Talking to friends about climate change

April 30, 2013 § 5 Comments

Over the last few weeks I’ve found myself engaged in a number of difficult conversations with friends. I met someone who one day was celebrating the purchase of some cheap outfits from Matalan and the next horrified at the collapse of the garment factory in Bangladesh. Another friend is enthusiastically exploring consultancy opportunities in China. A third has flown half across the world for two days work in London and intends to do so again, later in the year.

Opening up difficult conversations

I repeat the same advice to people who ask me how to deal with conversations like this: listen; open up the conversation; try to understand the other person’s position; empathise with the dilemmas; explore the conflicts; try not to get angry. I still think this is good advice but are there occasions when it’s not appropriate? Definitely. There are times when you need to challenge someone, times when you should get angry and times when you might risk falling out with even your closest friends.

As a therapist I spend a lot of time trying to understand other people’s experience. Empathy is essential. It’s critical to appreciate the complexity of someone’s mixed and conflicting feelings. You need to have compassion for the anxiety that produces paralysis and for the fragile self that struggles with self-criticism and self-doubt. You need to attend to the unconscious roots of seemingly irrational behaviour and self-destructive actions. You listen; you suspend judgment; you try to help someone through the tangle to a more creative solution.

Authenticity and truthfulness

But there are also times in therapy when you challenge someone. Authenticity and truthfulness matter as well and it doesn’t help to be a pushover or to collude with someone’s self-destructive impulse. I once listened for a long time to a man explaining his distress at losing his driving licence following a series of speeding incidents. He was struggling with alcohol but had somehow avoided being breathalysed and had to date succeeded in avoiding accidents too. After a while of listening to his self-justifications, I said ‘Actually, I think the court was right.’ He was angry with me, but I was also standing up for a better part of himself, the part that knew that he was dangerous behind the wheel.

Understanding the defensive moves

These situations are always complicated. Sometimes a friend is trying to wind you up. If they can succeed in becoming the victim of your anger they can feel relieved of any guilt they feel. You will be in the wrong for attacking them. They will be the innocent party. Sometimes a friend is seeking your absolution. They want to be accepted and forgiven for acts they feel are not really justifiable. They treat you as a parent who will offer compassion for their powerlessness or their need to be special. Sometimes a friend is asking you to collude. They are inviting you to share in their denial, encouraging you to ease their guilt by joining them in pleasures it might be better to forfeit.

In the course of one of these conversations you will encounter all the defensive moves that Stoll-Kleeman and colleagues[i] describe so well in their discussion of climate change denial. Things like:

  • It’s the clothing company’s responsibility not mine
  • If I don’t buy from Matalan, the garment workers won’t have jobs
  • I’m too small to make a difference
  • The plane was going anyway
  • China needs people like us to put them on the right track
  • My contribution is unique – I have to go there to make it
  • I have to make a living
  • If I don’t do this, someone else will
  • It’s too late for mitigation

It is important to address these objections sympathetically, explore their origins, tease out their emotional charge and the social constraints that reinforce them. But it is also important to hold your ground, know when you are being manipulated and when to offer a challenge.

Gregory Bateson

In the 1970s, systems theorist and polymath Gregory Bateson expressed this moral challenge very clearly in an appeal which drew, surprisingly, on St Paul. If ever there was a man who understood the intricacies of both human relationships and ecology, it was Bateson, but here he is with a crystal clear statement of what I have elsewhere called ‘the ‘no’ of nature’[ii] – the incontrovertible fact of the limits of nature which challenge our narcissism, our phantasies of immortality and our blindness.

“The hardest saying in the bible is that of St Paul, addressing the Galatians: ‘God is not mocked,’ and this saying applies to the relationship between man and his ecology. It is of no use to plead that a particular sin of pollution or exploitation was only a little one or that it was unintentional or that it was committed with the best intentions. Or that ‘If I didn’t, somebody else would have’. The processes of ecology are not mocked.”  Bateson 1970 p.480[iii]

Sometimes this is a challenge which needs to be spoken straight.


[i] Stoll-Kleeman, S., O’Riordan T. and Jaeger, C (2001) The psychology of denial concerning climate mitigation measures: evidence from Swiss focus groups. Global Environmental Change, 11: 107-117.

[ii] Randall, Rosemary (2012) Great Expectations: the psychodynamics of ecological debt. In Weintrobe, Sally (2012) Engaging with Climate Change. London: Routledge.

[iii] Bateson, Gregory, (1970) Ecology and flexibility in urban civilisation, in Steps to an ecology of mind. 1973, Granada publishing P.480.

The Green Deal – great offer or another example of denial at work?

January 28, 2013 § 1 Comment

The Green Deal is the government’s latest offer on climate change. Is it a good offer or another policy that colludes with people’s desire that climate change shouldn’t really affect their lives?

