“Psychology & The Climate Crisis” June 2011

Dr. Steven A Leibo is the professor of International History & Politics at the Sage Colleges

WAMC Audio for “Psychology and the Climate Crisis”

Frankly, I have never cared that much for psychology, which is a bit surprising for me. I mean for most of my life I have been surrounded by people in the field, raised by a psychiatric technician whose dinner time conversations were about fun times at the local mental hospital. And I spent my mid twenties working in the department of psychiatry at Stanford interviewing people about their sex lives and am even the father of a graduate student in neuroscience.

But to formally study psychology, I never really felt it necessary. Sure, after a while I figured out that I could teach neither history nor contemporary world politics without an appreciation of psychology. Eventually came to understand that in this world reality is worth no more than 20%. That what matters in life is what people think is going on. Though it’s not like I have not expanded my horizons.

In fact, earlier in the decade, once I began to understood how humanity’s two century long burn out of fossil fuels has accidentally disrupted the earth’s heat balance I realized I needed to know infinitely more science than I did. And so I set out, learning everything I could on topics from Milankovitch cycles to the reflective effects of the son’s rays on our diminishing arctic ice regions, eventually able to speak comfortably in public on why such devastating storms, horrendous flooding, massive fires and hunger bringing crop failures are becoming ever so much more common around the world.

But as the years have gone by I have also become ever more frustrated. I have simply not understood why people can get so upset about terribly important but not fundamentally existential issues from unions and right to work battles To energy independence and hydrofracking. And yet so many appear so passive in the face of something truly cataclysmic like our having disrupted the entire climatic balance within which human civilization survived over the last 12 thousand years.

But lately I have realized there’s a element too many of us have forgotten. That there is simply no way humanity is ever going to make enough progress to stave off the worst of cataclysmic climate change until a lot more of us understand psychological barriers to action that inhibit so many of us.

But fortunately the professionals at the American Psychological Association have finally weighed in with a special issue devoted to “Psychology and Global Climate Change’ available this month in their journal The American Psychologist a wonderful contribution that is highlighted by an article “The Dragon’s of Inaction: Psychological Barriers That Limit Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation”

Yes, a very impressive article that focuses on what the author, Robert Gifford of the University of Victoria, calls the psychological barriers that limit environmental behavior change; literally seven different reasons why the author finds humanity so paralyzed when dealing with something as over whelming as the climate crisis.

Not surprisingly, he begins by reminding us that human behavior is simply not all that rational and that we are ever so vulnerable to well funded efforts to confuse us least we interfere with corporate fossil fuel profits.

A species that, in truth seems always more aware of immediate problems than even impending disasters, confused as well —- ironically by the very efforts of climate scientists to accurately report the degree of their certainty. And apparently, stymied to an extent by an inherent optimism that makes so many of us think, that other people, not us, will have a heart attack.

While denial itself also emerges as yet another of those psychological “dragons” that inhibit our efforts to adopt all those new green energy technologies fast enough to avoid the worst. And, yes, Gifford’s articled on the Dragons of Inaction is only one part of this enormously impressive special issue from the American Psychological Association that everyone concerned about arousing a more effective public defense against dramatic climate change should consult. Indeed must consult if we are going to make any headway in turning more quickly to those green energy solutions before the earth’s current climate –ever forced by humanity pressures jerks toward a new climatic equilibrium dramatically more challenging than anything modern civilization has ever faced

About Steven Leibo

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