The Psychology of Climate Change
Climate change should be a relatively straight-forward discussion. Either you believe that warming is because of human activity or not. The arguments pro and con haven’t changed much over recent decades although new data emboldens all sides to insist that they are right.
Why then is climate change such a heated and divisive debate?
Part of the answer lies in polling data. About two-thirds of Americans consider climate change a major threat, support carbon neutrality by 2050, and believe that government should create incentives for more wind and solar power. At the same time, they see it as a lower priority than strengthening the economy and reducing health care costs. In fact, climate change was among the least important problems for Americans in April 2023 (Figure 1).
Most people think that climate change is a problem but not serious enough to do much about except to leave it to government to sort out. The same respondents rank government leadership the second biggest problem today after the economy which most of the same people routinely blame on government.
Psychologists might call that an unresolved conflict or even a behavioral disorder.
Many years ago, I was assigned to participate in a 6-week discussion group led by a particularly ineffective leader. I asked the program director to put me in a different group because this fellow made me angry and frustrated. He said, “No one is powerful enough to make you feel any way at all. When you can tell me why you feel that way, I’ll move you to another group.”
I’d never thought about it that way, and it took me several years of self-inquiry to fully understand what he was asking me to consider.
Psychologist Marilyn Price-Mitchell observed about climate change in a 2019 article that,
“As with all great debates, it is often how people feel on the inside that drives their attitudes and behaviors…What’s simmering inside of American psyches may be as important to the climate change debate as the greenhouse gases bubbling from lakes, rivers, and wetlands throughout the world.”
The Fall From Grace is a theme found in many global mythologies. In Genesis, Adam and Eve were expelled from paradise because they failed to follow the natural order that God had explained. They were doomed to wander the earth as strangers in a strange land. Humans had gotten a divorce from both God and Nature.
The last 50 years are the sequel to Genesis. Once again, man has strayed from the natural order and soiled his nest. Humans have polluted the land, rivers and seas, deforested huge swathes of the earth, caused a 70% reduction in animal populations, and put so much waste into the atmosphere that earth’s climate is warming.
Climate change is only a portion of our transgressions. Discount or dismiss it and we still have a huge problem with overshoot or exceeding the carrying capacity of the planet.
Mythological conflict is often expressed in the individual’s interaction with what Freud called the superego—the conscience or the father-mother figure.
“The superego treats the ego like an adult treats a child. The ego is continually trying to deny the criticisms which emanate from its own superego. The ego is trying to prove to the superego that it is grown up by finding others whom it can look down on and treat as a child.”Geza Rohheim, Magic and Schizophrenia (1955)
This is a fundamental insight for understanding why the climate-change and biophysical overshoot debates are so intense. They are not really about facts or data. They are profoundly personal and come from deep within the human psyche, something that is largely outside of our everyday awareness.
On some level, most of us know that our activities are bad for the planet, bad for other species, and bad for our own health and well-being. But we’d rather not think about it, or we are too busy with our jobs and families to think about it much. More likely, when we think about it, we just assume that someone or some technology will provide a solution.
There seem to be at least three approaches to coping with the cognitive dissonance from climate change and overshoot.
Don’t Worry, Be Happy
Some pretend that there is no problem at all. Climate is always changing and is part of a natural process, and the present is no different from the historical or geological past. There were higher CO2 and temperature levels during the time of dinosaurs and life went on just fine. CO2 and warming don’t correlate perfectly and anyway, the earth will be greener and better with more CO2 and warmer temperatures in the future.
The problem is all of those climate alarmists who are making a big fuss about something that probably isn’t worth worrying about at all. University professors write scary papers just to get funding for their research. Liberal politicians want to tax the people to waste money on worthless renewable energy projects. These people should try being in business and they would understand that fossil fuels are responsible for most of society’s progress over the last century or so. The economy must grow and a renewable economy can’t grow.
The Sky is Falling
Another group thinks that climate change means the imminent end of life and human civilization. Warming will result in sea-level rise that will destroy our coastal cities. Crops will fail, billions will die, and mass migrations will threaten what is left of civil society. We must get off of fossil fuels immediately or very soon. People should become vegetarians and source all food and manufacturing locally. Everything should be recycled as we create a circular economy. We must end growth now.
The problem is right-wing people and politicians who just don’t understand or don’t care about what’s happening. The biggest culprits are the evil fossil fuel companies who knew that this would happen 50 years ago and covered it up so that they could continue to make windfall profits at everyone else’s expense.
Technology Will Save Us
A third group blends elements of the first two. It acknowledges that climate change is a big problem but also agrees that growth is crucial. The answer is technology and human ingenuity.
An immediate expansion of clean nuclear power will solve many of the problems of intermittent renewable energy. Fusion is just around the corner. Electric vehicles are such an obvious part of the solution. After all, solar and wind power are almost too cheap to meter. Hydrogen will become the fuel of the future and replace gasoline, diesel and jet fuel. Maybe we can even beam electric power from satellites in space, and drill ultra-deep wells to tap the infinite supply of geothermal energy in the earth. If none of that works, we can move to Mars.
There are no bad guys for this group except the ignorant pessimists who don’t see things their way.
The Human Predicament
Those descriptions are, of course, caricatures and end-members with many positions within the triangle in Figure 2. My point is that society’s basic approaches to climate change are childish (and I include myself in that statement). That is precisely the emotional outcome that we were trying to avoid with our superegos!
I do not pretend to know the path forward. I suspect that even the most adamant deniers are psychologically unwilling to face the possibility that there is a climate-change problem. It seems equally likely that the climate alarmists are afraid to accept that they share responsibility for climate change, and may be powerless to do anything except to blame others. The technology advocates are probably in greater denial than the climate-change deniers.
Does the truth lie somewhere in-between the three groups? Possibly but first we must acknowledge that most of our actions and approaches so far on climate change and overshoot are only defense mechanisms. We are really just acting out while trying to convince ourselves we are doing the right thing.
I am not naive about the human condition or human behavior. I don’t expect this post to change anything except perhaps the perspective of some who read it.
We should not realistically expect any of the current approaches to climate change to result in productive outcomes. We must first be honest with ourselves. Then maybe we can move forward but on a different path. Probably not, but maybe.
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