The Anthropocene is the most important descriptor of our epoch. Our understanding of this and climate psychology’s response are both evolving constantly. The basics, so eloquently explained in Clive Hamilton’s Defiant Earth, are increasingly self-evident: we humans are now an Earth system in our own right, operating invasively and destructively, with limited and reducing choice as to outcome.
Our raison d’etre has three elements. The first is an effort to understand the complex psycho-social processes which shape our awareness and attitude to what we are doing with the Earth and therefore to humanity and all living things. With this goes the philosophical view that our collective behaviour is hubristic, careless, extremely dangerous and in urgent need of transformation. Thirdly, we look to our roots in the psychological therapies to foster connection, care and support for those of us who are grappling with the consequences of having opened our minds to the enormity of our situation.
The abundance of recent news and richness of discussion in CPA’s member forum and elsewhere makes this both an interesting and a challenging time to attempt a connected picture of current climate awareness, climate politics and climate action.
The picture, at present, is one of increasing tension and conflict. This was inevitable in a world built on unrestrained exploitation of resources, most notably fossil fuels. That has given rise to the view that economic reality and wellbeing are products of consumption and, by the same token, to a rejection of the conclusion that wellbeing, indeed survival, now depends on a rapid move away from that paradigm.
Hopes have risen in the past year that a powerful sequence of communications might at last be tilting hearts and minds towards the necessary change of course. The sequence includes the gravest ever IPCC report, numerous analyses and warnings underlining the seriousness and urgency of the situation and widespread non-violent and inter-generational activism in numerous countries. Previous letters have tracked these developments in detail. But the concrete metrics of emissions and beleaguered Nature continue to go the wrong way. On top of this there have been devastating and demoralising losses in the sphere of political action and democratic choice.
Perhaps the cruellest blow to those hoping that environmental awareness will at last hold sway at the ballot box has been in Australia. As with Brexit and Trump, the polls were confounded. To add insult to injury, conservatism triumphed despite a political leadership devoid of inspiration or wit. This pointed to the PR machine of industrial vested interests having done its job in exploiting the fears, insecurities and aspirations of voters.
The election was followed by confirmation of a massive coal mining operation in Queensland’s Galilee Basin. This decision has received support from the state’s Labour government, which presumably felt that it could not appear to be against job- and wealth-creation. This is reminiscent of a recent coal-mining decision in England which received cross-party support, but there the similarity ends. The Galilee Basin at 105,000 square miles, is larger than the entire UK and the fear is that the approved Carmichael mine will be followed by others in the area. The consequences in terms of emissions will be horrendous. The decision coupled with the general election result could be described as the mother of double whammies. Make that a triple whammy – Australia remains in the front line of extreme weather impacts, with severe consequences for farmers, livestock and wildlife, both aquatic and terrestrial.
There is more than one explanation on offer for the confounding of opinion polls which pointed to progressive change. A psychological take is that it is disavowal at work, or rather (as implied above) an unholy alliance of denialism and disavowal. A lot of people now have at least some sense of what’s at stake, but when their fear of change and loss has been fanned by messages which downplay the risks of business as usual and emphasise the cost of changing course, a traditional and short-term version of self-interest is more likely to prevail. Conservatism as a worldview has lost its common root with conservation and has merged with capitalist exploitation and the ecological lie of ‘externalised’ costs.
Turning to the USA, the devil’s brew of denial is also evident but the role of denialism is even more blatant. We learned in June about the suppression of references to the climate emergency by high school graduates in their passing-out speeches. Such speeches would, at scale, have been a powerful follow-up to the school strikes. How widely the suppression has succeeded and how exactly it was implemented does not seem to be clear. It is however consistent with a Washington Post report that the White House blocked a State Department agency’s warnings on climate change.
Psychological balance here means holding alternative possibilities in mind. The above items are sinister, but can also be read as signs of desperation. Whilst fossil fuel interests are undoubtedly flexing every muscle and their 40-year obfuscation and policy manipulation is having disastrous and irreversible results, their strategy can be construed as a managed retreat when we read that renewables capacity in the USA has overtaken coal for the first time.
Canada, like Australia, is highly exposed: twice the average heating yet Trudeau recently reaffirmed approval for the $5.5 billion tar sands pipeline extension two days after declaration of a climate emergency. Also in the UK, disavowal at the political level has achieved breath taking lows. Few of our MP’s openly deny the climate and ecological crisis and by some measures we are a front runner in efforts to decarbonise, albeit behind others like Finland. But the government’s support for a third Heathrow runway and for road development continues unabated. Even in the case of fracking, about which there is considerable unease even amongst Conservative MPs, the official line remains supportive. We also have reports that the government is funding fossil fuel plants abroad. The news that home solar installations have fallen by 94% following abolition of the feed-in tariff and VAT hikes has given rise to the accusation that the government has effectively dismantled the solar industry. Caroline Lucas’s withering critique of Theresa May’s parting declaration on climate targets is well substantiated.
