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Just how bad are things looking

May17 and what can climate psychology contribute to the current picture?

Climate change was being defined as a super-wicked problem years before an orange nightmare started casting its shadow over 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.  The ingredients of ‘super wicked’ can be summarised as severe time pressure that is nevertheless discounted - thereby pushing responses further into the future.  This is compounded by the fact that those causing the problem are required to provide a solution and that the coordinated  authority that is needed to address the situation is weak or non-existent.  To that can be added the ‘boundary-crossing’ nature of the problem - economic, technological, cultural or ecological solutions cannot work on their own – it must be addressed at all these levels.

By the end of 2015, it looked as if these global and structural issues were at last starting to be addressed to some effect.  Less than a year later, it began to look foolish to have dared hope that the world was moving towards a solution.  The ship that had just conceivably been on course towards safer waters was, after the seismic political events of 2016, suddenly looking as imperilled as the Andrea Gail on its ill-fated fishing expedition.  And while the political storms have been blowing from Washington and elsewhere, reactions to them have ranged between utter horror and despair at one extreme to a downplaying of their significance on the other.

The situation has thrown up a number of needs.  Intense emotional reactions have called for recognition, caring responses and time for recovery.  CPA has been one of many locations where support has been sought and offered.  Resistance to destructive and oppressive measures has had to be mobilised.  (As this letter was being written, a day of action on behalf of science was taking place across the world.  Anne Perkins in the Guardian whilst celebrating this action warns that, in the context of an ongoing culture war more than this will be needed).  Also called for is a dispassionate assessment, both of the situation as it stands and the options available within the many layers of the climate movement.

On the legal and policy front, a wide-ranging appraisal of the current state of affairs and its likely evolution is on offer through this Carbon Brief interview with Professor Michael Gerrard, teacher of environmental law at Columbia Law School.   On the result of last November’s presidential election he could not be more blunt: “In short, it’s been catastrophic.”  In the interview that follows [long, but conveniently summarised at the beginning] his responses are both detailed and nuanced.  His assessment implicitly recognises the importance of both psychology and activism.   Headlining the bad news, Gerrard predicts that the Clean Power Plan will be repealed, the USA’s commitment to the Paris accord (and the all-important ‘ratchet’) will be diluted, even if it does not formally withdraw from the deal.  And, as previously highlighted in the CPA newsletter last December under ‘Climate Justice’ a probable end to financial contributions to international climate funds (another key element in global decarbonisation) will have very negative impacts.  The generally unhelpful contribution of the media will be encouraged.  Pressure on science and technology to venture further into geoengineering will increase, a development which Gerrard clearly both understands and regrets.

These profoundly pessimistic conclusions are tempered to a degree by the prospect of lengthy and determined legal challenges to many of the anti-environment, anti-climate measures that are in train.  One example of more nuanced analysis concerns Our Children’s Trust, which argues that the federal government has violated the rights of the youngest generation.  Gerrard cannot see it succeeding if the case makes it as far as the supreme court.  “But (he adds) while it’s out there, it’s inspiring some other litigation in the United States and elsewhere.”

The key, if not ground-breaking, psychological point in the interview emerges in response to a question as to why so many Republicans reject climate science.  It has an unmistakeably Tea Party flavour: ideology against government in general is challenged by the fact that human activity is causing climate change and poses a massive threat:  “If you don’t want government action, then one psychological mechanism is to deny there’s a problem that requires government action.”  There can be no doubt that this inverted logic is in force (along with corruption and other factors) and what better confirmation could we have of the need for scientists to mobilise and to involve themselves in politics?

This connects to our Members Day on Story-Telling

This facts-and-narrative issue, taken one step further, leads to the centrality of story-telling in our culture.  This is the theme of our Members Day on 10th June (see ‘Forthcoming Events’ below).  It opens up the rich psychological terrain of how the shaping of our values has a social context and how archetypes such as independence and heroism can eclipse our awareness, both of solid information about the workings of our planet and the ensuing fact of inter-dependence.

The Gerrard interview helps to illustrate a core principle that has informed this newsletter from this outset, namely that the climate problem is a multi-dimensional one and that climate psychology has two parallel tasks to perform: firstly to develop and seek coherence as a psycho-social discipline, secondly to pay close attention to the articulation of science and technology, policy-making, economics and civil society, as they influence our engagement, or failure to engage, with the problem.  Unravelling the psychological elements which intersect with all these other fields is a large, intricate and critically important task.

The UK government’s bid to postpone formal plans on air pollution – citing the ‘election purdah’ convention – (has been defeated) by Client Earth.  This is important for several reasons, not least Client Earth’s leadership in disrupting the UK government’s approach of foot-dragging on climate and the environment whilst trying to look as if it is committed to serious action.

