CPA Newsletter October 2019: Climate Crisis Digest - A New Epoch in Facing Difficult Truths

Good news that over 250 media outlets have pledged to focus on climate crisis...

Art installation by Michael Pinsky, Pollution Pods, situated in front of the UN New York building where the climate summit took place. Each pod provides an embodied experience of breathing in a polluted city - London, Beijing, New Delhi and Sao Paulo - contrasted with the clean air of a Norwegian peninsula.

Media Coverage and Newsletter Reflection

Good news that over 250 media outlets have pledged to focus on climate crisis, under the heading “covering climate change now”, which ‘for one week starting on 15th September means more than 250 outlets with a combined audience of more than one billion have committed to a week of intensive climate coverage.’ Let’s hope they don’t feel the job’s done at the end of the week. Coverage of climate emergency has accelerated dramatically: more frequent, broader, and more searching, doing better to communicate the seriousness of the situation although not necessarily making enough links. If in general they are perhaps still hostage to ‘collapse denial’, the FT’s “climate change: what do you want me to say?” finds a way, through an artistic performance from the future, to talk without flinching  - speaking from the depressive position (in the Kleinian sense) about near-term social collapse in the most powerful way I have encountered yet,. A contrasting American version of the voice from the future – wall-to-wall optimism about the Green New Deal and inclusivity – has Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez speaking from 2028.

With this efflorescence of climate news, it feels impossible that a monthly newsletter can, any longer, “cover” climate news: I have a fast-expanding list of topics, filed under themes, that warrant mention. Perhaps it is necessary to step back and treat salient themes in a different way. And does the newsletter succeed in referring to the particular purposes of CPA in its treatment? Is “newsletter” still the right label, when climate news is everywhere? We are in a new epoch of facing difficult truths. CPA has now decided to separate off the Events and Announcements (to ensure that they don’t get lost) from the main newsletter, which henceforth will be titled ‘Climate Crisis Digest’. ‘Digest’ signals that this is not (cannot be) ‘news coverage’ but rather an attempt to treat the news in the CPA tradition of processing difficult truths, with a focus afforded by climate psychology and a treatment of the emerging interest in support for climate distress.


In this spirit, I took a step back from my overwhelming list of important-to-report climate news and, in a kind of reverie, wandered into the affective arena that is my ‘feel-knowing’ relation to climate. Alfred Lorenzer, a German cultural psychoanalyst in the Frankfurt School tradition, used the term ‘scenic understanding’ for this kind of sub-cognitive knowing. Scenically, what arose for me was burning, flames and smoke along with sadness and despair (feelings that were amply expressed in the online discussion thread after the Amazon news broke last month). I am beset with images of burning: wildfires not just in the Amazon but across the world (the smoke affecting four US states at once and many nations adjoining Indonesia), while increasing emissions from wildfires (aerosol and heat) are shaping up to be another feedback loop on the earth’s climate. Burning at Aramco’s oil processing site in Saudi Arabia threatened to be the spark for a global fight over oil; out-of-control gas, oil and coal extraction sites litter the globe. In the US, tonnes of carbon are produced intentionally from ‘flaring’, the ‘excess’ from fracking, where fuel is burned off, at night, because it cannot, supposedly, be transported off site. The volumes are huge. Scenic understanding shows me a world still in the grip of fossil fuel interests, despite everything.


In parallel with the unsurpassed availability of reliable climate coverage; in parallel with pressing im-mediate evidence and people rising up in their millions, predictably we see heightened denial, disavowal and nihilism. When this is coupled with power, it is devastating indeed. The Brazilian government has gone into paranoid-schizoid mode, faced with widespread international condemnation and media exposure of what is happening in the Amazon. Environmentalists are bad objects and critical leaders such as the French president are enemies to be fought and vanquished. The Brazilian Foreign Minister said ‘there is no climate catastrophe’. Salles, the Brazilian Environment Minister, met representatives from the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), an American climate denial organisation (although his Ministry would not confirm or deny this). Meanwhile Trump has exceeded his earlier hostility recently by undoing a huge number of environmental protections and attempting new, ruinous explorations, for example in The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which are being fought. I was intrigued that he is trying to revoke new Californian emissions standards as if he cannot bear that any action in the US might remind him of his failure to control the world.

Reality and its antithesis

Prior to the New York UN climate summit, worldwide youth (with everyone else in support) staged an enormous climate strike protest. (An estimated 4 million people turned up to 6,000 events held in more than 1,000 cities across 185 countries.) Greta Thunberg joined the protests of young activists and spoke truth to power like a thunderclap. Interviewed by Naomi Klein who asked what she had noticed, recently arrived in the US, Greta commented that here (New York) ‘‘the way we talk about the climate crisis, here it’s more like something you believe in or not believe in; where I’m from it’s more like a fact” . That is profound. She had experienced the extreme relativism of US political discourse (and beyond US), so mired in ideology and vested interest that reality appears optional as a force to which thinking must be bound. Such an attitude is a feature of populisms as well as fertile ground for fossil fuel lobbyists. For a direct and accessible message about climate change solutions, see Greta Thunberg and George Monbiot’s short film.

Greta T and Pinsky

Greta Thunberg, accompanied by artist Michael Pinsky, sniffing the polluted air inside one of the pollution pods. Thanks for both images to photographer David Buckland, Director of Cape Farewell who produced the pods installation.

