Agreed Facts, Differing Conclusions
As usual, this newsletter owes much to CPA’s growing network of members and colleagues who post or forward a wide variety of articles on climate issues with a psychological interest. Two items this month show clearly how, even when there is little or no difference over the science, people’s reactions to the subject and the conclusions (if any) that they draw vary greatly. Treatment of the data and the message sent out vary accordingly.
During the past few weeks, we have had, in the Guardian from Patrick Barkham: “ ”We’re doomed”: Mayer Hillman on the climate reality no one else will dare mention” ”. A few weeks previously, Margaret Klein Salaman, clinical psychologist and founder of The Climate Mobilization, interviewed Paul Gilding, author of The Great Disruption.
Hillman’s “We’re Doomed” might be right and despite Barkham’s hyperbole he is not alone in that view. But a careful reading of his argument, as reported in the interview, reveals a merging of climate science with observations about our nature and culture, as if both have the same immutability. To say that we absolutely can’t change our attitudes and behaviour is not only questionable but is hardly an encouragement to do so, or a morale-booster to those of us doing all in our power to achieve it. He certainly makes a string of important points, for instance the failure of leaders to speak up about the scale and urgency of the climate challenge and that doing so is an upholding of established knowledge, not merely the voicing of an opinion. He also criticises the general lack of thought beyond the year 2100 and failure to consider inter-generational justice, our subservience to the motor car, the avoidance by many of the population issue, the insanity of continuing to build new runways. (He also subscribes to the view that climate scientists are self-censoring out of concern for their careers and funding). Despite these powerful points he appears to alternate between the view that it’s objectively too late to prevent climate change bringing human civilisation to an end on one hand and, on the other, that we’re psychologically and culturally unable to change course and this is what dooms us.
There is a hint in the interview that Hillman hopes his warnings will help bring us to our senses, even if it is unclear whether he sees the possibility of any mitigation at this stage. As others have done, he likens our collective position to that of a person with a terminal illness, commenting that acceptance of the diagnosis will make us more likely to sober up and do everything possible to alleviate our situation. Part of the tricky path of climate psychology involves holding our minds open to the possibility that the terminal diagnosis on civilisation (at least as we know it) is correct, whilst staying aware that this idea is abhorrent to many, perhaps most, in the climate field. The abhorrence should not be seen merely as a defence, but also an awareness that resignation is liable to sap commitment to the climate struggle. And for climate psychologists with any activist leaning, the climate struggle has a particular meaning – that of challenging the cultural myths and complexes which drive humankind’s ecocidal behaviour.
Commitment in the Face of Uncertainty
Turning to the Klein Salaman interview, Paul Gilding does not shy away from the real possibility of civilization collapse and shows no signs of delusional hope about our current course. Where he differs strikingly from Hillman is his belief in a cultural ‘trigger point’ which could not only mitigate the outcome but which he sees as already underway. It should be noted here that, despite the obvious mutual respect, a hint of tension emerges in the interview, over Gilding’s optimism. Spare a thought for the US political context in which Klein Salaman is currently operating. She mentions the whole package of fossil-funded disinformation, collusive ignorance, cynicism, decadence, narcissism, media silence and mistrust of government - daunting obstacles to the rapid and profound change that is desperately needed. This psycho-social debate, enacted by two knowledgeable and deeply committed people, is what breathes life into the whole encounter. Is this not a catharsis, a version of a debate going on in all our minds?
Gilding’s belief in social transformation in the face of seemingly insuperable obstacles is backed up with recent and historical examples, ranging from ‘Me Too’ to World War 2. He argues that the economic costs of the latter were greater than what is called for now. But, argues Klein Salaman, how do we go to war without a clearly identifiable and external enemy? Gilding’s response is neither simplistic nor devoid of psychological insight. He describes the current situation as “messy, confusing and frustrating as hell”. He recognises the allure of the apocalyptic imagination and agrees with Klein Salaman that, as reality dawns, there will be crazy cults and wider outbreaks of violence. But part of his insistence that we must hang in there is based on his observation that change, whilst not clearly visible to all of us, is already underway. He calls it an “emerging response” and says that these processes will only with hindsight be seen as conclusive. But he admits that events he would have expected to serve as trigger points (Katrina, Sandy) have been and gone without galvanising commitment to mitigate. On the other hand and despite inadequate follow-through and the present rogue administration in the USA, he sees the Paris accord as a remarkable landmark in the mobilisation of climate action. (The idea that the ‘baton’ of real action has now been passed to other hands is mentioned below).
