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We need to talk about climate change ... Photo: Pedro Ribeiro Simões via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).
We need to talk about climate change ... Photo: Pedro Ribeiro Simões via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).
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Carbon conversations: we need to talk about climate change

Rosemary Randall

15th February 2015

Despite the urgency of climate change, most people close their eyes, turn away turn away and hope someone else will sort it out. It's not that we're bored, writes psychotherapist Rosemary Randall - we're more likely to be fearful, anxious or embarrassed. So how can we help people to feel less scared, and see that we are all are part of the solution?

I have been repeatedly moved by people's willingness to face these dilemmas and - given the right amount of support and the space to express what they feel - make the difficult decisions.

Most people rarely hold a conversation about climate change. Research by Jonathan Rowson of the RSA found that only 60% of people had ever spoken to another person about climate change and that when they had, their conversations were brief, lasting less than ten minutes.

In interviews conducted for our new book In Time for Tomorrow? people admit to the feelings of anxiety and depression that lie behind this avoidance:

"I get anxious...I get upset very easily."

"I feel burdened by the responsibility..."

"I feel overwhelmed..."

"I am frightened about the future..."

"I'd rather not think about it. It's really difficult if you do..."

Most of us defend ourselves against experiencing feelings like these. We avoid the subject - "Let's talk about something nicer." We rationalise - "I'm sure I can't really make a difference." We project responsibility elsewhere - "It's the fault of the Chinese / USA / government / industry." We regress, imagining that a powerful parent-figure will solve the problem - "I'm sure they've got it in hand."

The 'disavowal defence'

Most commonly we use the defence which psychoanalysis calls disavowal - the capacity to split the conscious mind so that it can hold two contradictory facts without feeling the connection between them. We both know and don't know that climate change is serious at the same time.

On the one hand we admit that it is happening. On the other, we carry on with life as usual, booking flights, upgrading our homes without the necessary insulation and taking life decisions with high carbon impacts.

This split in the mind explains why most people, when asked in surveys, will say that they are concerned about climate change, but do nothing about it personally, collectively or politically. Disavowal lets us be concerned and unconcerned at the same time. We can carry on with life as normal.

On the positive side our psychological defences help us manage crises and anxieties. But if our defences become established, they distort our relationship to reality and prevent us acting as we need to. The painful truth that the majority of the known reserves of fossil fuels needs to be left in the ground is relegated to a small corner of the mind.

If we think about climate change at all we embrace illusory solutions that are either too little, too far in the future or too dangerous or untested. One person imagines that doing her recycling is a good contribution. Another places their hopes in energy efficiency. A third is wowed by geoengineering.

Creating the safe space - Carbon Conversations

Psychotherapy deals with our natural defensiveness by creating a safe space where it is OK to be upset and confused, feel anxious or distressed and to struggle with change. When people feel supported they can lower their defences, face difficult truths and take difficult decisions.

Some years ago, I set out to explore how we could use these insights to help people grapple more effectively with the problems of climate change, particularly with the need to reduce carbon emissions in our day-to-day activities.

Working together with Andy Brown, an engineer who provided factual and technical backup, we created the Carbon Conversations project - small, facilitated groups where people come together with the goal of halving their personal carbon footprints.

The groups provide a safe space where people can talk without fear of judgment about their lives and the dilemmas they face in trying to reduce their impact. These are not therapy groups, but they take from therapy the idea that change takes time, that it requires support and that its dilemmas are best faced together.

The power of the group

As trust develops in a Carbon Conversations group people become able to talk more openly about their feelings about climate change and the dilemmas it presents in their lives. As group member Rebecca explains:

"I feel so much conflict between wanting to have a low-impact lifestyle and wanting to live comfortably and ‘normally'. It helped to discuss these things without being made to feel guilty..."

Gradually, people become able to connect their concern with the practical actions that may be needed. There are difficult issues to face. It can be hard to realise that income is the biggest determinant of a personal carbon footprint, or that a much-loved holiday destination is an unsustainable air-flight away or that eco-renovation will spend money that might be enjoyed in other ways.

"I was shocked to learn that my trip to Japan was 6 tonnes of CO2", said Belinda. "I resent the fact that cheese - which I love - is a high-impact food", said Joe.

It's common to come up against issues of loss and identity. Jonathan's first car was a cherished possession. "It marked my entry into adulthood", he said. Disentangling the meaning of a lifestyle choice and finding another source of self-esteem or meaning is often important in making a change. Recognising and working through the feelings of resentment or grief can also be important.

Sometimes even small decisions can stumble if they conflict with an important sense of identity. Tony talked about how it was hard to turn the lights off: "I still feel there's something unwelcoming about coming to a dark house. I don't leave a light on now, but it doesn't sit well with me", he said.

In time for tomorrow?

I have been repeatedly moved by people's willingness to face these dilemmas and - given the right amount of support and the space to express what they feel - make the difficult decisions. Without the group people's good intentions might have remained just that. The non-judgmental space where they could talk, share their feelings and think about the issues led directly to change.

Over 3,000 people, nationwide, have taken part in Carbon Conversations groups which are run by trained volunteer facilitators and use both online and print materials.

Our new book In Time for Tomorrow?, written to support group members, is now available to the public and we hope its wide availability will encourage more people to take part in a Carbon Conversations group and gain from the support and encouragement provided.



Rosemary Randall is a psychotherapist and group facilitator who has been involved in the environmental movement for many years. She is the founder, with Andy Brown of the Carbon Conversations project and is on the steering committee of the Climate Psychology Alliance.

The book: In Time for Tomorrow? the Carbon Conversations Handbook by Rosemary Randall and Andy Brown, is published by the Surefoot-Effect, £11.99, and can be purchased from any good bookshop or online at Carbon Conversations.

More information: Carbon Conversations.

Events: forthcoming in London, Oxford, St Andrews - see Facebook page.


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