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Author: Kirsty Costa
Source: CERES
Date: 11 October, 2013

Many scientific disciplines have had something to say about climate change — climatologists, geologists, zoologists, biologists, meteorologists. The one group that I think we need to listen to more (and hear more from) are the psychologists.

We need to create and foster rapid, long-lasting pro-environmental behaviours that stop climate change in its tracks and protect our natural environment. The Federal Election campaigns and follow-up actions from the Liberal Party indicate that these behaviours will not be encouraged by the ruling government. As a result, the majority of industry and commerce may not encourage these behaviours either. So how will the masses be supported to change environmentally damaging habits?

I believe one of the greatest obstacles to this behaviour change is the emotion of despair. Despair can be driven by the media, by extreme views and even conversations between friends and family. Part of the despair around climate change is that people don’t fully understand the science (it’s complicated) and don’t know what it means for the future. Despair often comes from powerlessness, guilt and fear. It can be emotionally crippling. Despair is dangerous as people who give up believing there’s a solution to a problem quit doing anything about it (“I’m going to buy that Hummer since the planet is going to hell anyway”).

So how do we counter despair? I think we need to do this with ‘hope’. Hope is a necessary component of environmental and social behaviour change. Hope is looking forward to something with desire and reasonable confidence. Let me be clear that hope is not ‘optimism’. David Orr says it best, “It is not belief that something will turn out well but the certainty that something will make sense no matter how it turns out”. Hope can be nurtured. It can come from doing things in the spirit of thankfulness and celebration, without worrying about whether we “win or lose”. It can come about through the motivation obtained by thinking through and carrying out desired avenues to reach set goals.

One of our first steps needs to be acknowledging the emotions of despair linked to climate change. We don’t do this enough, in fact we often dismiss them. Without naming and talking through these feelings, we cannot move beyond our initial reactions.

Another step is to identify how someone might get to this feeling of despair (and then work to stop it). We need to re-evaluate our messages. How are they being received? What are they really saying? Do they offer hope? Hope is cognitive but does depend on emotions, especially stress which can be significant mental barrier. There is a difficult balance to be achieved between emphasising the urgency of climate change action while not totally scaring the crap out of people. We need the fear factor but this should be coupled with good news stories and clear avenues for change.

I think another step is avoiding false hope. Eco-Marxist philosophies tell us that the solution to climate change is a radical restructure of our society and the way we live our lives. This may be the case but I don’t think it’s happening anytime soon. Setting unrealistic goals can be damaging to rapid behaviour and social change as the path becomes unclear and the goal unattainable. This, in turn, can lead to feelings of anger and pessimism from the general populace (and back to despair we return!).

CERES tackles despair and germinates hope through the many ways it motivates behaviour change. CERES Education alone reaches thousands of students, teachers and other adults every year to explore Water, Waste, Land and Biodiversity, Food, Energy and Climate Change (the list goes on). We are also undertaking process of strategic thinking and planning about how we can make the biggest impact to reduce climate change. Our CERES Sustainability Hub website reflects our commitment to tackling climate change and protecting the future of the Earth for all living species.

Humans have come a long way in our understanding and skills in tackling climate change. We are working on clear avenues for change. I sometimes feel despair while I immerse myself in my work. But what drives me is my hope for the future is cultivated through the belief that the reach of a Federal Government only extends so far; solutions will arise as problems become more serious; and that humans are innovative and resilient.

Kirsty Costa
Group Manager – CERES Education