Opinion

Climate change therapy: how to heal our climate disassociation

By Eleanor Flowers

Updated May 17, 2020 at 08:48 AM

Reading time: 4 minutes


Climate change

Feb 6, 2019

How does a climate scientist get up in the morning? I’m going to tell you how to face your worst climate fears. Since you have clicked on this article, I know that you are afraid and that you are ready to admit it. I have one thousand words this month to help you through this. Today could be a day during which you think about something bigger than yourself. Perhaps such thoughts will fill you with a surprising sense of calm and connectivity.

I’ve been speaking to climate scientists all month, in search of hope. I’m going to show you where the hope is hidden, but first I’m going to write to you about the bad news, because you have to read it, again. What good would a therapist be if they didn’t sit you down with your greatest anxieties and hold them up to the light, for a proper examination?

Asking a climate scientist if it is all going to be OK is like locking eyes with an air host aboard a plane about to plummet into the ocean. Indeed, sixteen-year-old climate hero Greta Thunberg wants you to panic. Climate scientists and activists wake up every day and know it is too late to mitigate climate change entirely. We are going to have to adapt and nobody knows what this will look like, but that’s what makes a climate scientist tick. It might make you tick too.

Jeffrey Kiehl is a climate scientist and a Jungian analyst living near San Francisco. Kiehl, who has been in the climate biz for four decades, has studied warm climates in the deep past. Earth had a warmer climate before, tens of millions of years ago, but obviously humans weren’t around for that. Here is what Kiehl told me, ten minutes into our Skype call:

“If we do not stop our dependence on fossil fuels we’re going to push the climate system into an extremely dangerous state—one that the human species has never experienced in its entire evolutionary history…when you look at the rate at which the climate system has gone into and out of warm states [in the deep past], it’s been the timescale of tens of millions of years, we are pushing Earth’s climate system into a state like that on a timescale of a century.”

Your first instinct might be to reject this information. “It can’t be that bad. That’s not the whole story.” All those defence mechanisms which protect us from unpleasant feelings of uncertainty will kick back against this trigger with which I am presenting you. You are not a climate denier, but you might be experiencing climate disassociation or disavowal.

Kiehl points out that back in the late seventies, when the scientific community realised what would happen if we did not get off fossil fuels, everyone just assumed people were rational enough to wake up and change. What Kiehl finds interesting is that we, the human species, are not acting nearly as quickly as we need to.

Kiehl is interested in the polarising discourse of climate change in the U.S. He believes the modern American myth of “the rugged individual” who ruthlessly pursues their own success, renders it hard for some folks to accept the science of climate change and the government intervention which will be necessary in order to overcome the perils of the Anthropocene. Basically, if a culture values individuality too much, it is difficult to promote the sense of teamwork and altruism needed to overcome the issue.

Certainly, when speaking to those on the front lines of climate action advocacy, the toxic relationship between unchecked individualism and climate disassociation, or the emotional inability to wholly accept the reality of climate change, comes up repeatedly. Remember that last month I spoke to Liam Geary Baulch, a British activist and member of Extinction Rebellion. I asked Geary Baulch why we were so unable to connect with the horror of environmental catastrophe and he replied with the following wisdom:

“[The U.K.] is the country where the industrial revolution happened, this is the country where […] we decimated our forests to build warships to spread colonialism around the world, and then we decimated other people’s natural resources. I think you have to disconnect people from each other and from the environment to allow that much exploitation to happen…”

I wonder if climate disassociation, like individualism, is scalable. Katie Hayes, who is writing up her PhD in mental health and climate change in Canada, thinks most of us experience something like “climate disavowal”, where we move through the world with “one eye open and one closed…which is sometimes worse than climate denial.” In London, for instance, where we are only marginally less polarised than in the U.S., many accept that climate change is happening, but have the dangerous privilege of postponing action.

Now you have read the bad news you might be stomaching the heavy weight of despair; your skin might feel alive with fear or flightiness; perhaps you are frozen, numb or angry. This is exactly where you need to be.

You should message a friend, forward this article, tell them how you feel, ask them how they feel. This is the only way to heal our fear of climate catastrophe. We have to let this environmental shit-show wash over us. Kiehl recommends focus groups in which small communities can talk through their feelings about the topic, although he acknowledges that many societies will feel extremely uncomfortable with this. But we do have to ritually reconnect with each other and with the natural world we are so close to losing. Hayes and Geary Baulch both agree too, that treasuring a sense of community is an important part of healing the disassociation many of us are trapped by.

It is not only the stories of doom we should communally exchange, but tales of how we are making a difference. It starts with recycling a yoghurt pot. Hayes, who trained in climate leadership under Al Gore, tells me that we should write down these small actions, perhaps in a tweet or a diary, and share these amongst ourselves. In this way we can see how momentum adds up, and we are able to reconceptualise the problem beyond our individual actions and our isolated feelings of hopelessness.

“You are a messenger now”, Kiehl tells me. And so now are you. This is how to face each warming day. Go tell it in the office, at the supermarket, on the tube.

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