Climate psychologist says neither gloom and doom nor extreme solution-obsessed optimism is the best way to productively discuss climate change

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According to climate psychologist Renée Lertzman, communicating effectively about climate change is crucial for people to deal with it productively. And right now, communicating about climate change isn’t helping.

People are afraid.

Nearly three in four people (72%) worldwide are concerned that global climate change will harm them personally at some point in their lives, according to research data from the unbiased Pew Research Center.

According to a survey of 10,000 young people in 10 countries released this month by academics.

That fear needs to be recognized and worked through individually in the companies we work for, in local communities, in government and in organizations, Lertzman says. Only then can we productively discuss how to prepare, adapt and fight.

Following are excerpts of Lertzman’s comments in a video interview with CNBC. They have been edited for brevity and clarity.

From ‘I’ to ‘We’

There is a kernel of truth in it. In fact, nobody – and I don’t care if you’re the largest multinational in the world – no actor is capable of doing everything right now. No one alone will be enough.

What I think this crisis is actually inviting us to step in is a fundamentally different lens, which really moves from that ‘I’ to ‘we’. And it really broadens our cognitive ability to think and experience and see ourselves as part of a system and as embedded in the system.

We are all key players in this story of coping with the climate crisis and coping with the climate crisis.
Renée Lertzman
Climate psychologist

That’s a really important shift for many of us to make. And it’s not something that just happens intellectually. And it’s not something that just happens when you snap your fingers and say, “Okay, you know, what, now I’m going to think and feel and act like I’m in a system.” It doesn’t really work that way. It’s a process of constantly reminding ourselves and each other that we are in fact connected and part of a much bigger picture and a much bigger story.

Each of us is actually – I don’t care who you are – a vital character in that story. We are all key players in this story of coping with the climate crisis and coping with the climate crisis.

And that reframe is one that we have to come back to again and again. This isn’t just about me. It’s about me in this bigger story.

Have deep compassion for what you feel

It’s absolutely essential that we start from a place where we have a really deep compassion for that feeling of “nothing I can do matters.”

So it’s not that we shouldn’t feel that or that there is something wrong with us because we feel that our individual actions are not enough. Actually, I’m going to really connect with myself here and say, “You know what, yeah, it’s really painful. It’s really hard.”

Having that feeling is an expression of how deeply connected I am and how deeply I really care about what is happening on the planet.

It’s really very important that we meet our experience – no matter what that experience is, overwhelmed, insignificant, frustrated, angry, numb, checked out – with which we approach that experience, with total compassion.

Only from that point can we move to any kind of meaningful, impactful, creative response, taking stock of questions like, “Who am I, where am I? What am I doing, how am I doing?” I want to channel this energy, this worry, this worry that I have, that comes up in me, that expresses itself? We have to start from that place.

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Be authentic

It’s really important that we don’t try to be “hope police” to ourselves, forcing ourselves to feel more hopeful or brighter or more positive.

And that’s a trend that I find really worrying and disturbing, because if you just look at the psychological lens, it doesn’t work like that. We don’t force ourselves to suddenly feel and behave a certain way.

A solution-ier focuses exclusively on solutions and has no tolerance and no room for any form of expression of feelings or uncertainty or ambivalence. It’s almost a zealous focus on the solutions. And it can really shut people down. And it can really alienate a lot of people who aren’t there yet. They’re still processing and asking questions like, “What does this mean to us? Why are we in this situation on the first record?”

The solution mode is you just have to solve, solve, solve. And frankly, that problem solving binary isn’t quite right for the situation we’re in. This is a state of being that will continue into the unforeseen future.

The dichotomy of doom and gloom versus hope or binary is incorrect. And it’s one that we really need as communicators, journalists, the media has to be actively dismantled.

In reality, the way forward is a middle ground. And that middle ground is one of authenticity.

It is really about authentic experience and authentic involvement in this crisis. There is tremendous hope and tremendous positivity and deep inspiration and strength in recognizing and directly facing the scale and the impact and the loss.

The dichotomy of doom and gloom versus hope or binary is incorrect. … In reality, the way forward is a middle ground. And that middle ground is one of authenticity.
Renée Lertzman
climate psychologist

We live in a time of severe forest fires, droughts and floods. And we need to be able to look that straight in the eye without being accused of being negative or focusing on doom. We have to, because that’s the reality. That is the reality at the moment.

First and foremost, people need to have their experience validated.

The way forward is through the lens of emotional intelligence.

It means disproving an either-or way of approaching the climate crisis (just doom and gloom or solutions).

It means coming out of the whiplash between the positivity and the negativity. As I said in the TED Talk, that’s an artificial construct. That’s not how our minds work. It’s not just negative for us or just positive. It’s more complicated than that.

What companies can do to engage employees

There must be a level of approval at the leadership level. So that’s one.

But it is equally important that people within the organization are actively enabled to take the initiative, propose pilots, carry out experiments, try things out.

The old model is a company that decides to champion climate change and appoint a green team. That’s a slightly older model. That’s kind of what I see as a 1.0 model.

The new model is one that really appeals to me and is more people-oriented. It’s more authentic. It’s about coming together. And look at these problems together. And talk about what to do about this. It’s more inclusive. People feel like they’re really part of this conversation.

There needs to be more people at different levels in the organization, in different parts of the organization, who are given the platform and the ability to initiate, mobilize, move things forward. It doesn’t just live in the C-Suite.

And ideally, if done right, every person, no matter what part of the business you’re in, feels they have a stake in this response to climate change. No one exempts themselves because they don’t know enough about the climate. An effective response is a response in which everyone has something to add and is part of the response. It means creating an atmosphere in which everyone plays a crucial role.

Because what really drives change is when people feel invited, heard, understood and involved.

An example of how to get started with this is circle hosting. I train people to facilitate climate circles or conversations, which are small groups where people meet for an extended period of time, and they just come together and talk about what they feel and think about the issues.

And it won’t be long before it comes to action. It really does.

People don’t stay in the feeling that long, but you should at least have the space to get there before you get into action planning. And if we jump right in and get around discussing how people feel, we fall short and cut off the potential to do a really great job.

A resource for those interested in reading further: Lertzman recommends Project inside out, an online resource she commissioned by the climate organization, the KR Foundation, based in Denmark. The online tool that provides guiding psychological principles to work effectively on climate change.

Also in this series:

Climate change is radicalizing young people – here’s what it means and how to fight despair

Sadness and fear over climate change drove this 30-year-old to write a letter to his future child

18-year-old climate activist shares how she finds courage to face a ‘ticking time bomb’

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