Climate change and migration: how despair feeds apocalyptic imaginings

September 30, 2015 § Leave a comment

Over the last few weeks climate change and environmental problems have repeatedly been bracketed with the huge numbers of refugees heading for Europe. Jeremy Corbyn in his acceptance speech for the Labour Party leadership, John Kerry at a US State Department Conference and Craig Bennett of Friends of the Earth in the Guardian, all argue, either that the Syrian crisis is intimately linked to climate change or that the population movements it has instigated give us an idea of what is to come. Is this true? And if – as seems to be the case – it is not, then why has this narrative grabbed the headlines and people’s imaginations?

The Syrian exodus is not about climate change

It’s certainly the case that climate change will bring more droughts and other extreme weather events. There may also be a case to be made that the 2010 Syrian drought was climate related. But it is a big jump from there to argue either that climate change was an important factor in the mass migrations from Syria, or that these mass migrations are an accurate picture of the future that climate change will bring. The recent droughts in California and Australia, for example, both thought to have some relation to climate change, have not produced civil war or mass migration, while the patterns of population movement that drought tends to bring are not those of mass migration across continents. There are other compelling, political reasons for people leaving Syria. If you want to understand how climate change is likely to affect patterns of migration or want to understand the relationship of the Syrian drought to the current civil war you will find good information on the UK Climate Change and Migration Coalition’s website.

Why is the connection attractive?

So what is going on psychologically? Why does the idea of catastrophe linked to climate change grab the imagination so persuasively? Are people hoping that such stories will spur more significant action in Paris in December? Is there sadistic pleasure in promising pain to those who have ignored warnings? Is there a masochistic reward in embracing disaster imaginatively in the mind or perhaps narcissistic exceptionalism in imagining oneself as a survivor? Or is there simply a desire to avoid the real reasons for the Syrian refugee crisis?

Paul Hoggett’s article Climate Change and the Apocalyptic Imagination offers us some more sophisticated clues. He puts despair at the heart of it. He argues that catastrophizing and apocalyptic thinking are defensive responses to despair and traces the history of this mode of thinking amongst political thinkers and movements from the Second World War to the present day. You can read the full article here – its perspective is a useful antidote to the manic urgency of some of the current commentary.

Understanding and dealing with our despair involves recognising how empty and powerless we can feel. Despair can involve a kind of psychic homelessness – in its depths we can feel abandoned, rootless and disconnected: refugees in our own minds. Seeing our psychic plight mirrored in the actual plight of refugees may help explain why the connection feels so compelling.

Paul Hoggett argues that dealing with despair involves facing the difficulty of not knowing what the future holds and holding a balance between being justifiably alarmed and destructively alarmist. It means holding onto our core human values and striving for realistic, collective responses whatever the situation we find ourselves in. And it involves recognising but rejecting the tug of the apocalyptic imagination as its illusory promise sparks to life in each of us.

Maybe easier said than done.

Carbon Anniversaries

July 20, 2015 § Leave a comment

The meaning of anniversaries changes with history. A century ago high levels of infant mortality, and the loss of life in childbirth, industrial accidents and war meant that each year a child or life partner survived was something to be grateful for and was a cause for celebration. In modern times anniversaries have become another commercial opportunity and the most trivial of annual achievements seems to be cause for bigger and more lavish celebration. Organisations too are encouraged to celebrate their longevity but for NGOs and charities longevity can make for a bittersweet party. Most of those who campaign for social justice wish that their work wasn’t necessary but the day that they can hang up their hats for good rarely comes. They find themselves, perhaps bizarrely, celebrating their continued existence alongside the problem they had hoped to eradicate.

A tenth birthday

The issue has been on my mind because it’s ten years since Andy Brown and I set up Cambridge Carbon Footprint, the organisation that gave birth to the national Carbon Conversations project and which for some years was the focus of my attempts to bring a more sophisticated, psychosocial understanding to people’s approach to climate change.

