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The Vital Role of Therapists in Confronting Climate Change

This weekend, psychotherapists, psychologists, philosophers, scientists and activists will come together to explore the traumatic reality of climate change. What can therapists contribute to the picture? And how might global warming be permeating our consulting rooms? Paul Hoggett, psychoanalytic psychotherapist and co-founder of the Climate Psychology Alliance, thinks we can help humankind understand it’s anxiety, anger, despair and denial – and outlines three key ways therapists can contribute to positive change.

It is now exactly three years since the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris and things seem to have come to a head. Progress in curbing emissions has stalled and in some countries it has gone into reverse. The adjacent crisis of mass species extinctions has suddenly become more visible and acute and ‘keystone species’ such as plankton and bees are now also under great stress. The drought and heat wave in the northern hemisphere this summer shook us, and the IPCC reported in September that we have just 12 years to crack the problem of climate change before it becomes an irreversible and possibly runaway process. Taking their cue from the lone Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg, protest strikes of schoolchildren have broken out in Australia and elsewhere, and in the UK Extinction Rebellion is promoting the kind of direct action that we last saw with the women at Greenham Common.
Climate anxiety is spreading and beginning to permeate our consulting rooms. Many of climate change’s ‘canaries’, those such as activists and scientists, are at times now having to face unmanageable feelings of despair, anger and grief. The Climate Psychology Alliance created by a group of therapists and activists some eight years ago, is responding to a growing volume of calls for support as an increasing number of writers, artists, scientists and intellectuals (Jonathan Franzen being the latest) suggest the game is up, and what now awaits us is gradual social collapse.
Be in no doubt, both the Earth and Homo Sapiens are in crisis, this is the meaning of the Anthropocene. So in this unprecedented situation how should therapists respond? What role, if any, do they have in helping humanity look into this abyss?
It is now widely accepted that facts and information about the risk of climate change taken alone do not promote change. There is a growing acceptance that the climate change movement could be enriched by incorporating deeper psychological perspectives. But mainstream positivist psychology is often part of the problem especially when it reduces the human being to an object to be measured, controlled and then harnessed to the very machine that now threatens our collective future.
Climate change and environmental destruction threaten us with catastrophic anxieties that are difficult to bear. They can mobilise defence mechanisms and coping strategies such as denial and rationalisation, which can undermine our capacity to get to grips with the issue. The therapeutic community has a vital role in deepening understanding of how this plays out, both in our individual lives and in our culture. It can also throw light upon the psychological resources – resilience, courage, radical hope, new forms of imagination – that support change.
Drawing on its own rich experience of creating a space with our clients and patients in which difficult emotions can be contained and truths faced, the therapeutic community can:

  • Promote more creative approaches to engaging the public with climate change
  • Support activists, scientists and policy makers seeking to bring about change
  • Build psychological resilience with regard to the destructive impacts of climate change (fires, floods, etc.) which are already being experienced

Above all, we can start to develop the techniques and moral and emotional capacities that will be required as this real world issue breaks into the psyches of our clients and patients, and becomes entangled in the inner dynamics of their lives.
Paul Hoggett will be among the speakers at this weekend’s conference, Ecology, Psychoanalysis and Global Warming: Present and Future Traumas, at the Tavistock Centre, London, Dec 8-9. You can become a member or sign-up for the mailing list of the Climate Psychology Alliance.


Paul Hoggett

Paul Hoggett is a psychoanalytic psychotherapist and member of the Severnside Institute for Psychotherapy. He was co-founder of the Climate Psychology Alliance which seeks to bring insights from depth psychologies to our understanding of collective paralysis in the face of dangerous climate change. Paul is Emeritus Professor of Social Policy at UWE, Bristol where he was co-founder of the Centre for Psycho-Social Studies. He was founding editor of the journal Organisational and Social Dynamics, a forum for those working within the Tavistock Group Relations tradition. He is a Fellow of OPUS, an Organisation for the Promotion of Understanding in Society.

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