The Psychology of Climate Change

Energy Aware

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).

Figure 1. Climate change was among the least important problems for Americans in April 2023. Source: Gallup and Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.

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.

Art Berman is anything but your run-of-the-mill energy consultant. With a résumé boasting over 40 years as a petroleum geologist, he’s here to annihilate your preconceived notions and rearm you with unfiltered, data-backed takes on energy and its colossal role in the world's economic pulse. Learn more about Art here.

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  1. Jonathan Wright on June 27, 2023 at 1:02 pm

    Excellent summary. Collapse of this model is inevitable, which actually brings a sort of perverse comfort. It’s business-as-usual working as it’s always worked for us. For the reason explained here, which includes the impossibility of consensus. Of any mass acceptance let alone understanding. Collapse is therefore the only thing to understand. That civilizations come and go, and these are merely the details pertaining to how our particular one is going. This earth, this God, meanwhile, will go on for another few billion years with or without us. None of this is remotely as important as we’d like to believe. It is nonetheless very sad to me just how badly we blew it this time around.

  2. Santi on June 24, 2023 at 7:08 am

    Interesting approach but as always there’s a key element left out of the analysis. It’s not humanity causing ecological overshoot, is the capitalist Global North, with Americans at the top of the pyramid. An average citizen in Zimbabwe lives well within their planetary limits. If every person in the world lived like an American we’d need about 75 planets to provide us with the necessary resources and energy to survive.

  3. [email protected] on June 18, 2023 at 3:48 pm

    lnteresting take on the problem.
    My take is that the real sciences of ecology, biology, archeolgy and physics give a different picture than “the queen of the social sciences” (how did it ever happen?) neoclassical economics.
    Neoclassical economics with its mantra (Adam Smith’s invisible hand) and its conclusion that there is a self- regulating economy created by divine providence. Neoclassical economists see the economy as independent of society (as Margaret Thatcher said: “there is no society, just individuals and families”) and also the planet and the universe. This is the ideology of the day. Paul Urlich describes neoclassical economists as “daydreamers” and sees our biggest problem as a dysfunctional educational system.
    I agree with Paul. Teach people about the overshoot and carrying capacity, the second law of thermodynamics and evolutionary mismatch. Your point about us being detached from nature is sadly the case. Get rid of the current ideology that dominates our media and educational system and let’s hear from those other guys. We will get a more balanced and realistic picture.
    I worry that smart people who say we won’t change until the sky falls in are probably right.

  4. EnergyAndEntropy on June 15, 2023 at 1:44 am

    Nikola Tesla, Huxley, Orwell and Turing should be forgiven for thinking their systems can last forever – finite fossil fuels are dangerously hypnotic to humans and their mental capacity.
    Humans were not ready morally, ethically and intellectually to start the mass extraction of fossil fuels with the advent of the steam engine 300 years ago.
    The Magna Carta requires now overhauling – adding to it the right for humans to understand what Energy really is;
    “In any system of energy, Control is what consumes energy the most.
    Time taken in stocking energy to build an energy system, adding to it the time taken in building the system will always be longer than the entire useful lifetime of the system.
    No energy store holds enough energy to extract an amount of energy equal to the total energy it stores.
    No system of energy can deliver sum useful energy in excess of the total energy put into constructing it.
    This universal truth applies to all systems.
    Energy, like time, flows from past to future”.

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