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An Emotional Education


Q. What insight can a psychotherapeutic perspective bring to the question of why we have responded differently to climate change versus COVID-19?

Covid 19 feels more personal. Its bodily, its visceral, and its killing loved ones in such a quick, obvious way. Climate change can feel further away from us even though it isn’t, and the death of our planet still feels abstract and vague for many.

Q. What can our COVID 19 response teach us about responding to climate change?

We are terrible at uniting as a species. We weaponise and politicise suffering just incredibly. But our response to the pandemic shows the collective force of acknowledging a problem. We are all working to find solutions and persevere. It’s encouraging when we aren’t in denial about an extreme crisis. It can be a deeply consoling aspect of any crisis — the way it wakes people up and alerts people to something that must be acknowledged.

Q. Climate change is a collective action problem that requires global economic and political transformation, but it is often framed as something to be addressed via individual lifestyle choices. This produces a feeling of helpless resignation in many people. What psychotherapeutic interventions might help transform this sense of resigned helplessness?

Psychotherapy, ideally, pushes people to pay closer attention to their choices. In this way, it’s central in supporting people to address lifestyle changes. We are all about consciousness, efficacy and agency. When people feel helpless and resigned, which of course happens in so many areas of life, a central task of therapy is to look at what’s possible, and navigate steps forward.

Q. If you were running a training program for climate activists, what are some aspects of emotional intelligence that you would focus on and why?

Perseverance and empowerment matter hugely. We love to romanticise helping the world— as though it comes down to passionate gestures and beautiful impulses. The truth is that positive change is often long and dull and requires just so much perseverance. So the skill of perseverance is something to cultivate, especially for those of us who are impatient and desperate for change and improvement.

Q. What role do you think the media has played in the public perception of COVID 19, and to what extent do you think that fear has dominated the narrative?

It’s hard to know the basic shape, still! I think the media has struggled to keep up with what’s happening and we’ve never been so confused and afraid as a species.

Q. The media is sensitive about climate activists raising an alarm and yet is unreserved about fearmongering in coverage of the virus. Do you think there are double standards about how the media approaches using fear as an appropriate frame for a given issue?

The media is flawed and biased and the story of Covid has taken over so much, it’s as uncontained as a topic as the actual virus in some ways. It’s spread everywhere. Climate change is a great emergency but it’s harder perhaps for us to grasp the urgency, and so it’s a quieter story that is easier to deprioritise, as wrong as this is.

Q. What do you see as the benefits and limitations of using fear as a tool to get people to take action on an issue like climate change?

Fear makes us panic, and we tend not to make great choices when we are in a panicky state. It’s the worst kind of threat. I wish it didn’t have to come to this. But sometimes I suppose we need to know there will be major consequences if we don’t wake up to a problem, but I prefer encouragement as a motivation than fear. I’m a big fan of FDR’s remark that there’s nothing to fear but fear itself.

Q. We often hear that people are disheartened from taking action against climate change because it's an existential threat and an abstract issue. Is it possible for people to simultaneously experience an issue as being an existential threat and an abstraction? How do both these psychological responses inform your theory of how people are processing and experiencing the reality of climate change?

People struggle to believe that climate change will make things worse, very soon. It’s easy to kick the can down the road. We need to wake up to the emotional truth that we are hurting our beloved species, and our future, and the future of our offspring, and we can’t delay things any further. The urgency and responsibility of climate change is what we need to focus on psychologically. Responsibility is such a central theme in therapy so in this sense, it comes into our work in myriad ways.

Q. In the past, climate activists like those associated with Extinction Rebellion have been mocked and shamed by the media. Do you think that the media’s treatment of protesters involved in current uprisings in response to police brutality against black people reflects a shift in media coverage of activists? What factors do you think inform media treatment of activists?

I think it’s a rare and beautiful thing that so many people care about injustice at the moment. I know there are doubts that things can improve and change, but as a psychotherapist, I do believe people can change, and I see it all the time, often in subtle but profound ways. So if media can help direct our attention to what’s possible, bravo. We just need to keep going and do more. Momentary outrage obviously isn’t enough. Again, real change isn’t just a passionate moment. It’s slow and long and hard. Change is a process, not an event.

Q. What are potential psychotherapeutic responses to negative emotions (like empathic pain, grief, anger, despair, and alienation) that those who have a sustained engagement with climate change experience?

Self-care is essential, and especially for those engaged with this issue. You can’t pour from an empty cup. Sometimes with all of the heaviness of these struggles, a bit of playfulness can be restorative.

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