Reinterpreting the threat

Maladaptive strategies are akin to the various 'defence mechanisms'—identified by Sigmund Freud and, more so, his daughter Anna—we use to shield ourselves from distressing features of the world.75 In recent years, psychologists have developed and applied these ideas to the way we accommodate ourselves emotionally to environmental threats.

Distraction is an everyday form of denial.76 When reading a newspaper or watching the news, if global warming comes up we frequently just 'switch off' because the information is too disconcerting. We shift our attention to something less upsetting because the alternative is to follow it through and dwell on what it means for our own future, that of our children and the world more broadly. Accepting the reality of global warming takes emotional fortitude and could overwhelm us. I know I sometimes make a conscious decision not to take notice of some unfolding disaster that I find particularly distressing. I tell myself that there are too many terrible things in the world to cope with, that I am not being callous because I do allow myself to be affected by other events, and it is therefore morally defensible to ignore the suffering of people somewhere in the world. I am conscious that I am engaged in a rationalisation in order to avoid feeling upset or depressed, but it usually works. Engaging in this type of suppression is maladaptive only when it amounts to a sustained refusal to acknowledge the facts.

Another common maladaptive strategy for coping with the threat of global warming is to change the appraisal of the threat, to 'de-problematise' it. The threat is diminished by deploying inner narratives such as 'humans have solved these sorts of problems before', 'the scientists are probably exaggerating' or 'if it were that big a threat the government would be doing something about it'.77 Minimising the threat in this way reduces the anxiety that would follow acknowledging it.

Similarly, 'distancing' emphasises the time lapse before we feel the consequences of warming—'It's a long way off so we have time to find solutions'. It is a form of "wishful thinking" because, by putting the problem well into the future, we are hoping that something will come along to resolve it before we have to act. Nations, as well as individuals, usually pass through this phase, or become stuck in it. In 2006, after a thorough review of public attitudes, Anthony Leiserowitz concluded that 'as a whole, the American public is currently in a "wishful thinking" stage of opinion formation, in which they hope the problem can be solved by someone else . . . without changes in their own priorities, decision making or behavior'.78

Governments pursue similar strategies. For several years governments in most OECD countries have adopted a target of cutting emissions by 60-80 per cent by 2050. It is easy being green in the remote future. Indeed, research shows that higher-level values govern intended actions when those actions are expected to occur in the distant future, but more pragmatic considerations dominate when actions are expected in the near future.79 Policy goals 40-50 years in advance are at best meaningless because they express only an intention; at worst, they are a substitute for immediate measures to cut emissions. They allow governments, and their publics, to feel good because their intentions reflect their values without committing to the difficult and dissonant task of putting those values into practice.

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