Does climate change make you feel anxious, depressed, powerless, hysterical? Do you lose sleep over the state of the planet? If so, you’re not alone. Psychologists have come to recognize the effects of climate anxiety, and many in the climate awareness community admittedly suffer from it. But while feelings of despair can lead to inaction, the psychology of climate change includes feelings of hope and empowerment as well. Three experts joined Greg Dalton at the Commonwealth Club to discuss the rising tide of emotion surrounding global warming, and why it can be so difficult to talk about it.
Joan Blades created Living Room Conversations as a forum for those on opposite sides of this and other issues to come together. She recognized that many people are reluctant to broach the subject with those who might disagree, and saw the need to put a human face on the climate argument. “Having that human connection can make all the difference in the world,” says Blades. “Because once I like you, I hear you in a completely different way.”
Living Room Conversations “offer a structure that allows for that kind of trust and intimacy to start to have a relationship, to start to find your common ground,” she continues.
“The starting place is that emotional connection, and once you have that connection, then many things become possible.”
Just starting the climate conversation in polite society can be difficult, and we don’t always recognize why. “In my experience it really comes down to anxiety and the kinds of anxieties that this topic can bring up for us. And not even knowing on a conscious level that that’s what’s happening,” says Renee Lertzman, a climate engagement strategist.
“As social beings, we’re constantly sort of calibrating and monitoring with one another what's acceptable or not to venture into. And when we’re getting the cues from others that it's actually not okay, that we may make someone else uncomfortable or feel threatened, we tend to sort of shut down.”
In contrast, Blades welcomes dialogue from all sides, and regularly engages with friends in the conservative, economic and faith-based communities to get their take on difficult topics. “To solve a problem this complex we are going to have to be agile and collaborative, and have everybody's best ideas,” she points out.
“And the only way I know to do that is to be working with everybody in the room and listening to them and finding a place where we can create the win-win solutions…so that [having] good relationships is going to be absolutely essential.”
But what about having that difficult conversation with yourself? Many climate conscious people feel just as anxious when they wonder if they’re doing enough to combat global warming.
Josh Freedman is the founder of Six Seconds, an emotional intelligence network, and he feels their pain. “To what degree are we willing to take responsibility for something that's really big and complicated and overwhelming, and that we don't know what to do?”
“One option is just to kind of ignore it and, you know, look for some more Cabernet Sauvignon.”
But making change on a personal level first can help keep us from becoming overwhelmed by the big picture, Freedman suggests. “I think if we can help ourselves think about the kind of people we want to be and what our own identity is and what our own purpose is, that becomes a catalyst for change as opposed to something outside of us.”
Hope is more empowering than fear, Freedman reminded the audience.
“Fear is really motivating, but it does motivate us to retreat sometimes. And so I think that the notion that if we’re only caught in what’s scary, it's going to be very hard for us to look at the future possibilities.
“It's important to not only talk about what's hard, but also to talk about the possibilities. Because that ultimately motivates people to look for what they can do.”
Written by: Anny Celsi
Photography by: Ed Ritger