Gilding acknowledges that there are many layers to the climate mobilisation and sees them all as essential. The mess is unavoidable, the odds unclear, but he sees a wide range of possible outcomes, giving us every reason to continue the struggle. His moderate and affable tone never wavers (in this interview anyway) but he clearly has little truck with the psychological escapism of the apocalyptic vision. Nor does agree with Naomi Klein’s view that defeat of capitalism is a sine qua non for effective climate action. He sees much evidence of positive and innovatory response within the business community and, with passion, asks why on Earth would we want to treat as outcasts the Michael Bloombergs, the Elon Musks and Tom Steyers of this world.
Despite Gilding’s and Hillman’s very different perspectives, they share not only a recognition of the huge damage already done, but also belief in a coming to our senses, an awakening to planetary reality. The shock, grief, fear, guilt and mourning as well as the reparative impulses which surely go with that is another facet in the work of climate psychology.
The Earth is Full
This is the title of a TED talk by Gilding – a somewhat shorter ask than the interview discussed above. It is more about our stuff than our numbers, but the title does evoke the population issue. There is another connection: Gilding’s broad spectrum analysis of the climate problem includes the way that political ideology can undermine collaborative action. Global overpopulation is one area where this occurs. The subject cannot be de-politicised, nor is it separable from the question of consumption and lifestyles. In conservative thinking it can easily mask racism and a sense of entitlement arising from privilege. To those on the left, revulsion over these elements can make it a taboo subject. Climate psychology should be able to recognise and face this proverbial elephant in the room. ‘Antagonistic truths’ need somehow to be reconciled: education and women achieving control over their own fertility leads to falling birth rates. Equally, poor countries don’t take kindly to being dictated to by rich ones, which so often have a colonial past as well as far higher levels of consumption and emissions. Another tension needing to be resolved is that are no environmental problems which are not exacerbated by population growth and most of the climate and ecological damage being perpetrated on the Earth is down to us, the relatively few and relatively rich.
Possibilities – Out There and In Here
If there is an outstanding moral from the Gilding – Klein Salaman interview it is not to give up in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles. We know a bit about the psychological challenges which come with that and that part of the answer lies in the solidarity and resilience of a community of like-minded people.
Everyone knows that the Paris accord, for all that it was a political breakthrough, didn’t come close to putting us on the necessary climate pathway. There are numerous examples of not just a failure by governments to ratchet up their commitments but of actual backsliding. From the UK alone, it would be possible to quote a handful of articles every month illustrating this. As this Vox article explains, globally we continue on course for a disastrous 3 degrees C of warming. And when it comes to the funding of mitigation at a global level, the effort is as flimsy as an umbrella in a hurricane, in the words of UN climate chief Patricia Espinosa.
That might lead us to conclude that the 1.5 or even 2 degree targets are completely unrealistic. Even a catastrophic 3 degrees depends on a lot of commitments that may or may not be met. But two articles in the past month suggest that we may be looking in the wrong places for evidence of change. Even the cold shower of the Vox article acknowledges this. Business Green points out that although it’s too soon to judge the adequacy of legislative measures, all 197 signatories of the Paris agreement are enacting climate legislation. Also mentioned is the incidence of legal actions against lax government and heavy emitters, mentioned in several past newsletters.
Climate Change News shifts the emphasis right away from top-down action, in this piece arguing that the UN is no longer the major driving force in the climate transition. The argument is that, as was evident at the recent Bonn talks, the UN effort is running out of steam but there is plenty of energy and action elsewhere. Each of us can draw our own conclusions as to how convincing a picture this is. Whatever it amounts to at this moment, it could be seen in terms of distributed leadership – a promising model for sustained action, by no means a substitute for regulatory change but conceivably able to underpin and help to drive it. A growing sense of distributed leadership around combating climate change could prove to be an incentive to all of us and a reminder that, just as the source of climate and ecological crisis lies deep in our culture, any hope of an effective response depends on it having a matching depth and breadth. Just one example: the disastrous myth that we’re entitled to take everything within reach, and the confusion of this with true need, is deeply embedded in our culture. But it is not immutable. Whether or not we do so, we are collectively capable of abandoning it before it destroys us. We are capable of discovering a wealth of delights outside the crash path of untenable consumption.
