Understanding of the psychological impact of climate change is growing. Environmentalist and journalist Rose Coward explains how psychotherapy can be a solution to dealing with climate anxiety.
The latest data on climate change is both irrefutable and alarming. According to a new, authoritative report from the American Meteorological Society, all major indicators of climate change – namely record temperatures, increased sea levels, sea ice at a record low, coral reefs dying and extreme weather events – ‘reflect trends consistent with a warming planet1’. Meanwhile, there’s been no reduction in the greenhouse gases responsible for global warming: indeed, in 2018, carbon dioxide emissions were at the highest level since records began.
Earlier this year the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change spelled out the implications of this for life on earth˜. The current temperature rises of 1.5 degrees higher than pre-industrial levels are already creating dangerous changes to the planet’s ecology. However, the report continues, these temperature rises are likely to go higher than this within as little as 12 years. This is because of the ‘runaway effects’ of global warming caused by the melting ice cap. Without the ice cap, the effect of greenhouse gases is amplified. The implications are scary. Unless rises can be kept to under 1.5 degrees, we are ‘dicing with the planet’s liveability’.
Meanwhile ‘nature’ is disappearing before our eyes, such are the pressures on biodiversity on land and sea. The World Wide Fund for Nature’s Living Planet Index reveals humanity has wiped out 60% of mammals, birds, fish and reptiles since 1970. This is partly caused by climate change, partly by human destruction of habitat and methods of food production that have wiped out functioning ecologies. Many species, on whose existence we directly depend, have declined drastically. Moths, bees and butterflies, the pollinators of our plants as well as food for other species, are for the most part in catastrophic decline. The widely accepted term is Anthropocene, describing the geological era where human activity is the dominant influence over climate and now shapes the environment and the fate of other species.
Climate warnings in the past felt abstract, and environmentalists like me struggled to get media coverage. Now the threat posed by humans to their own planet is staring us in the face. There are powerful documentaries on plastic pollution of the ocean or the burning of the Amazon rainforest. Rarely a day goes by without news of some climate-related traumatic events like flooding, drought, extreme storms and wildfires. We can see it with our own eyes too. This year I visited a glacier in Norway 28 years after my first visit there. It had receded a full 300 metres, leaving bare rocks where before we had been awed by groaning turquoise ice looming over us. Closer to home, I’m painfully aware of how depleted nature is compared with what it was like when I was a child.
Distressingly, governments don’t seem to take this seriously, prioritising support for economic development over environmental protection. But in the wider culture, alarm bells are well and truly ringing. The language is of urgency and imminent extinction: ‘extinction rebellion’, ‘species extinction’, ‘climate emergency’, ‘climate crisis’, ‘climate catastrophe’. Far from offering consolation, new activists fan the flames. ‘Adults keep saying, we owe it to the young people to give them hope,’ says Greta Thunberg, founder of the school strike for climate movement in 2018, ‘but I don’t want your hope, I want you to panic.’
As this urgency intensifies, so has individual anxiety. Psychotherapists are encountering a new phenomenon in their consulting rooms, anxiety about the planet. They are meeting guilt at the consumerism that has gobbled up the earth, despair at the lost richness of nature, anger at fellow citizens who do nothing, impotence in the face of governments’ failure to take it seriously, and often, a background fear that an environmentally triggered disaster could strike. Conflict is in-built, too – between nations where the ‘developed’ world is seen as hypocritical in criticising developing nations for their treatment of nature, and between generations where parents are seen as handing the next generation a trashed planet. But does this concern about the environment really have a place in therapy? Does therapy have anything to offer a global problem? Are therapists equipped to cope with the issue?
It’s striking talking to psychotherapists concerned with the issue of climate anxiety, how all of them emphasise the need for psychotherapy and psychotherapists to change. Psychotherapist Tree Staunton says: ‘While psychotherapists are trained to help their clients face difficult truths in their own lives, they have not previously had to face global situations which place them in the same situation as their clients: they too face an uncertain future for their children and grandchildren and must find ways to manage their own responses, as well as helping their clients. This is a new situation for all of us – we are “all in the same boat”. My current focus as a counselling and psychotherapy training provider is to ensure that the therapists of tomorrow are adequately prepared – in terms of having managed their own feeling responses – to assist their future clients.’
Psychotherapist, eco-psychologist and author of Climate on the Couch, Mary Jayne Rust, argues that the challenge of climate change and the destruction of nature requires ‘a sea change’ in psychotherapy’s, and psychotherapists’, whole relation to nature. There needs to be a shift, she says, from a utilitarian idea of what we can use nature for, to how can we give back to nature, an approach she thinks that challenges the whole basis of what therapeutic knowledge is.
For example, she now accepts that humans can and do have as deep attachments to the natural world and other species as they do to humans. If this comes up in the consulting room, instead of approaching these attachments as metaphoric, she allows them their full place and meaning. ‘What,’ she asks, ‘of the grief for places, animals, trees that you may have lost? These are stories about love, awe and beauty, as well as grief, rage and pain for the losses in the wider world now.’
The therapists interviewed for this article are all members of the Climate Psychology Alliance, part of a growing movement of therapists foregrounding the implications of climate change for their profession. In 2008, the American Psychological Association established a climate change task force. In the UK, the Climate Psychology Alliance came into being between 2009 and 2012, developing out of a conference held at the University of the West of England in 2009 called ‘Facing Climate Change’.
