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Blogs - short snappy pieces, often topical, sometimes informal

Hearing from Psychology for a Safe Climate

psychologyforasafeclimatePSClogocolourADRIAN TAIT, 19th February 2017

Dear Carol,

Picking up on our recent exchange…..I’m thinking of moving the spotlight in CPA’s March newsletter somewhat away from the USA for a change, although the underlying themes have a lot in common of course.

I’ve just been reading this Guardian article http://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2017/feb/19/australia-new-normal-47c-climate-change?CMP=share_btn_link and am considering using the phrase in it “absurdity reigns” as my heading. I plan to bring in a mention of Clive Hamilton’s resignation from the Australian Climate Change Authority, also the mis-attribution of the S. Australian power blackout – referred to in the article and which you previously mentioned to me.

There are lots of details in the article worth mentioning (eg the similarity of Scott Morrison’s coal gimmick to James Inhofe’s snowball), but there are some specific psychological questions which seem salient to me. If you have the time and inclination, I’d be grateful for your comments, for inclusion in the newsletter. You’d obviously be free to add any other comments that you wanted, but these are the ones that are uppermost in my mind:

1. Do you see any evidence that “the public’s patience with such (Government) inaction is likely to wear thin” ?

2. How do you think such impatience might manifest? Eg might it bring Australians out onto the streets in numbers?

3. Do you think Turnbull’s volte face on climate change has any psychological component (eg being afraid of frightening people) or is it all about political leaders always tending to align themselves with powerful economic interests?

4. Do you think the very severity of the escalating climate impacts in Australia may be resulting in people intensifying their defences against reality – eg the ‘unthinkable’ prospect of life becoming intolerable or impossible over an increasing area?

5. Do you see any truth in the accusation (made by George Monbiot I think) that climate change denial is a national pastime in Australia?

6. If so, do you have any thoughts on why?

7. Would you agree that Morrison’s reference to a “pathological, ideological fear of coal” contains a projection and/or inversion of the truth, akin to the Trump administration’s accusations of ‘fake news’?

8. Also on the theme of inversion, do you think that there has been a PR job for the coal industry, portraying any undermining of it (as opposed to the ignoring of climate change) as an act of economic self-harm?

Please say if you’re unhappy with the framing of any of these questions. I do realise that I might be over-psychologising the situation and that it might boil down to an industry that’s using all means at its disposal to protect its own interests, as has been manifest and predicted for the fossil fuel industry globally.

Any comments, even one-liners, would be appreciated.

Best regards,

Adrian.

RESPONSES FROM BEN NISENBAUM 22nd February 2017


1. Do you see any evidence that “the public’s patience with such
(Government) inaction is likely to wear thin” ?

See

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/jan/16/climate-change-90-of-rural-australians-say-their-lives-are-already-affected

The article cites a study that indicates that most people are aware of climate change and believe that it is real. The LNP government is not inactive. It is actively opposed to appropriate action on climate change. It's actively disposed to retarding the movement towards clean energy.

It's motives are based on supporting the coal industry and the corporate sector, including the financial sector, so that its economic objectives can be achieved. One could say that in a cost-benefit analysis, the current LNP government is prepared to pay the cost of bearing so many negative effects of climate change for the benefit of its vested interests. The LNP government makes a point of elevating cost-benefit analysis and economic objectives as the primary drivers of its policies above other considerations such as the social good, amenity and environmental considerations. It believes that dealing with the economics will bring all other factors to a positive outcome, eventually. Their view of climate change appears to be governed by that sort of thinking.

One could surmise that most of the public at the last election had largely the same priorities as the LNP government, and
that's why they won the election. And people are generally very concerned about their economic status since it governs their everyday lives. The only evidence that the public is changing its view are the findings in the polls which are taken each fortnight and lately have the ALP around 54% and the LNP around 46% two-party preferred.

The other climate change activists have not been any quieter, nor noisier than for the last few years, so we still see the Greens and various climate focused and climate aware organisations being publicised in small ways in the media. That article cited above however, does indicate that the public awareness has increased. The government at present is on-the-nose because of it's inaction on many fronts which it's focused on, which are not predominantly climate change. The inaction is partially due to its failure to have the Senate agree to its economic program such as taking some social service benefits away, giving business a tax cut, and closing down various government funded bodies.

2. How do you think such impatience might manifest? Eg might it
bring Australians out onto the streets in numbers?

Numbers on the streets is not enough. There have been many thousands on the streets many times on the climate change issues. The LNP government has ignored the calls. The factor that must accompany numbers on the street s is numbers of people with power who agree with those on the streets. The Vietnam moratoriums in 1970 and 1971, with much larger numbers than the climate change rallies in Melbourne, by themselves did little but raise consciousness. But when those who held those views gained power in 1972 with the election of the ALP government, the game was won, the troops were withdrawn from Vietnam and the war was exited.