Lest We Forget
While we talk, assess, hope and make our various efforts, there is a constant stream of reminders of the trouble that continues to mount. The plight of Antarctica’s Thwaite glacier briefly made the BBC headlines. It has been estimated that this sheet of ice the size of Florida could alone account for a metre or more of sea level rise. The Pakistani city of Nawabshah suffered a record April temperature of over 50 degrees C. Drought-related dust storms and thunderstorms extending from Rajasthan to Uttar Pradesh in India killed an estimated 125 people. Here in the UK (and perhaps a fading memory for now) there were several warnings such as this from Carbon Brief that the AMOC, colloquially known as the Gulf Stream, has weakened by 15% since the mid-20th century. The melting Arctic is widely seen as the culprit. A freezing Britain is the ironic and unsettling spectre conjured up by it.
The First Earth Day
It is at the same time poignant, heart breaking and impressive to watch this 48-year old broadcast by Walter Cronkite. It prompts the question have we learned anything in the last half century? Thanks to Richard Pauli for this and the link to the Klein Salaman interview.
To coincide with this year’s Earth Day, CPA member Dennis Postle posted this chapterised video production Messages from the Blue Planet. It is evocative, impressive yet gently delivered and is a further example of the many talents within our network – talents that are being applied to producing psychologically informed messages about the climate crisis. The underlying question of what we might say to our grandchildren about the planet they will inherit connects directly with the subject of CPA’s forthcoming Annual Conference.
Landmark New York Event
On 20th May there was a well-attended meeting in New York titled Introduction to Climate Psychology, under the auspices of The Climate Reality Project. The Project’s presentation was by Harriet Shugarman – award winning Al Gore trained Economist and founder of the organisation ‘Climate Mama’. Three of our CPA – N. America colleagues contributed: Susan Spieler on “Engaging with Feelings about Climate Reality”, Elizabeth Allured with “How Psychology Can Help us Understand and Cope with the Environmental Crisis” and Susan Bodnar on “Climate Change and Clinical Work - the Day-to-Day Applications of an Environmental Sensibility”. Susan Spieler rounded off with “Where do we Go from Here? Healthy Engagement”.
Susan commented on this event: “The program went very well and….I owe a lot of it to the founders of CPA in the UK because you were the ones who introduced me to Susan Bodnar and Elizabeth Allured.” This feedback on CPA’s networking efforts is satisfying. The New York meeting comes across as a landmark in the establishment of Climate Psychology (as conceived by CPA) in the USA and a solid achievement, while the structure and identity of CPA – N. America gradually takes shape.
CPA UK Events – a Busy Summer
If you are planning to attend our Annual Conference on climate psychology and children in London on 9th June and have not yet booked, please don’t forget to do so, whether you are a member attending free or a paying guest. You can access here the full programme and booking form including the recent update on afternoon workshops. The following day’s Mythos Workshop with Sally Gillespie and Jonathan Marshall has a few places left at the time of writing; don’t delay if you want to go and haven’t booked. There is a discount for those paying to attend both events.
There is also an exciting addition to our programme of Summer activities. We have long been hoping to arrange a talk in London by Clive Hamilton, based on his book about the Anthropocene, Defiant Earth. We have very recently learned that he will be available on the evening of Monday 9th July and are delighted to announce this one-off talk: Facing the Anthropocene: Geology’s challenge to how we understand ourselves. We are organising this meeting at relatively short notice. If you want to register your interest ahead of formal booking arrangements, please notify Adrian Tait:
July 5th to July 8th 2018
7th Ecopsychology gathering at Green and Away near Worcester
Melting Polarities Finding our Flow
Responses to the recent plea for other writers have been very welcome. Julian Manley will be writing July’s edition and Chris Robertson September’s, giving this writer a three month break. If you have been reading, thank you, particularly those of you who have been kind enough to offer feedback, suggestions and encouragement.
On behalf of the Executive Committee
Editorial support from Judith Anderson, Chris Robertson and Paul Hoggett