2005 was an exciting year for us. I spent the early part of the year writing the paper A New Climate for Psychotherapy, describing the personal and social defences which I saw as inhibiting our attempts to deal with climate change. In May I presented this work at the Trajectories Conference at the Centre for Alternative Technology and we returned from that weekend with a new tool – CAT’s Carbon Gym, a neat little program which calculated people’s individual carbon footprints across the key areas of their home energy, travel, food and other consumption. We immediately saw that this was the practical mechanism we’d been looking for. You could use it as the basis for a one-to-one conversation that took you deep into the things which mattered to people – their homes, families, holidays, jobs and aspirations, which (unknown to most of them) embedded high levels of carbon emissions in their day-to-day lives.

The rest of 2005 was a flurry of activity. We trialled our interview technique at the Gwydir Street party in early July, calculating over 40 of our neighbours’ footprints. By the end of that month we had set up the Cambridge Carbon Footprint website, adopted a formal constitution and applied for and been awarded grant funding from the City Council. By the end of the year we had a small, keen membership, were exploring engagement with much wider groups within the community and had come to realise that the issues our one-to-one interviews opened up for people might best be explored in small groups where the painful emotions that climate change and carbon reduction engendered could be properly faced.


Footprinting at the Gwydir Street Party, July 2005

Excitement and sadness

It’s hard now to capture the excitement and hope of that period. The government was developing the Climate Change Bill (which became the Climate Change Act in 2008), funding was available for community groups trying new ideas, the energy of the environmental movement was focused on getting the outcome we needed at Copenhagen in 2009. Andy and I believed, naively, that our organisation would be short-lived, not because it would fail but because its work would become so mainstream and accepted that we would not be needed. Ten years on it is tempting to focus on what has gone wrong – the difficulties in our own organisation, the failure at Copenhagen, the retreat by the UK government from deep engagement with the issue, the seemingly inexorable rise in carbon emissions – but perhaps it is also important to celebrate what has been achieved, albeit at a small scale.

The Carbon Conversations project lives on, managed now by The Surefoot Effect CIC. Akashi, Shilpa Shah’s ground-breaking project for CCF which ran from 2006-2008 has had a ripple effect in the environmental movement in how work with people from BAME and faith groups is approached. Psychosocial approaches are now championed powerfully by the Climate Psychology Alliance and psychology generally is on the agenda when climate change is discussed.

Raise a glass

We are no longer part of Cambridge Carbon Footprint so we will not be celebrating ten years with them. (We parted company in 2011 when its trustees decided that they were no longer interested in the psychosocial methods we had pioneered and wanted to get rid of the Carbon Conversations project.) However, we wish them well and when we’re back at CAT at the end of this month we’ll raise a glass to all who helped us get our work off the ground and hope that in another ten years organisations working on climate change will no longer need to exist.

What’s wrong with us? Review of Naomi Klein’s ‘This Changes Everything’

September 11, 2014 § 1 Comment

Naomi Klein’s new book This Changes Everything: capitalism vs the climate is a tour de force of uncompromising argument, backed by penetrating analysis, a gift for story-telling and a deep, human empathy for those who are suffering now – and will suffer in the future – from the depredations of a turbo-charged capitalism that is ideologically unwilling and practically unable to deal with climate change.

The systematic sabotage of neo-liberalism

Her central thesis is straightforward – neo-liberal capitalism, with its dependence on fossil fuels and its need for continuous growth, is unable to tackle climate change. Free-market fundamentalism has spent the last thirty years removing regulation, rubbishing the public sector, promoting unsustainable growth, destroying collective solidarity and concentrating power and wealth in the hands of the few. Its practices have attacked and undermined the very tools – state action, planning and investment – that are urgently needed to bring climate change under control. Its ideology has made us doubt our capacities for collective action and undermined our values of solidarity and human kindness. It has, she says, “…systematically sabotaged our collective response to climate change.”