The High Court judgement challenges the depressing tendency of governments to prioritise virtually everything over the environment.  It also illustrates a point made at a University of the West of England conference in 2010 by Dr Tim Chatterton, an air quality expert.  He argued that this issue has more traction in the public mind than climate change.  Respiratory illness and associated deaths have aroused concern and demands for action in London, Paris, Los Angeles, Tokyo, Beijing and elsewhere.

“A Victory for Client Earth”

The UK government’s bid to postpone formal plans on air pollution – citing the ‘election purdah’ convention – has been defeated by Client Earth.  This is important for several reasons, not least Client Earth’s leadership in disrupting the UK government’s approach of foot-dragging on climate and the environment whilst trying to look as if it is committed to serious action.

The High Court judgement challenges the depressing tendency of governments to prioritise virtually everything over the environment.  It also illustrates a point made at a University of the West of England conference in 2010 by Dr Tim Chatterton, an air quality expert.  He argued that this issue has more traction in the public mind than climate change.  Respiratory illness and associated deaths have aroused concern and demands for action in London, Paris, Los Angeles, Tokyo, Beijing and elsewhere.

The psychological element here is that human casualties of more directly toxic air pollutants are, by definition, more immediate and measurable than the consequences of CO2 build up.  But for the fundamentalists, protection of air, water and land are seen as unwelcome interferences with freedom and entitlement.  For them, the whole subject is a can of worms.  Once you go there, where do you stop?  Client Earth’s advocacy has profound connections with Gerrard’s hopeful point about the wider impact of ‘Our Children’s Trust’.   The law, like our economics and our minds, is still weighted heavily in favour of exploitation and consumption.  But Earth consciousness is a growing force and Earth advocacy is not toothless.

Elaborations and Counterpoints

For anyone with the time and inclination, here are some articles which relate to issues raised in last and this month’s newsletters:

“Permafrost Thaw Threatens Flood of Emissions” Guardian.
“I am an Arctic Researcher.  Donald Trump is Deleting My Citations”
“Stop Swooning over Justin Trudeau.  The Man is a disaster for the Planet”  AKA disavowal is even more dangerous than denialism.
“Cruel Intentions.  Opposition to Climate Change Response is Swiftly Becoming Illegal” Robert Scribbler.
“Why the Market for Fossil Fuels is All Burnt Out” Prof. Dieter Helm.

Forthcoming Events – CPA and Related

CPA-Scotland’s Inaugural meeting will be happening in a few days.

CPA Members Day.  Telling Better Stories.  Andrew Simms (formerly New Economics Foundation) is a gifted and entertaining speaker.  His title is Stories of Change and underlying point is that the climate movement needs to get better at telling compelling stories.  There can be no more pressing matter for our times than the interplay of factual truth or falsehood with powerful emotional messages.  Event free for CPA members.  And please bring a friend!  £20 for non-members, but those becoming members on the day will then receive member benefits until May 2018.

Climate Change and the New Imagination, with Sally Weintrobe (member of CPA Advisory Group).  Saturday 20th May at The Space, Dartington Hall.

Climate and Migration – a course provided by Alex Randall of Climate Outreach.

May 8th Event urging the Church of England to divest from Fossil Fuels
4th May -20th July Art exhibition at Friends Meeting House London on 'making connections’ - a series of narrative paintings inspired by a personal link with Japan and a passion for sustainability
17th June 2017 Psychoanalysis, Culture and Society
A Postgraduate Conference
We invite postgraduate students and research fellows to submit proposals for papers on psychoanalysis or psychoanalytically informed research. The deadline for submission of abstracts is May 31, 2017. Further details from Anne Worthington, Bookings: here.
7th-9th July Prometheus Trust conference, 'Deep Philosophy, Deep Ecology’
13th - 16th July 2017 6th annual Edge of the Wild eco-psychology gathering
Keynote speakers Tina Rothery Anti-fracking activist and co-founder of the Nanas and Celtic shamans: John Cantrell and Karen Ward.
1st -8th September 2017, Potsdam near Berlin A gathering to explore psycho-emotional health in the context of social justice contact  by 10th of May if you wish to present
1st-3rd December  Analysis and Activism III: More Social and Political Contributions of Jungian Psychology (Prague)

CPA Newsletter – a message to CPA members from Adrian Tait

It has felt like a big responsibility and honour to be the author of CPA’s newsletter since September 2014.  It has also been very hard work.   The CPA Exec. Committee has agreed that, in future, the task of writing the newsletter will alternate between myself and CPA members who are interested in sharing the work of looking for the psychological threads in climate news.  Please let me know, at   if you are interested in composing one or more issues.  The editorial team will continue to be available for advice and comment for all authors.  I will be happy to make available items from my newsfeed, for use at the discretion of that month’s author.

Adrian Tait
On behalf of the Executive Committee

Editorial support from Judith Anderson, Paul Hoggett and Chris Robertson
Image source: NASA image created by Jesse Allen, Earth Observatory, using data obtained courtesy of the MODIS Rapid Response team.