That looks like the process that needs to happen for climate change action: the raising of consciousness (which has seemingly been achieved to a considerable degree), the replacement of a "deaf" government with a new one that includes the people who supported the climate change action
calls, and then the appropriate legislation to be enacted to achieve the best climate outcomes possible given the wasted opportunities in the past.

3. Do you think Turnbull’s volte face on climate change has any psychological component (eg being afraid of frightening people) or is it all about political leaders always tending to align themselves with powerful economic interests?

Turnbull's technique is the common political one of intimating fear in the community, and then proposing that he alone has the antidote to it. The fear in this case is the loss of economic standards, the loss of a stable economy, the loss of base-load power and the implied disorder and distress that would cause. The fear is in the form of a dog whistle: it isn't mentioned overtly, but rather implied in the general idea of fear of change to the current status. The irony is that is that political forces have to make changes to keep the status quo, whilst proclaiming that change will be detrimental.

Turnbull is confronted with the classical problem of the individual versus the group. As an individual he had progressive views on climate change amongst other issues, but when he had to rely on the group to satisfy his ambition, he had to submit to the group's demands. In this case the group being the right wing of the LNP. It means that personally, he must carry a contradiction in his mind which pulls him in opposite directions. So part of him is not his authentic self, but rather, an actor who represents the group's demands. The struggle of the opposing forces in him are masked by his skilful persona which presents him as affable, agreeable, considerate, intelligent, sensitive, modern and caring. For him it looks like a cost-benefit situation: pay the price of representing the group to derive the benefit of the prime ministership. His originnal appeal was as a conviction politician, a man who gave up the leadership of the opposition on the basis of his authentic beliefs. Later he became a "political animal" and did what he needed to do to become "top dog".

4. Do you think the very severity of the escalating climate impacts in Australia may be resulting in people intensifying their defences against reality – eg the ‘unthinkable’ prospect of life becoming intolerable or impossible over an increasing area?

The study cited above suggests that most people are not averse to the reality of climate change. The impacts of climate change effects will doubtless bring even more people into the realm of concern about it. There will also be a number of intransigents, as there usually are who will be steadfast in their denial of climate change. There are an endless number of variations on arguments that try to deny reality in climate change as there are such arguments to deny reality in life. Superstitions abound, various deities are invoked as precipitating and causal factors for all sorts of events that are neverthess well understood by scientists supported by profusions of robust data.

So not everyone will get on board the climate change reality bus. Severity of climate effects will cause increasing pain, and people do react to pain by trying to soothe and avoid it. There is hope in that dynamic, but perhaps a lot of misery too because of the degree of pain that may be
required to get the appropriate responses to deal with it.

5. Do you see any truth in the accusation (made by George Monbiot I think) that climate change denial is a national pastime in Australia?

Climate change denial is prominent in Australia at present because a number of those who are in power are in a position to give that denial a good degree of oxygen and propagation. If the government changes, then overnight, denial could lose its oxygen. It's interesting to note that "The Age" newspaper decided to de-oxygenate denial by no longer giving equal space to both sides of the argument. It likes to be fair to some degree by allowing voices from each side to speak on various issues, but with climate change, it accepted the reality of it, and with that could
no longer justify giving the denial side a voice. It would have looked absurd publishing articles by climate denialists, just as absurd as if it published flat-earthers articles. So, oxygen was denied to the deniers virtually in a single decision overnight. A change of government could conceivably do that. Whether such a new government would do enough on issue, is another matter, but denialism could well be consigned to a dark corner quite quickly.

6. If so, do you have any thoughts on why?

Denialism on climate change is partly about not wanting change. Those who wish to protect their current positions, status, benefits etc can be
disposed to think in ways that retain their positions. So when they think about the issue, they will be more inclined to be impressed with arguments that support their wishes. It's a sort of wish-fulfilment situation where their wishes determine what they perceive. In practical terms, if an individual is primarily and ultimately concerned to preserve a certain view of the world, then anything that opposes that view can easily itself be opposed by argument, especially by arguments that invoke some form of faith. Whilst in some forums arguments can be decisive, in others they may have no force. Try convincing a bully he's a baby.

7. Would you agree that Morrison’s reference to a “pathological, ideological fear of coal” contains a projection and/or inversion of the truth, akin to the Trump administration’s accusations of ‘fake news’?

The invocation of "pathology" itself can be seen as projection. Morrison unconsciously sees himself as "pathological" and is trying to rid himself of it by "sending" it into his opponents. It then frees himself of the pathology that would otherwise be so disturbing and distrssing to him. The degree of passion and contrivance that Morrison expends in trying to persecute his opponents is the give-away. He's not interested in arguments, scientific findings, rational discussion, but rather, dominance, power and narcissitic triumph which supplies his sense of self. There's no place for pathology within this self-conception, so he externalises it to avoid experiencing its reality.