Klein is clear that only concerted national and international programmes of regulation, state investment and planning, comparable to the powers taken by UK and US governments during the Second World War, have any hope of making the annual 8-10% reductions in emissions that are now needed to bring climate change under control. She sees further than this however. She argues that tackling climate change and tackling inequality and social justice are part of the same struggle and she brings a sense of enthusiasm and possibility to this challenge. The good solutions to our climate problems could also bring lives that are more just, more equal and more worth living to far more people than currently enjoy them.

Klein is not blind to the benefits that capitalism has brought to society and she is not proposing the destruction of everything that characterises our current economic system. She does however wish to see the back of the free-market fundamentalist version that has ruled the globe for the last thirty years. And she is clear that it will not leave the stage quietly. Her interviews with participants at the Heartland Institute’s meetings are chilling indeed. She is in no doubt about the struggle that we face. And she is in no doubt about the urgent need to build a political movement that cuts across the boundaries of our existing concerns.

From ecological amnesia to radical change

As Klein herself acknowledges many of her arguments are not new. This is territory that others have trodden before but she makes the arguments with renewed vigour and honesty and draws many threads together with meticulous research, compelling stories, vivid prose and a sense of hope and possibility that has been lacking from much writing on the climate in the years since Copenhagen 2009. One of the most interesting parts to me was her admission of her own past blindness to climate change and her curiosity about the mechanisms for this ‘ecological amnesia’ as she calls it. Klein understands that our psychological defences and our capacity for disavowal play a part in our collective failure to address the problem. But this is only one of many insights that Klein weaves into this complex and riveting book. Her understanding of the way that corporations work, her grasp of complex trade agreements, her capacity to outline the science and her historical understanding of our assault on nature – all these make her book stand out. But for me it is her empathy with the lives of ordinary people and the way she tells their stories as she makes the arguments for radical, long-term change that spoke to my heart.

In a week where the UK government has published its proposals for the Paris round of negotiations with the depressing statement that growth and decarbonisation are ‘both sides of the same coin’, this is a must-read book for anyone serious about making Paris deliver on what the world, its biosystems and its people actually need.

You can hear Naomi Klein speak about This Changes Everything in London on October 6th and in Oxford on October 8th.

Fuel poverty, fuel affluence and carbon reduction

October 28, 2013 § 8 Comments

Fuel poverty, along with fuel price increases, has been much in the news. But is it fuel poverty or fuel affluence that we should really be concerned about – the fuel poor or the fuel rich?

There is no doubt that fuel poverty is a serious problem. To be fuel poor is to suffer. Cold affects health. Respiratory problems, mobility problems and cardiovascular problems are all made worse. Worries about whether it’s OK to turn the heating on and whether bills can be paid are a recurrent, debilitating anxiety for many of society’s most vulnerable people.

Tackling fuel poverty doesn’t reduce emissions

But why are fuel poverty and carbon reduction so often spoken of in the same breath? Why is tackling fuel poverty suggested as part of the solution to climate change? The truth is that tackling fuel poverty makes little difference to carbon emissions. Poor people, living in substandard housing (rated E, F or G) generally have a fixed budget for their heating, rarely enough to keep their home warm. Through necessity, they under-heat their homes. When their homes are thermally upgraded, they spend the same amount of money. The difference is that they are now able to live at a temperature that offers them a decent quality of life. One study found that fuel use amongst the poor actually increased slightly following upgrades, possibly because people could feel more confident in a well-insulated house that keeping the heating on for a little longer would not actually break the bank.

The hidden problem of the fuel rich

So if dealing with substandard housing – which must be done – does not reduce carbon emissions amongst poor people, why is it treated as if it does? We might suspect that something else is going on: responsibility is being deflected from a problem that powerful people would prefer not to face. The problem is the fuel rich.

There are two categories of the fuel rich we might consider. Those who live in large, un-insulated houses but who can afford they bills they incur, and keep themselves snugly comfortable by pumping extraordinary quantities of CO2 into the atmosphere. And those who own many of the houses lived in by the fuel poor – the landlord, rentier class who achieve their carbon-polluting lifestyles on the backs of their vulnerable tenants.

