Facing Climate Change – therapists and academics talk in Bristol


Photographs from China are becoming a useful tool for this blog to illustrate what I’m trying to articulate around psychology and climate change – the picture on the left here being a Chinese taxi graveyard from the Spiegel’s website in Germany.

But that’s just a despairing teaser to some thoughts on a stimulating but also, perhaps inevitably, frustrating day spent in Bristol yesterday discussing, with an encouraging turnout of some 130 therapists and academics, how we are or at not Facing Climate Change.

As ever, Jungian analyst Mary-Jayne Rust had some powerful and moving insights on what she calls humankind’s myth of progress (which ignores the non-human world). And reflecting our discussions on this blog, she took a deep breath and named what she acknowledged as the frightening reality likely to happen much sooner than we think – huge loss of life worldwide, and the loss of safe spaces for humanity.

Her address will be posted soon on her website – read it!

And we also heard a very sober and tightly-argued portrayal of climate change denial from one of Britain’s leading activists in this field, George Marshall, talking of how our inability as a species to acknowledge and deal with this urgent danger represents a failure of what he termed our “risk thermostat.”

The terms limbic system and amydgala weren’t used in the Bristol discussions, but as I’ve argued here before, those are the actual bits of our physiological kit which unfortunately for us aren’t equipped by evolution to respond to what, as George listed them, are the invisible, unprecedented, drawn-out, complex but also indirect threats to our existence posed by climate change.

As Mary-Jayne, George, and also Paul Hoggett argued as Professor of Politics at the University of the West of England, we won’t get serious about tackling climate change and living sustainably on the planet until we move from just thinking about it to actually feeling its impact.

And despite what all agreed in Bristol is a striking change of public mood now underway, at least in Britain – Prince Charles is today quoted prominently as warning we have just months to turn things round, and the august Financial Times recently spoke of extinction being just six degrees of warming away – I no longer believe, as readers of this blog know, that we will manage this shift in time.

In my view, it’s just not doable – psychologically, technically, in terms of economy, politics or development. On which see a grim and sobering Spiegel report on how China, even in the best-case scenario of carbon capture, conservation, low-carbon growth, is already committed – short of social and economic collapse – to a doubling of CO2 emissions in the next two decades.

Which means – and this was the piece missing for me in Bristol, and still missing in the public discussion around climate change – that the public discourse (as the sociologists say) must move from an exclusive focus on trying to prevent the worst happening to a very serious and sober discussion of how, without losing hope, we also prepare for that very worst.

Which in turn raises the question cogently posed by Mary-Jayne of what the narrative is within which this story is being told. A subject perhaps for the next post, for that’s where journalists come in.

PS – just as I’d finished this post, Tania Dolley alerted me to a breathtaking, even by his standards, misrepresentation of the Bristol conference in yesterday’s Daily Telegraph by one of the principal and in my view dangerously influential deniers of climate change in this country, Christopher Booker.

“At the University of the West of England in Bristol this weekend,” writes Booker, “a conference of ‘eco-psychologists’, led by a professor, are solemnly exploring the notion that ‘climate change denial’ should be classified as a form of ‘mental disorder’.”

As a former journalist myself, I thought the first thing you are meant to do when reporting something is check your facts. True, we did have professors present. But perhaps Mr Booker is referring to a different conference, since the idea of climate change denial being a mental disorder was neither on yesterday’s agenda nor part of the discussion.

Perhaps, in the light of such idiocy from Mr Booker, it should have been.

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