

Moving beyond the aim of ever gaining a holistic understanding of climate change, how much can we build on those broader cultural associations that promote strong feelings – so pollution in China, deforestation in Brazil, develop that visual language – the one theme that emerged with any similarity in the US and UK groups was strong revulsion about the disruption to the countryside by big business for, say, mass food production. It just doesn’t look right – so what images might accompany that?

But in relation to that – and this seems fundamental. Does information and imagery make any difference at all? Or will the answer lie in more cycle lanes, cheaper trains, redesigning cities and so on – just making sensible policy decisions without trying to win the battle on climate change. But then how do we force the hand of reluctant governments? Doesn’t that need a strong public sentiment, which may start or be promoted by the changes we ourselves make?

If that’s the case - and this is a bit of a dilemma – and if a progressive vision fails to connect, do we speak the language of neoliberalism of individual competitiveness to engage people? Should we reconfigure climate as something which hurts the individual – with appeals to the health impacts of eating meat, for example, playing down the collective impacts. This links broadly into the debate going on right now about how to defeat Trump– does the left adapt the language of populism in order to win? We’ve seen Corbyn talk just this last week of the rigged system, something he perhaps adopted from Trump. In media, do we need a Fox on the left, abandon neutrality and just go all out to capture the anger? I’ll leave these as questions.


Climate Psychology Alliance Scotland - Inaugural Meeting
Friday 12th May 2017, Glasgow School of Art

Jackie Beresford JB Environmental Officer Dundee and Angus College
Clément Bouveret CB Intern: Energy Management Edinburgh Napier University
Steven Giannandrea SG Soft Services Manager City of Glasgow College
June Graham JG Sustainable Development Officer Keep Scotland Beautiful
Catherine Happer CH Lecturer in Sociology University of Glasgow
Rachel Howell RH Lecturer in Sociology/SD University of Edinburgh
Kasia Janik KJ Sustainability Engagement Officer Edinburgh Napier University
Osbert Lancaster OL Director Natural Change Limited
Julian Yves Manley JM Research Associate University of Central Lancashire
Fergal McCauley FM Head of Facilities Management City of Glasgow College
Rebecca Petford RP Scotland Programme Manager EAUC
Gemma Stenhouse GS Procurement Manager APUC Ltd
Kate Thornback KT Environment Officer SRUC
John Thorne JT Sustainability Coordinator Glasgow School of Art
John Wincott JW Sustainability Advisor Fife College

Dr Julian Manley, University of Central Lancashire and Climate Psychology Alliance
Everyone was welcomed to the meeting.

Introduction to the Climate Psychology Alliance
Dr Julian Manley, University of Central Lancashire and Climate Psychology Alliance
The Climate Psychology Alliance are a group of individuals, not all from a psychology background but also practitioners, interested in making connections between psychology and climate change to help build individual and collective resilience to the challenges climate change will bring.
They have an Annual Conference and a Members Day (coming up on 10th June and focusing on Telling Better Stories), as well as other opportunities to engage. Annual membership is £24, allowing access to discounted events and additional communications opportunities.
Glasgow School of Art are hosting an exhibition and visual matrix (psychosocial method designed to capture the emotional, affective visual reactions to the stimulus of the exhibition in a group setting) called Water Ways on 16th May. The event is free and open to all.
Generally, CPA is very Southern England oriented, and we would like to encourage more activity further north and focused on the Scottish identity and context by establishing CPA Scotland.

Discussion: Desire and Remit for a Climate Psychology Alliance Scotland Group
Led by Dr Julian Manley, University of Central Lancashire and Climate Psychology Alliance and John Thorne, Glasgow School of Art

Keen to hear ideas for CPA Scotland in terms of identity and focus. The remit is up to the group, but should use a climate psychology lens. A later meeting can be organised to establish this formally but initial ideas are welcome.
• Idea of having this discussion taking place in Scotland was welcomed by those present.
• Scotland has a distinctive culture and having this conversation for Scotland and engaging with policy makers here through our own branch would be valuable.
• Meetings could take place approximately once a month to consider the psycho-social approach and different applications. Meetings could rotate around central belt venues.
• Other groups might be interested in collaborating – Common Weal, New Economics Foundation, etc.
• Group should bring non-psychologists together with psychologists to understand knowledge, emotions and how they drive engagement with climate change. Broader than FHE – the group would be open to attendees from all areas, including students.
• Desire to have a discounted membership cost for students and unwaged to make it open and inclusive.
• Need to be clear about what the benefits would be for attendees in communications.
• EAUC-Scotland and SSN can support advertising for new attendees.
Next steps:
• Suggest scheduling a first meeting to talk about remit, constitution, governing body, frequency of meetings, and establish then a Constitutional Group to take on some of the formal elements – 5.30pm, Edinburgh, late June/early July.
• Individuals can sign up to the Climate Psychology Alliance online and pay membership, but please put SCO next to your name if you do so, so they know to allocate the funds to Scotland

• Doodle Poll for next meeting to be set up by JM
• RP to provide JM with contact details for those present at the meeting to share the poll

Thanks and Close
Dr Julian Manley, University of Central Lancashire and Climate Psychology Alliance and John Thorne, Glasgow School of Art
Thanks to all for their comments, and to those who contributed to the climate psychology discussions as part of the EAUC-Scotland event earlier in the day.

Minutes prepared by Rebecca Petford, EAUC-Scotland Programme Manager