Earth to Humans: S.O.S.
We love the earth. It’s our only home. And, we don’t always know how to find the words to talk about what’s happening to our environment and the future. Some of us spend more time looking at pictures of animals online than being out in nature. How can we practice EI, environmental intelligence, along with emotional intelligence? Does collaborating make us feel more optimistic?
The science is overwhelmingly clear in showing that we only have about another decade to start drastically reducing global greenhouse gas emissions in order to avoid widespread, damaging consequences of climate change, from rising seas swamping coastal cities to heat waves making life miserable for tens of millions of people.
Faced with such troubling news, our emotions might range from grief to worry to protectiveness to anger, to denial. Stress about environmental issues ranks up there as one of the big existential crises of our time. It’s hard enough to contemplate the death of individuals, but the mind balks at contemplating the death of our planet. Our brains, evolved to only deal with immediate and observable threats, create all kinds of ways to pretend nothing really bad will happen if we just go about our business.
According to an article by psychologist, Susie Burke from Australia, “a large scale survey of Australian’s perceptions and understandings of climate change in Australia reported that 20% of people show appreciable distress about climate change. A similar survey from the Yale Climate Project in America reported that a large percentage of people surveyed about climate change report feel disgusted, hopeful, helpless, sad, depressed or guilty about the issue.”
So what do we do about these intense emotions?
Emotion Focused Coping: Emotion focused coping techniques include things like emotional expression (acknowledging and expressing the feelings), cognitive reappraisal (construing a potentially emotion-eliciting situation in a way that changes its emotional impact), distraction, and a host of techniques for learning to increase distress tolerance so that the uncomfortable feelings are not so aversive.
Problem Focused Coping: Researchers have found that engaging in mitigation behaviours – doing something to reduce your carbon footprint – is a significant coping strategy, with the action that people take seeming to help them manage their experienced distress. So this would include changing individual or household behaviors like using less water, turning down heaters, riding or using public transport, as well as participating in climate action groups, lobbying politicians and industry leaders etc. Climate action is definitely the number one behavioral strategy for managing climate change distress.”
Susan Joy Hassol is a climate change communicator, analyst, and author known for her ability to translate science into English, making complex issues accessible to policymakers and the public for more than two decades.
She writes: “We’re stymied in solving the climate change problem because of an underlying challenge – a communication failure – rooted in language and ideology. Aspects of this failure include how scientists communicate, how some people confound the science with the solutions, and an active disinformation campaign designed to cast doubt. Resolution of the communication failure is essential, as it can unleash our ability to solve the climate problem.”
Susan helps scientists communicate more effectively and provides information to policymakers, journalists, and others. She has authored and edited numerous reports, written an HBO documentary, and appeared on national media.
Please check out her talk given at a TEDx event:
An listen to a short interview conducted with Susan for the Planet Watch radio show:
Edward Maibach is a widely recognized expert in public health and climate change communication. Since 2010, he has been a Distinguished Professor of Communication at George Mason University and Director of the Center for Climate Change Communication at GMU. He has some surprising suggestions based on studying successful efforts thirty years ago to get the public to stop smoking.
Hear a short interview I conducted with Dr. Maibach here:
We hope you find some useful tools here to engage emotions and cognitive skills to better help yourself and the planet heal. As earth day approaches, we can all feel better collaborating on something positive in our own communities.
For more on this topic from our CEO, Josh Freedman, listen to a Climate One radio show, Handling Your Feelings About Climate Change, where he speaks about the challenges and opportunities present in this moment.