If the fuel rich insulated their own homes, there would a genuine drop in carbon emissions. They could keep their homes just as cosy at a fraction of the carbon pollution. But mostly, they don’t. Ask any architect or engineer who has proposed even the most ordinary energy-saving measures to a wealthy client, refurbishing an existing dwelling. For every one who agrees, there are a dozen who don’t. They can’t be bothered. The additional cost will add to the price of the job. The marble worktops, gold-plated taps and £50,000 kitchen units are essential. The insulation – and the environment – can go hang.

And the landlord class who own many of the properties lived in by the fuel poor? Despite tax breaks (Landlords Energy Saving Allowance) and the inducements of the Green Deal – which bizarrely would see tenants paying through bills for the improvements – most landlords do not act. Why? Greed, selfishness, stupidity and a disregard for the lives of others are all candidates.

Deflecting attention from the real carbon polluters

Psychologically we are in familiar territory. David Cameron can wring his hands. George Osborne can offer an extra jumper. The rich simultaneously affect concern while deflecting attention from their own culpability.

So what should a concerned environmentalist do? If you want to campaign for carbon reduction make your target the fuel rich, not the fuel poor. Alleviating fuel poverty is a noble aim but it does not, in itself, reduce carbon emissions. Focus your sights on those who are the cause of the problem.

Genuine carbon reduction is almost always a question of social justice. Whether we are looking at the relationship of wealthy countries like the UK to poor ones like Tanzania, or the relationship between the affluent and the disadvantaged in the UK, then the rich must reduce their impact so that the poor can achieve a decent, human standard of living.



IPCC report, hope and the left-right debate

September 30, 2013 § Leave a comment

I’ve spoken to a lot of people who were hopeful in the run-up to publication of the new IPCC report that politicians would finally show leadership. At some level I shared that hope, but I also recognised the queasy unrealistic feeling I’d experienced during the collapse of the Copenhagen COP15 talks when I fantasised that Obama was going to fly in and settle everything for the good of humanity and the world. I knew it was a fantasy. And it grew in proportion to the hopelessness of the situation.

Leaving fossil fuels in the ground

For climate change to be dealt with, fossil fuels have to be left in the ground. The more you understand about the paradoxes of energy efficiency, the rebound effect and the dilemmas of economic growth, the less likely it seems that the current economic system and current economic models can cope with the problem. This may go some way to explaining the current preoccupation with the fact that climate change seems to have become an issue that belongs to the left.

For many years conservation and environmental concerns seemed non-party political. If anything, it was the left who – fearing that progress might be denied to working people and less developed nations – saw these concerns as a cover for reaction and inimical to the left-wing agenda. As the scale of the problem has become apparent, with its challenge to just about every norm and assumption of contemporary western life, it’s the right who are panicked by the (realistic) possibility that capitalism and the survival of humanity are incompatible. They’re choosing capitalism – head-in-the-sand, bone-headed, neo-liberal capitalism – and their method of attack is to deny the science.

Reframing the political debate

Two recent publications shed an interesting light. In a recent interview with Salon , Naomi Klein repeated her argument, (first made in an article in the Nation in 2011) that in cosying up to capital and espousing so-called market based solutions to climate change, the big green groups have failed to engage with the deeper problem – the fact that capitalism-as-we-know-it is incompatible with any real solution to climate change. The right meanwhile are only too aware of this incompatibility – hence their enthusiastic denial of the scientific facts.

On this side of the Atlantic, the Climate Outreach and Information Network (COIN) have published an interesting report ‘A new conversation with the centre-right’ which explores how discussion of climate change can be framed to appeal to an audience that is rapidly in danger of disappearing either into indifference or into the arms of their more extreme, denialist friends.

Both publications attempt to re-frame the political debate. COIN’s report recognises the importance of keeping the right talking and thinking outside the frame of denial. Klein’s challenge pushes the green establishment to wake up and put a critical economic hat on for once.

