Coping strategies

I wrote in the Preface that the most immediate reason we now face climate disruption lies in the political power of the fossil fuel lobby, which has set out to sow doubt in the public mind and has resisted attempts to curb the carbon emissions of the companies it represents. The story of their power and influence has been told several times;64 the more perplexing question is why they have been allowed to get away with it. To this point I have tried to account for the unwillingness to override the interests of the fossil fuel lobby by pointing to the ways in which growth fetishism and consumerism are embodied in our institutions and embedded in our understanding of the world. As Tim Kasser and colleagues argue, institutions create and reinforce ideologies and together they encourage individuals to behave in ways that ensure the reproduction of the system,65 an argument also made in Chapter 2 of this book.

In addition to institutional factors we must consider the ways in which the human psyche has prevented or slowed recognition of the existential threat we now confront. As much as anything else, the objective of industrial society has been to isolate ourselves from the effects of the weather. Against the dream of the scientific—technological revolution, global warming reminds us that Nature is untamable and fractious. The return of chaos is a particular challenge to those who fear uncertainty and believe the environment can be controlled by application of rationality. For sceptics (many of whom are engineers) the return of chaotic nature seems to harbour a special fear. They are scornful of climate models because they cannot predict the future with certainty, thereby attributing the irreducible uncertainty of climate systems to the personal failings of the scientists who try to model them. Ian Langford reminds us that one of the main defences against death anxiety is belief in personal specialness derived from a superior ability to reason and understand.66 This is the heroic pose adopted by climate sceptics.

While the sceptics' denial has succeeded in muddying the waters of public understanding, the strategies routinely used by the public to avoid or downplay the scientific warnings have been a more powerful factor in the reluctance of governments to do what is needed. The truth of this has leaked into popular culture. In an episode of The Simpsons Lisa's school project on 'what Springfield will look like in 50 years' time' leads her to investigate the effects of global warming on her town. Her presentation terrifies her classmates so Homer and Marge take her to a psychiatrist who prescribes 'Ignorital', a sure-fire cure for gloominess. Lisa enters a drug-induced fantasy world where, among other things, the toxic plume from an industrial chimney becomes a cloud of smiley faces (much like the Shell advertisement depicting flowers wafting from the company's oil refinery smokestacks). Lisa's trance state is interrupted only when Marge recognises the dangers of disconnection from reality.

One hurdle to recognising the threat posed by global warming is the fact that humans have evolved to assess and respond to risk through immediate feelings rather than cognitive processing. Most discussion of reactions to climate change assumes a consequential-ist model of risk; that is, we hear the scientific warnings, form a judgment about the likely effects on our wellbeing, and change our behaviour accordingly. However, it is now well established that immediate instinctive reactions (such as fear, anxiety and dread) are more powerful influences on assessment of risk.67 George Lowenstein and co-authors suggest this explains why we react fearfully to events that are (now) objectively harmless, such as seeing a tarantula in a glass box or climbing to the observation deck of a sky-scraper, but show little fear in the presence of genuinely dangerous objects like guns and cars.68 As the effects of warming are delayed, a proportionate response requires us to anticipate emotions we may feel many years hence; anticipation of feelings is a weak stimulus compared to pressing anxieties we may have about job losses or higher taxes. In other words, if humans evolved to survive by assessing risks through instant visceral reactions we are at a loss when confronted with global warming which requires us to rely heavily on cognitive processing. We can sometimes use our reason to conquer our fears, but in the case of global warming we need to use our reason to stimulate our fears. Yet when we do succeed in conjuring up the emotions that the science warns of, we are superbly equipped with strategies to defend against them.

Superficially, most people accept the message of the climate scientists. In the United States, where scepticism is strongest, among the 92 per cent of the population who have heard of global warming, 90 per cent believe that the United States should reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, with 76 per cent wanting this to happen regardless of what other countries do.69 However, for most US citizens concern about climate change does not run deep.70 It is not strong enough to make them change their behaviour, especially their voting behaviour. This may be changing, although a poll in January 2009 saw Americans rank global warming last of a list of 20 priorities.71

Those who do understand the threat posed by global warming—the Alarmed and perhaps some of the Concerned in the study of 'Six Americas'—naturally feel worried, anxious and stressed. Yet it is in the nature of climate change that individuals, as individuals, can do nothing to prevent it happening and little to protect themselves from its effects. Particularly for those most alarmed about the future of a warming world, the situation can induce a chronic state of anxiety. Psychologists are beginning to identify a range of coping strategies used to manage the unpleasant feelings that follow when we open ourselves to the message of climate science.72 These coping strategies may be adaptive or maladaptive.73 Maladaptive coping strategies admit some of the facts and allow some of the emotions, but do so in distorted form. Adaptive coping strategies are positive behaviours based on full acceptance of the facts and experience of the emotions. I consider adaptive strategies in the last chapter and devote the rest of this chapter to the maladaptive ones. These early insights have been built on by Tom Crompton and Tim Kasser in an important intervention by WWF-UK to develop an innovative campaigning strategy in a world of 'greenhouse fatigue'.74

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