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Psychology and climate (1/2) : denial, anger… The 5 stages of grief

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For at least 30 years, scientists have been warning about the serious consequences of our excessive consumption. Climate change acceleration due to human activity is no longer a debate. However, we are in an unusual position : we are driving a car running into a wall, and instead of slowing down , we ignore the wall and speed up. The question is a fair one : Why don’t we change ? Are we completely crazy ? Are we completely stupid ?

As usual, the answer is not as simple as that. It tooksdecades for the numbers to be indisputable. But despite the evidence, the most important factor has too often been set aside : no technocratic language will be heard if it doesn’t consider the psychological aspect. Being right is not enough, and will not be enough : it will take much more than that.

Before discussing the concepts of solastalgia and eco-anxiety in a second part, it is important to understand the stages that precede these psychological states and why our refusal to change is so strong.

Denial, everywhere, all the time

If we want to keep global warming at a low level, we have to question our consumption and lifestyles choices‘. This is what Valérie Masson Delmotte, climate scientist and co-chair of IPPC Group n°1, tells us. Not to change would be a disaster. And yet :

“Well yes, but I need sun. I want to go to the beach in February
”Yes, but anyway, if I change, Chinese, them, won’t change !”
“Anyway Greta is manipulated. Come on, it’s not a kid who’s going to tell me how to live!”
“Yeah but anyway, technology will save us all, all right, stop sniveling”
“Ah yes but Air France applies carbon neutrality so, I can fly, it has no impact”

This is a non-exhaustive list of remarks that I could read or hear over the past six months. Each argument is obviously easily refutable, but this is not the point. The point is to know why this defense mechanism is automatically triggered when we question our daily life ?

Many have tried to answer it. Clive Hamilton, in his book Why We Resist the Truth about Climate Change (published in 2010), studied, for example, global warming denial by trying to understand the lack of decision-making and action. Of course, he reminds us the different conflicts of economic and political interests that do not make it easier for individuals. But his work on the individual if quite fascinating and could be summarized in one sentence : ‘an inconvenient truth may be too difficult to accept, most people choose to ignore it. Draw the parallel with our own death. We know it’s coming, but we only become fully aware of it when it becomes imminent‘.

This parallel with death reminds us our position : in the car, all smiles, with the wall straight ahead.

Let’s do it this way.

This feeling of denial has been the subject of much research for decades, including that of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross.

Denial in Kübler-Ross model : the 5 stages of grief

In her book On Death and Dying published in 1969, the psychiatrist summarizes the process that has come to be called “the five stages of grief”. Although highly contested (especially for the order), these 5 stages are today very often mentionned and are the subject of many researches (23000+ on Google Scholar). We find denial, which, as for climate, often comes first in the 5 stages of grief :

NB : the psychiatrist was actually studying the stages that a person who has just been diagnosed with an incurable disease, must go through. I never stop saying this, but read the books/sources by yourselves, it’s important. It will prevent you from talking nonsense, as it is often the case with degrowth, the rebound effector the Dunning-Kruger effect.

Denial and cognitive dissonance

Still from the perspective of social psychology, denial is very often approached from the perspective of cognitive dissonance : an internal tension between our beliefs and our emotions that contradict with our attitudes. Since this is topical, let’s take the example of Air France employee. His work and the actions he has carried out for 15 years give meaning to his life and allow him to feed his family. How do you think he is going to react when he turns on the TV in the evening, and sees (if he was not aware of it yet) in a report that his work contributes in killing the planet ?

To end this cognitive dissonance, we have two choices : change our actions, or our opinions. Unsurprisingly, it is often the change of opinion that wins out. We always end up finding a reason for the rightness of our action or our work. ‘Yes, I am a lobbyist for Total. But Total donated 500€ to a Gabonese orphan in 2006, it’s no small achievement !

Anger, Bargaining, Depression… And acceptance

You will undoubtedly find the other stages, either at home, or in your surroundings. The required change is so violent that it’s impossible to override some very strong feelings, including anger. A vast majority of us have to, for example, question our education, which fully overlooked the climate issue… You might even blame your parents : did they know ? Do they know ? Why didn’t they do anything ? Why aren’t they changing ?

How are you going to react, as young parents, when you realize that each fly to the other side of the world has a negative impact on your child’s future ? How will your child look at you when he or she is 20, and understands that you knew, and did nothing ?

Then, perharps you will go through the ‘bargaining‘ stage. The stage in which you will try to not really change, but to delay. ‘Ah I only fly once a month !’ ‘My bank lent Shell 2 billions less this year !’ Or, of course, the classic one ‘Anyway, technology will save us all“.

The depressionstage will be discussed more into the details in a the 2nd part of this Psychology file, but I can assure you one thing, and I understand that it is a feeling shared by anyone who explored the figures : you are going to get a slap, that’s for sure. A definite backlash of denial in which you were in for years.
Your goal, however, will be the same as everyone else’s : to get to the final stage, acceptance. While Kübler-Ross’s works was based on an incurable disease, I have good news : climate change is not an incurable disease, we still have a chance to catch up with our mistakes !

The last word

Don’t dream : we can’t expect the 66 millions of french people to read the IPCC reports and become climate experts. After work, between relaxing in front of Netflix, and watch the 20 hours of JM. Jancovici at the Mines (with depression option), the choice will be quickly made.

If scientists have not been listened to for 50 years, perhaps it’s not too late to play another card. This is why I believe that psychology is essential, perhaps the best leverage effect existing to get the climate issue progressing. It’s the best way to bring those around you out of denial and to reach the tipping point, the element of optimism that we should all keep in mind despite the mountain that lies ahead.


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Thomas Wagner
Prendra sa retraite quand le réchauffement climatique sera de l’histoire ancienne

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