The ugly face of capitalism

Meanwhile, up in the Arctic, the ugliest face of capitalism, supported by corrupt government, tries to crush those who protest. As the Greenpeace activists face imprisonment on trumped up charges of piracy for their protest at the Gazprom rig, we can count ourselves warned. This is how capitalism behaves under threat.

I notice myself feeling weary. Hope and fantasy bear a troublesome relationship. The fantasy that publication of the IPCC report would see a resurgence of genuine leadership and a serious challenge to the status quo was comforting. It seemed to offer hope. In the same way, denialists hope that climate change isn’t happening, big green groups hope that market-based solutions will crack it, an apathetic public just hopes that it will all go away. Fantasists, all of us.

On the back foot, struggling and afraid, it is not surprising that fantasy is attractive. But in desperate times real hope can only come from a more sober place – from the recognition of a darker reality and our own humanity, from a belief that relationship, justice, equality, other species and habitats all still matter. We have what we have. What is, is.

It’s a fight, and it’s looking increasingly dirty.

Donations to Greenpeace can be made at

Security, masculinity and the fracking debate

September 4, 2013 § Leave a comment

A few weeks ago George Monbiot suggested in the Guardian that we should think about the psychological motivations of fracking enthusiasts. Spot on. As I wrote 18 months ago, the language of the debate is determinedly, and demeaningly masculine. But I think there is more to it than the macho fixation that George suggests. This masculine strutting is, after all, familiar from every other large engineering project you care to think of: nuclear power, space exploration, the channel tunnel. It chimes easily with the desire of large corporations to invest large amounts of money. It makes small men feel big. It’s familiar, doable and profitable.


With fracking however, government has tried to appeal to the public through the rhetoric of energy security, claiming that if we fail to exploit this resource, hard-working families will be priced out of energy, pensioners will die from hypothermia and the nation will be in hock to unreliable foreigners. Baloney, of course, since all energy is now traded on international markets and home-production guarantees nothing about price. It’s the framing that’s interesting – the appeal to security.

There’s an attempt to weld together the gung-ho metaphor of exploration with the paternalistic metaphor of security for those who are deserve it: those who belong to ‘us’ and not to ‘them’. They thus hoped to appeal simultaneously to their neo-liberal financial backers and to their traditionalist, rural constituents. This has of course back-fired, as those rural constituents feel anything but secure as they see their pleasant homes and stable communities threatened by industrialisation they would prefer located elsewhere.


As Alex Randall pointed out in a piece for Open Democracy 3 years ago, energy security is a troublesome frame. In this instance it has upset the apple cart for the right, but it can equally well do so for the left.

The psychological associations of appeals to security are to childhood memories of safety and care, the idea that someone will take care of us, provide for us, make sure that nothing goes badly wrong. Many of the Tory party’s traditional supporters have an ambivalent attitude to these associations. Sibling issues emerge in the fear that others may take what is rightfully yours and the security agenda slips easily into a jingoistic defence of ‘our’ energy and from there to the idea that it is justifiable to achieve energy security through armed conflict if necessary.


Alex points out in his article that while for people on the left a security agenda implies peace-building, conflict resolution and a fair distribution of resources, for those on the right it means achieving stability by any route necessary – political bullying, economic blackmail or military intervention.

In the fracking debacle, it’s the right who have come unstuck in their assumption that the security agenda will play out in the way they expected, but the left should be equally aware that this frame will not necessarily take you where you expect. You mess with people’s most basic fears at your peril.

Economic recovery, carbon emissions and the obsessional defence

July 28, 2013 § 1 Comment

It’s a commonplace in economics that growth in GDP is a good thing. And it’s a commonplace in psychology that awkward topics of conversation will be avoided. If something upsets the status quo – expect a defence.

There are few topics as awkward as the relationship between economic growth and climate change. As economies grow, they use more energy. And sadly, neither improvements in efficiency, techno-wizardry, or a move towards renewables is likely to solve the problem. Carbon savings made in one place free up resources to be used elsewhere. This year’s efficiency improvement is swallowed up in next year’s growth. This is what is known as the rebound effect. « Read the rest of this entry »

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