How Anxiety Around Climate Change Blocks Us From Taking Action

"The main crisis is one of powerlessness."
Shutterstock / Calin Tatu

While most scientists agree that we haven't yet reached the point of no return on climate change, we're getting alarmingly close.

The warnings have been issued, and the message is loud and clear: Our individual and collective inaction may lead to unimaginable consequences. The United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has cautioned that without urgent action on climate change, we face a "very high risk of severe, widespread and irreversible impacts globally," while Greenpeace estimates that greenhouse gas emissions must be significantly reduced by 2020 if we are to avoid "runaway" climate change.

World leaders are meeting in Paris this month at the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change in an attempt to chart a new course of action.

Though efforts are being made, there is no doubt that we should have acted earlier, given the magnitude of the threats. So why has it taken us so long -- and why do governments, corporations and individuals still struggle to take meaningful action?

Well... it's complicated.

On the political and economic level, there are many barriers to meaningful action -- most notably the fact that there is no simple solution. Any real action would require dramatic shifts in our energy production and consumption -- a difficult feat in an economy focused on short-term gains over long-term concerns, particularly when policymakers still disagree about the existence and magnitude of the problem.

This political inertia -- as well as our individual inaction -- has deep psychological roots.

“We see the horizon as a distant place, perhaps far enough away that we need not engage our attention with it directly and immediately," Al Gore said during a recent interview for Jared Leto's video series "Beyond the Horizon." "But the horizon is not that far away.

As Gore suggests, the tendency to prioritize immediate over long-term concerns is certainly a major part of the problem. But there are a number of other, often more insidious, psychological pitfalls that keep both politicians and their constituents from rallying around climate change.

An emerging field of psychology is investigating the psychosocial and behavioral dimensions of our relationship to the environment and climate change, and psychologists are hoping to get to the roots of our failure to act.

Growing awareness of the effects of climate change isn't enough. Renee Lertzman, Ph.D, a psychosocial researcher whose work focuses on promoting climate change action in organizational settings, says that we've reached a point where it's impossible to ignore the issue -- but that doesn't mean we're ready to act.

"The genie is out of the bottle -- we can't pretend or ignore the systemic impacts of what this all means," Lertzman told The Huffington Post in an email. "However, what that means and how that's translated into ways in which we respond politically or personally is a whole other story."

It's easy to see how denial, skepticism and apathy around the environmental threats posed by climate change can lead to inaction. But even among people who care deeply about the issue, feelings of guilt, anxiety and powerlessness can contribute to a lack of engagement.

"People have very profound concern and alarm and anxiety about what's happening ... this can have a short-circuiting effect and we can feel quickly powerless, despondent and apathetic," she said. "Climate change is arguably traumatic, for everyone including our leaders. Traumatized leaders are often ineffective leaders."

This anxiety and concern can cause many people to become locked into a sort of psychological "double bind."

"They can see that this is a real issue, but they don't know or see what they can do about it, so unconsciously they decide to remove themselves from the issue," Lertzman said.

We can see the effects of this on global leaders, too.

"The psychological roots of inaction for political leaders is really not much different from what is afflicting the majority of us," Lertzman said. "When we perceive a double-bind, whether accurately or not, we retreat into a contracted, risk-averse mode of being ... 'Solutions' are not always straight-forward."

Denial, apathy and risk aversion are among the "dragons of inaction" detailed by University of Victoria environmental psychologist Dr. Robert Gifford. These "dragons" also include numbness, mistrust of scientists and other experts, optimism bias ("It won't be that bad") and belief in technological salvation.

"If you don't think about the problem in an effective way, it's going to interfere with engaging in effective and useful action," Gifford told HuffPost. "All 7.3 billion of us need to self-diagnose, and then look around for ways to overcome that particular obstacle that we have."

But by targeting the way we think, we can begin to take meaningful actions as individuals and societies. To do this, Gifford argues that psychologists must work with other scientists, activists and policymakers to overcome psychological barriers to action in institutions and cultures at large.

Another part of the problem, according to Lertzman, is the way we talk about climate change, which tends to fit into one of two dialogues -- "doom and gloom," on the one hand, and sometimes unrealistic solutions on the other. Research has shown that these "parallel narratives" have a strong negative effect by preventing people from being able to locate themselves and their own actions in the story.

A first step, then, is to change the conversation. Integrating these narratives and finding a middle ground between the facts and the solutions may be one realistic intervention to both quell anxiety and spur action among leaders and the public.

And as individuals, in addition to taking measures to reduce our ecological footprint, we must also demand action from political leaders.

“It’s true, we’re in a really horrific situation -- and there’s something we can do about it," Lertzman said. "We must recognize that all of us are facing extraordinary challenges that require us to access new capacities, including how we relate with change and risk. The best thing we can do, in my view, is to firmly and compassionately let our leaders know that we require them to act."

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