 

RESPONSES BY CAROL RIDE 22nd February 2017


1. Do you see any evidence that “the public’s patience with such (Government) inaction is likely to wear thin” ?

I think the latest Guardian poll indicates impatience. People are not buying the Government’s line.
Latest poll
https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/feb/21/the-canberra-coal-club-ignores-what-most-people-know-the-future-will-be-clean-and-smart?utm_source=esp&utm_medium=Email&utm_campaign=Politics+AUS&utm_term=214376&subid=7550776&CMP=ema_792

2. How do you think such impatience might manifest? Eg might it bring Australians out onto the streets in numbers?

Hard to know as the most recent rally was large but a hell of a lot of work to get 60,0000 in Melbourne.
My view is that while people know cc is a threat and most think it’s real they are not engaged with the urgency and seriousness. I think the financial focus the Government is using plays into people’s ambivalence about real change. I have been reading Renee Lertzman on Loss, ambivalence and melancholia. On the other hand the absurdity might be the very thing that shifts people to actually do something actively.

2. Do you think Turnbull’s volte face on climate change has any psychological component (eg being afraid of frightening people) or is it all about political leaders always tending to align themselves with powerful economic interests?

I think it is purely political opportunism. I suspect the Government hopes Trump trashes climate policy in the US and then Australia wont feel the need to do much more than the token targets for 2020. Turnbull has shown himself to be most invested in staying in the job rather than leading change.

3. Do you think the very severity of the escalating climate impacts in Australia may be resulting in people intensifying their defences against reality – eg the ‘unthinkable’ prospect of life becoming intolerable or impossible over an increasing area?

Interestingly the farming community is coming on board and they have been resistant till now, but the denial as above, is in the scale of change and urgency. They are terrified of hearing about the part animal agriculture plays - such a big export.
Still they and the wider population think we can tweak at the edges and this will be enough.
Where I live Melbourne has had a mild summer whereas the rest of the country has cooked. This switches people off somewhat, by observation. Whereas those affected in the north of the country become switched on - for the moment.

4. Do you see any truth in the accusation (made by George Monbiot I think) that climate change denial is a national pastime in Australia?

It is by the far right conservatives, and the Murdoch press. (Radio , Australian Newspaper –yes)

5. If so, do you have any thoughts on why?

Money (greed, self interest) which feeds the inclination to denial.

The change to the economy is huge to close off coal exports, and because there has been no leadership except for Rudd on climate, the coal lobby can exert enormous influence. It’s denial by splitting and projecting ridicule onto the Labor party and the Greens for their so – called ideology. Politics writ large- seizing an opportunity to exploit the problems in SA last year to drive fear into the hearts of people who are frightened of cost increases and of loss of energy security. No leadership and no imagination or creativity. Fear of losing office. The coal lobby had enormous clout to ruin Labor plans for the Mining tax(2009)?) and then the carbon tax. They put millions into a campaign to kill both and Government are frightened of them.

6. Would you agree that Morrison’s reference to a “pathological, ideological fear of coal” contains a projection and/or inversion of the truth, akin to the Trump administration’s accusations of ‘fake news’?

As above I believe – and yes a willingness to peddle fake news anything to stay in power. The pathology is in Morrison – he is a ruthless man who would be anything and say anything to appear superior and to use the chance to belittle other.s

7. Also on the theme of inversion, do you think that there has been a PR job for the coal industry, portraying any undermining of it (as opposed to the ignoring of climate change) as an act of economic self-harm?

Good article
https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/feb/11/hard-facts-unmask-the-fiction-behind-coalitions-coal-comeback

This could have a big impact: The statement by APRA that climate change is a financial threat

"This is a landmark speech for an Australian financial authority, although many of their international peers have been clear about the importance of the topic for some time," said.
http://www.afr.com/news/policy/climate/climate-change-is-a-financial-risk-says-apra-20170217-gufnnf?utm_medium=email&utm_source=actionkit#ixzz4ZMt6pODt

Another interesting article on why the return to the coal focus- and cost of living – the price of gas has escalated and the use of it as a baseload fuel has all but vanished by exporting it.

Clearly Turnbull is following the success of Tony Abbott’s campaign on the cost of climate action and denial that we need to act at all, let alone urgently and massively.

Ben Nisenbaum is a psychologist whose professional work is counselling, psychological assessment and supervision. He holds a master's degree in psychoanalytic studies. His interest in climate change arose through the experience of living in a rural environment and the infiltration of climate change issues into his professional work."

Carol Ride is the founder and convenor of Psychology for a Safe Climate, whose focus is fostering emotional engagement with climate change. She has had a long career as a psychologist working in the field of couple relationships and has been active in the climate movement for over 10 years.