Ahead of the UN climate summit, ‘trollbots’ have reached new heights of activity: ‘climate change’ became the top two-word trending on Twitter (not in a good way). The founder of Bot Sentinel, a platform that tracks such trends, commented that the denialist content is usually pushed by a few accounts, human-controlled or automated, including ‘state actors’. A way to block the trollbots was found but then deactivated by Twitter.

A similar right-wing global denialist effort, based in the Netherlands (Climate Intelligence Foundation or Clintel), organised to undermine the recent spate of declarations to reach zero net emissions by 2050.  Some of the associated denialist lobbyists are close to the new Conservative administration recently taken over, unelected, in the UK (a group pushing for environmental deregulation with Brexit). ‘There is no climate emergency’ a Clintel letter sent to leaders of the EU and UN reads. Yet it is a measure of progress over the last months that their argument is so weak: ‘Our advice to leaders is that science should aim at significantly better understanding the climate while politics should focus on minimising potential climate damage’.

Eco-anxiety and CPA’s exposure to media interest

A new US poll finds two thirds of Americans taking the climate crisis seriously, a measure of how much has changed recently. Age and political affiliation are key variables. In the UK, 85% are now worried. Awareness is, crucially, accompanied by distress. People should be panicking, as Greta Thunberg has remarked, except that untransformed panic is debilitating and it is crucial that people can be supported in facing such harsh and existentially threatening realities (be they leaders, ordinary citizens or already activists). Alongside growing realistic distress, we find an impressive increase recently in media coverage of climate distress or eco-anxiety, with CPA playing a very active part.

Back in March, CPA’s Mary Jayne Rust was cited by the BBC saying "I’ve noticed a great increase of clients needing to talk about eco-anxiety since the IPCC report at the end of last year. (…) I think it is a massive thing to live with the suspicion that (as some of my younger clients have said), ‘We’re completely screwed’. I suspect it might be part of the reason for binge-drinking epidemics, and other addictions, for example. There is a general feeling that the future is so uncertain and it’s extremely hard to live with.".

Thankfully, influenced by the CPA, the widely-accepted approach to climate anxiety in the UK is a far cry from an earlier medical discourse of diagnosis and symptomatology. For example, in January 2018, a popular British magazine, Psychology Today, showed a typical desire to classify and label: ‘Ecoanxiety is a fairly recent psychological disorder afflicting an increasing number of individuals who worry about the environmental crisis. It’s an understandable reaction to ones growing awareness of climate change and the global problems that result from damage to the ecosystem. While the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) does not include “ecoanxiety” as a specific diagnosis some people are expressing high levels of stress over climate change with symptoms including panic attacks, obsessive thinking, loss of appetite and insomnia.’

In contrast, the CPA’s therapeutic traditions start with the recognition that climate distress is a logical response to objective reality, a sign of health and not of illness; and the starting point, not only for therapeutic and community support, but also for action. BBC’s Climate Emotions, by Martha Henriques popularises this approach by introducing ‘our emotional response’ as an aspect of climate change ‘you might have missed’. She pre-empts a possible criticism: ‘this might seem a little indulgent – the world is burning and you want to talk about feelings’ and then goes on to make the important link, ‘our emotional responses to climate change and action to stop it go hand in hand’.

CPA’s Caroline Hickman has been interviewed about eco-anxiety in children numerous times recently. She had a whole hour to explore these more psychodynamic views on the high-profile Apple podcasts under the title Eco-anxiety: Climate Change and Mental Health. This news on children and climate anxiety was picked up by a flurry of high-profile UK outlets, of which this was particularly thoughtful. Judith Anderson, also CPA, spoke in a World TV interview, asked to address the question of how psychologically distressing it is to speak honestly about the actual climate situation and what mental health professionals can do to help. This has kicked off a new online Discussion Forum theme on eco-anxiety in relation to the crisis of Soul/spirituality.

CPA members have also worked to get British psychotherapy training institutions to take climate emergency seriously. Online discussion led to a useful exchange about strategies for organisational change: getting a declaration of climate emergency at Board level might not lead to action (as recent British experience shows in numerous areas) while making changes in the training curriculum gets directly to future psychotherapists, returning always to the question ‘what is necessary to train and prepare the psychotherapist of today?’

'….to work away in the training standards committees … so [the created content] has to appear in the curriculum of all trainings … then a change in consciousness begins, with all trainees being asked to consider and discuss their relationship to the environment and to consider ‘estrangement’, as well as to recognise that when people have a lack of verve or their life force is blocked or whatever language you prefer, they do not identify with the aliveness of the world and therefore they will not move to preserve it. It is a human consciousness issue that must be intrinsic to all approaches to psychological work.'

Jem Bendell, interviewing Adrian Tait about CPA, asked about how psychotherapy helped with bearing the unbearable. The discussion, including a wider group, ranged freely: the place of uncertainty in the face of myths of control; depression as necessary; finding an off-switch as a safety mechanism in the ceaseless attempt to find balance between becoming numb and being too raw; the value of groups as containers of despair; coping with the fear of death and the use of Buddhist practices; finding wonder and mystery in these unprecedented times.


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We are a diverse community of therapeutic practitioners, thinkers, researchers, artists and others. We believe that attending to the psychology and emotions of the climate and ecological crisis is at the heart of our work.


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