Denial and disavowal

Denial is a familiar idea in relation to climate change. Its most common form is not the outright “black-is-white” argument of the denialist industry but the common capacity to keep the awkward knowledge split off in one part of the mind so that ‘life as usual’ can go on. Psychoanalysis often refers to this as ‘disavowal’. People know and don’t know simultaneously. Uncomfortable knowledge is shelved. The awkward facts of climate change are put in a separate box. In this way the anxiety, guilt and disturbance they cause can be managed.  Loss doesn’t have to be faced. Anne Karpf described this process well in her recent Guardian article Climate change, you can’t ignore it  and I discussed it in my piece The Id and the Eco in Aeon magazine a couple of months ago.

Also familiar are the contradictory statements and policies of governments and big institutions as they respond to pressure from vested interests and stakeholders. BIS (the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills), the Treasury and DECC (the Department for Energy and Climate Change) set off in mutually opposing directions. The ‘joined-up government’ trumpeted by the Blair administration in 1998 as a solution to ‘wicked’ problems like climate change was quietly dropped. Cameron and co have no interest in reviving it.

What is less familiar is the way a process of denial can be enacted within a specific public policy. This is an altogether more insidious process as it contributes to confusion in the public mind, reinforcing and legitimising the status quo of disavowal. The government’s Green Deal, launched this week as a programme to upgrade the UK housing stock, is a sad example.

The need for big changes

In 2006 the government-commissioned Stern report was clear. Stern argued that dealing with climate change required investment of 1% of GDP a year in order to avoid much greater costs later on. Stern later agreed that his figures were optimistic and that 2% was more realistic. Others suggested that even that was inadequate. What was not up for debate was the fact that climate change will cost money. Priorities need to be realigned and the economy transformed.

When you come down to specifics, research on the UK housing stock is equally clear. Both Brenda Boardman’s research for Oxford University and energy modelling done by DECC and the Scottish Government show that we can’t meet our obligations under the Climate Change Acts unless almost all the possible upgrades to existing houses are made. This includes a long list of projects whose costs outweigh their monetary savings.

So what does the Green Deal offer? It provides loans to householders and landlords that are recouped through energy companies making a charge on fuel bills. At its heart is the idea of the ‘Golden Rule’. No upgrades to housing should be made that cost more than the savings that can be made on energy bills.

Perversion and the avoidance of reality

This is a policy which simultaneously accepts and denies reality – the process at the heart of disavowal. On the one hand the Green Deal acknowledges that something must be done to reduce the energy demand of UK housing. On the other it suggests that this is a matter of choice not necessity, that no loss to the individual will be involved and that the key consideration is financial. Many of the actions which in reality are needed are placed out of the frame, along with the arguments for taking any of them.

The perverse lie at the heart of the Green Deal is the idea that each energy-saving action should have a ‘payback’ time. When governments in the 1960s provided grants for toilets, bathrooms and electricity in the nation’s run-down Victorian housing, the ‘paybacks’ on these works were not calculated. The motive was to provide decent, healthy housing for all the population. In the 21st century a similar programme is needed to transform the housing stock to cope with climate change – a programme needed once again because it is the necessary, decent, human thing to do.

The Green Deal policy could be seen as a prime example of what Paul Hoggett[1] (in his essay Climate change in a perverse culture) describes as a perverse culture, where processes of thinking have been corrupted and policy-makers operate in an ‘as-if’ world where it becomes more important to appear to do something than to actually make a difference. This is a world in which evasion, half-truths and collusion thrive. Morality is blurred. Targets are substituted for actions. Tricks are preferred to truth. Complexity provides a smokescreen for ineffectiveness.

Newspapers from the Guardian to the Daily Mail have predictably picked up on the problems at the heart of the Green Deal. Its confusing rules, complex processes and muddled finances are easy to pick holes in. Sadly, instead of offering leadership that spells out the unpalatable truths, accompanied by genuine incentives to make meaningful change, the Green Deal both colludes with a public that prefers not to face the issue and provides a framework for further denial.


[1] Hoggett, Paul (2012) Climate Change in a perverse culture in Weintrobe Sally (ed.) Engaging with climate change: psychoanalytic and interdisciplinary perspectives. London: Routledge

Denial, culture and ideology

October 2, 2011 § 3 Comments

Is climate change denial all to do with uncomfortable emotions and psychological defences as I argued last month? Dan Kahan and the cultural cognition project argue that denial has more to do with a particular kind of rationality that is rooted in people’s cultural beliefs. His research produces some interesting results. « Read the rest of this entry »

The many faces of climate change denial

September 1, 2011 § 3 Comments

In popular parlance ‘denial’ can refer to anything from the barefaced lies of a politician to the psychobabble of checklists that tell you whether you are ‘in denial’ about any number of personal ills. Understanding climate change denial means unravelling both psychological and sociological meanings of the term. « Read the rest of this entry »

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