The Laws by which We Live
Two months ago we celebrated the life of Earth lawyer Polly Higgins. Underlying her remarkable work is an ethical but also a reality question which holds the key to our chances of retaining a habitable planet. Her campaign to have ecocide defined as a crime in international law marked a call to lift our consciousness – a call even more important and challenging than those which led to the abolition of slavery (with which she saw a strong connection), the emancipation of women and the fight to legitimise trade unions.
Colonising the Future
Ethically relevant to eradicating ecocide and a possible future theme for CPA is a development of the issue of colonialism, via the notion of colonising the future. This can be seen as a synonym for inter-generational justice, but somehow has more bite to it. Raised at the 2019 Hay Festival by cultural historian Roman Krznaric, the notion invites us to consider financial, ecological and climate debt as an extension of the colonising of peoples, lands and Nature. It means the young and unborn being asked to pay the price. This framing helps to sharpen our view of the human justice element in ecocide.
We need that sharpening. The role of law in how we behave towards the other-than-human world is still probably a minor topic for most people, compared to things with a more direct and obvious bearing on personal security. That may be changing as evidence mounts of the threat to ourselves posed by ecocide, but remedial action is still more problematic than previous human rights causes because ecocidal activity is endemic at so many levels of human life. On whom, for instance, should responsibility be pinned for the nutrients and algal blooms, plastics and chemical cocktails spreading into the sea from our estuaries? And as Helena Norberg-Hodge says in her postscript to Rupert Read and Samuel Alexander’s This Civilisation is Finished: “Whether worker, consumer, politician or CEO, it’s virtually impossible to be sure that you are not harming ecosystems or people on the other side of the planet. It’s as though our arms have grown so long we can’t see what our hands are doing.”
That does not excuse the egregious practices at the corporate and governmental level. And the law, even as it stands, is after all being used by Exxon-Mobil shareholders against the company’s witholding of material information on emissions and climate change. In the Netherlands, the Urgenda Foundation succeeded in its case against the Dutch government for failing to take adequate protective action on climate. On the same issue we await the result of Juliana vs the USA.
Underlying Polly Higgin’s work was the realisation that the law, in this case international law, is not fit for purpose in the context of a climate and ecological emergency. The ongoing work seeks to give legal teeth to the prosecution of the biggest offenders which allies crucially with civil disobedience to challenge both defective awareness and grossly inadequate structures. The paradigm shift mentioned above involves recognition and respect for (as Rockstrom puts it) planetary boundaries. The necessary shift in the laws by which we live is both radical and wide-ranging. Because it involves acceptance of absolute limits to what we take, make and do it is not just an ethical shift, but a compliance with laws that are immutable, rather than human constructs. It becomes clearer by the day that our choice, assuming it still exists, is between proactively collapsing growth economics or incurring a far more devastating collapse.
The CPA book “Climate Psychology: On Indifference to Disaster” edited by Paul Hoggett, largely written by CPA members, and featured in our June events, is now available for purchase direct from Palgrave or keeping in mind the Boycott Amazon campaign still ongoing try Blackwells.
The videos from our Annual Conference where the morning introduced and discussed the book are making their way to our You tube page
Nadine Andrews and Paul Hoggett also contributed a chapter ‘Facing up to Ecological Crisis: A Psychosocial Perspective from Climate Psychology’ to the book by the Green House Think Tank, John Foster (ed.) Facing up to Climate Reality: Honesty, Disaster and Hope.
Following the CPA-Greenhouse collaboration in Bristol on 22nd June "Without growth or progress: adapting our culture to the new climate reality" - an introduction to and world cafe discussion of both books, there is a second CPA/Green House event on the same theme and format on September 7th 1-4pm in Edinburgh, venue to be confirmed.
CPA Scotland will be finalising the date of their Annual Conference at Edinburgh University when the booking system allows – the theme will be on the climate crisis and young people – working title “ My generation – containing the rage of betrayal”.
We are also dreaming and hatching an event probably for late Autumn with the working title "Climate Psychology, Social Justice and the Colonisation of the Future".
Confirmed Dates for the Autumn:
Through the Door: Three meetings have taken place for members who are developing ways to work with local communities to support their thinking about and living with the climate crisis. A fourth one is planned for Saturday October 5th in Hebden Bridge, Yorkshire, with Chris Robertson and Wendy Hollway. Contact
A follow-up for those who have already attended a ‘Through the Door’ workshop will be held in Oxford on Saturday 12th October, an opportunity to share what we've been doing and where we have got to. Further details later.
CPA Podcast Series: Climate Crisis Conversations
The series features creative thoughtful conversations between climate psychologists and our friends about the climate and biodiversity crisis. We’ve called the series Catastrophe or Transformation as each podcast explores the range of emotional responses to the climate and biodiversity crisis, which we are discovering and exploring within ourselves and with others. Read and hear more