What did you do this morning? Chances are you got up, got showered and dressed and went to work, grabbing a quick much-needed coffee as you swept through your kitchen and out the door to another hectic day doing something that I’ve no doubt feels very important and which keeps the lights on and the roof over you and your family’s head. I haven’t just described your day there, but my own, and that of my husband. Our two year old is a bit young for coffee, but already she will flounce off to her toy box and say ‘leave me alone mummy, I have important work to do!’
How much did you think about climate change during all that? What did you do to address it? Maybe you drank fair trade coffee, that meant that a producer in Guatemala got a good standard of living and didn’t have to make poor environmental choices about their farm land (also sending their kids to school so that they in turn could make better, more informed choices from how many kids they have to how they adapt to changes in their climate). Perhaps you chucked the junk mail in the recycling on your way out to make sure that the paper had another lease of life? Perhaps you drove a hybrid or even an electric car to work? I’m losing you now, right?
Let’s be really honest, we’re hopeless at this. We don’t do nearly enough. And yet… we do at least do more than climate change deniers. Aha, the moral high ground once more. Phew.
In the vast discussion about climate change, it is really easy to demonise one group over another in order to create that safe ground on which to stand. Pitting ourselves against others allows us the security of righteousness. That’s a great mechanism against anxiety, and climate change is certainly a good reason to feel anxious. But while we are rejecting their denial of the facts, we could learn a lot from pausing to consider the legitimate emotions going on here, and to hold a mirror up to ourselves.
It would be easy to make climate change deniers stand in the corner having a good long think until they’re ready to play nicely with the rest of us, but aside from being yet another example of us arguing between ourselves while Rome burns, it would also be missing an opportunity to learn something about human nature, which could help us work out how to better engage with climate change ourselves.
Control is seductive
Geologists now refer to our time as the Anthropocene period; a time in which human activity has been the dominant influence on our climate and the environment. We have come to control our world and our environment with both a big and a small E. There’s a wonderful sense of dominion about that don’t you think? And indeed criticism has been leveled against the term Anthropocene for exactly that reason. For those of us from countries with a colonial past I suspect that this feeling of controlling the other is even more ingrained, whether we want it to be or not. Whether the very term Anthropocene is the chicken, or the very act of dominating is the egg, we have come to expect to be able to dictate the terms in which we inhabit the world around us.
Imagine what a shock it is then to be told that this was all untrue, and that in fact we are powerless and growing ever weaker by the day?
Like being told that you have a life-threatening cancer diagnosis, climate change hurls us over a similar edge, to a land that we don’t recognise, in which we are out of control and in the hands of specialists whose work we don’t fully understand. All life changes in that moment in the oncologist’s office, and we realise that we have none of the tools to navigate this new world.
In this context denial IS understandable and completely logical. Faced with an external threat to your way of life, and having just been told, possibly for the first time, that you aren’t actually in control of anything, few would enthusiastically see the positives. Instead, many would question the diagnosis, ask for a second and even third opinion, and then chase down whatever new science might be out there that would either contradict it or offer some hope.
In many ways then, climate change deniers may simply be further down the road than most of us, realising the full horror of climate change and furiously shaking their heads to make it go away. They are already in the oncology ward with the doctor, while we are still riffling in our pockets for change for the car park.
Control is delicious and addictive… and ultimately however an illusion. We are never truly in control; we are simply successfully navigating change.
Climate change requires us to come to terms with loss of control and to learn to live with some concepts at which we traditionally pull a face, namely: acceptance, adaptation and compromise. As masters of our own destiny, certainly in the west, we haven’t had to sit down at the table with those things too much, but we will increasingly be required to, and the sooner we can reframe compromise particularly as a good thing, the better.
The useful message in climate denial
Climate change deniers are also telling us something useful about the whole climate science system. Just as those who believe that homeopathy can cure cancer are telling us something useful about the medical system. We can agree that homeopathy has no scientific basis while still also agreeing that cancer science has been unhelpfully misrepresented by the media to the point that it’s hard to know what to believe any more. So we can agree that climate change deniers are distracting from the real work of sorting this mess out, while also recognising that most of us feel befuddled about what the best course of helpful action might be. Just as we don’t know any more whether red wine causes or cures cancer, so we equally don’t really trust products that claim to be good for the planet.* The noise and cross-talk about sustainability can leave us feeling lost at best and powerless at worst.
Rather than sticking our fingers in our ears and singing ‘la la la’ while climate deniers deny, we can instead empathise with that feeling of powerlessness, or with the fear of externally-imposed change, or with the pervasive sense of being left behind. Which of us hasn’t felt one or all of those emotions at some point? Isn’t there a small, dark place inside ourselves that looks shockingly similar?
A few weeks ago I met with a key person in my climate change journey. Richard Sylvester worked for years for Earth Watch and is now running his own sustainability practice. It’s hard not to immediately warm to Richard. He’s endlessly positive about how wonderful the natural world is, at the same time as hitting you between the eyes with a keen appreciation of what we’re up against. We found ourselves in a discussion about entrepreneurship as a solution and I realised that we were talking at cross purposes; me about entrepreneurship as a means of mitigating climate change and solve some key problems, and Richard about businesses development solutions that help us to adapt to its effects. As Richard ran through the list of all of the ways that we would have to adapt, even in rarefied, inland Oxford, I felt a chill run through me.
I realised in that moment that I have been denying that climate change will happen to me. We will either be able to head it off at the pass with some savvy entrepreneurship, or it will mainly be about helping the developing world, or it will be about lobbying at Davos. But flood defences for currently unflooded cities and heavy-duty, weather-proof clothing for my family and I? Richard then brought the time horizon closer. Before my toddler has started her GCSEs we will have almost exhausted the carbon budget that governments agreed to in order to restrain global warming to 2 degrees.** If that sounds piffling, think about when you get a fever and how 2 degrees is a big deal to your doctor. 2 degrees makes a difference to life on earth, just as it does to my toddler when she’s sick. But there is no Calpol for the climate. In that moment I felt truly afraid and I wanted to run screaming back to ‘life as we know it’ and bury my head in some emails.
Of course, my version of denial is different to those who ‘say it ain’t so’. I believe the science. But yet I do also deny the now very well-argued position that it’s inevitable. I want and need to believe that we can turn climate change around before it’s too late. In private and occasionally in public, many climate scientists now begin to doubt that that’s possible. I have to believe that it’s possible in order to put my shoulder to the wheel and try to do something about it.
I am an optimist and I want to believe that there is still time. Having grown up in a risk averse home, I have spent much of my life arguing with people’s fears, and for the past five years that’s been my bread and butter as a coach. Yet in climate change, fear could be a useful lever. Unlike the internal voice of doubt that my clients and I so often wrangle, the external fear of global warming can be a powerful tool in galvanising action, if we use it in the right way. For me, the extrinsic fear of global apocalypse has trumped my intrinsic fears about being an outlier and saying something controversial that might make me unpopular. In that respect this fear was useful to me. I wonder if it could be useful to you?
* The answer of course is the same as with the booze, we all need to consume less.
** The 1.5% target that was agreed in Paris will be reached in 6-7 years.