‘It was initially an informal group of psychotherapists from a variety of therapeutic modalities who came together to discuss the possibility of forming an organisation to promote a deeper understanding of the psychological issues connected to climate change,’ says Chris Robertson, psychotherapist, trainer and chair of the Climate Psychology Alliance.
Since then it has provided a network and workshops for psychotherapists who want to take on board the ‘existential’ implications of climate change in their practice. Although the numbers are growing, those involved feel it’s been hard work getting to this point. ‘It’s been slow to catch on. I’m so embarrassed by my profession,’ says Mary Jayne Rust. ‘It feels like it’s one of the last sets to face the reality of what’s happening.’
According to Chris Robertson, there are a number of key psychological issues which eco-psychology is addressing both in relation to clients’ and to psychotherapists’ own responses. At the forefront are denial and rationalisation. These are ‘the defences that we use to avoid facing these difficult feelings and which have become integral to sustaining our exploitative relations with both the non-human and human worlds’. In contrast, eco-psychology allows the client to connect with feelings of depression and despair about the state of the environment. Interpersonal psychotherapist, Hilda Burke, explains: ‘I want people to feel depressed about climate change. This is about getting away from the heroic “Let’s all save the planet”, and a call to look under the surface, to go within, to be reflective, to feel sadness and loss and despair and grief, because these feelings hold transformational possibilities for us.’ Along with facing depression is accepting the conflicts, dilemmas and paradoxes that individuals and groups meet within negotiating change with family, friends, neighbours and colleagues.
Another area requiring psychotherapists to take a different approach is towards the cultural assumptions and practices ‘which have driven us to the climate crisis: the sense of privilege and entitlement, materialism and consumerism, and the faith in progress,’ says Mary Jayne Rust. Effecting change at the level of values has form in psychotherapy. She points to the way in which critiques of racism and gender stereotypes were illuminated by – and illuminated – psychotherapy’s exploration of the inner world. Therapy could now use those insights in the service of changing attitudes towards the environment. She also points to the way in which it was psychotherapy which ‘helped find a language about the inner world; we now need to find a language about the relationship with the non-human world’.
Finally, says Chris Robertson, an eco-psychological approach is about helping put people in touch with ‘the psychological resources – resilience, courage, radical hope, new forms of imagination – that support change’. No one would disagree, and all the therapists I spoke to for this article raised the issue of helping clients – and themselves – find hope.
Giving hope in a world of despair
The straightforward part of this is offering practical help and many of the Climate Psychological Alliance specifically offer their services to environmental activists, such as those involved in Extinction Rebellion, recognising burn-out and the pressure to be cheerleaders leaving them unable to deal with their own inner doubts and anxieties. Some therapists also encourage clients ‘to use anxiety for good’, says Hilda Burke. ‘It’s about helping clients understand that although they are one individual there are others concerned – that individual action can affect change. It’s not a matter of giving false hope, but of showing how once engaged, anxiety goes down. When they take the first step, by taking up volunteering or joining Greenpeace, the client typically feels better.’
Much more complex are the underlying philosophical issues of how to hold onto hope when the vision, accepted by ecologically aware psychotherapists, is so dark. This is particularly problematic when eco-psychology adopts a more hard-core deep-green agenda. At its most intense, this agenda argues that the planet’s liveability is already compromised, that difficult social change and chaos are inevitable. It emphasises grief and mourning as a route to deep personal adaptation.
Long-established NGOs and environmentalists that focus as much on influencing governments and business as influencing individual behaviour are suspicious of the somewhat millenarian nature of this language. When it comes to the science, there’s not much between the two approaches, but what’s really at the heart of this disagreement is whether foregrounding and endorsing anxiety about extreme climate change and potential social collapse – the end of the world as we know it – spurs action or hopelessness. Environmentalists are more inclined to emphasise the possibility of solutions, however difficult, and therefore caution against the despair that follows any approach that does not appear to offer technical and political solutions.
It may be that developments within environmental thought and activism are recalibrating the balance between hope and despair, through a new emphasis on the restoration of nature. I have been involved in environmental politics and journalism for a long time, but a few years ago I began to notice signs of burn-out and distress about what was happening to nature, not just the immediate threat to places I loved but also the sense of how depleted nature had become. Having taken voluntary redundancy, I joined a small group of conservation volunteers working on restoring the landscape and ecology of the River Stour in Kent.
This was an important move for me. On the one hand, I found a group of like-minded people, all, like myself, saddened by the loss of nature. On the other, I began to understand how it was possible to repair nature, and by doing so, repair ourselves. Of course this intimate connection with the river meant coming up against the scale of the problem first hand – the loss of habitat, ecosystem collapse, pollution, neglect. But it also meant experiencing, through small tasks in and around the river, glimmers of hope that nature wasn’t beyond repair, indeed occasionally, a sense that the damage could be reversed. This project, and others, send the message that nature can recover, and nature’s recovery provides at least a partial solution to climate change.
Climate change and the destruction of nature are the most pressing issues of our times. There’s no easy winner between hope and despair. But therapists who have been thinking about these issues are united on one aspect of why they can allow themselves some hope: they feel hopeful that finally their profession is prepared to open up to the reality of climate change. And this means that recognising and preparing for the scale of the impact of climate change on mental wellbeing is crucial, and sufficient funding must be directed to services to ensure everyone can access therapeutic support no matter their background.
This feature was originally published in The New Psychotherapist, Issue 72, Autumn 2019. To receive a free subscription to our flagship magazine, join UKCP today.