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Climate Psychologist Says Neither Gloom-And-Doom Nor Extreme Solution-Obsessed Optimism Is the Best Way to Discuss Climate Change Productively

  • Communicating about climate change effectively is critical to get people to engage with it productively, according to climate psychologist Renée Lertzman.
  • First, there has to be an honest acknowledgement that we can not solve climate change alone. The narrative has to be reframed from one of "me" to one of "we."
  • Second, we have to have compassion for feeling sadness, anger and anxiety about what is happening to the planet while also focusing on solutions.

Communicating about climate change effectively is critical to get people to engage with it productively, according to climate psychologist Renée Lertzman. And right now, communications about climate change are not helping.

People are scared.

Almost three in four people (72%) worldwide are worried that global climate change will harm them personally at some point in their lifetime, according to survey data from the nonpartisan Pew Research Center.

Almost half of young people (45%) say their feelings about climate change negatively impact their daily lives, while 77% say the future is frightening with regard to climate change, according to a survey of 10,000 young people across 10 countries released this month by academics.

That fear needs to be acknowledged and worked through individually in the companies we work for, in local communities, in government and in organizations, says Lertzman. Only after that can we productively discuss how to prepare, adapt and fight.

The following are excerpts of Lertzman's comments in a video interview with CNBC. They have been edited for brevity and clarity.

Getting from 'me' to 'we'

There's some truth in there. In actuality, no one — and I don't care if you're the biggest multinational company on the planet — no one actor right now is able to do it all. No one on its own is going to be enough.

What I think this crisis is actually inviting us to step into is a fundamentally different lens, which is really moving from that "me" to "we." And it's really stretching our cognitive capacity to think and experience and see ourselves as part of a system and as embedded in the system.

That's a really significant shift for a lot of us to make. And it's not something that just happens intellectually. And it's not something that just happens if you snap your fingers say, "Okay, you know, what, I'm going to now start thinking and feeling and behaving like I'm in a system." It doesn't really work that way. It's a process of continually reminding ourselves and each other that we are in fact joined up and part of a much bigger picture and a much bigger story.

Each one of us is actually — I don't care who you are — a vital character in that story. We are all protagonists in this story of meeting climate crisis and engaging with climate crisis.

And that reframe is one that we need to just keep coming back to, over and over and over again. This is not just about me. It's about me in this bigger story.

Have deep compassion for what you feel

It's absolutely essential that we start from a place of really having deep compassion for that feeling of, "nothing I can do will matter."

So it's not like we shouldn't be feeling that or there's something wrong with us for feeling that our individual actions are not sufficient. Actually, I'm just going to really connect with myself here and say, "You know what, yeah, it's really painful. It's really hard."

Having that feeling is an expression of how deeply I am connected and how deeply I really care about what is happening on the planet.

It is really, really important that we meet our experience — no matter what that experience is, overwhelmed, feeling insignificant, feeling frustrated, feeling angry, feeling numb, feeling checked out — that we meet that experience with, with total compassion.

It's only from that point that we're able to move into any kind of meaningful, impactful, creative response, where we're able to take stock of questions like, "Who am I, where am I? What do I, how do I want to channel this energy, this concern, this care that I have, that's coming up inside of me, that's expressing itself?" We have to start from that place.

Be authentic

It's really important that we don't try to be "hope police" on ourselves, forcing ourselves to feel more hopeful or more upbeat or positive.

And that's a trend that I find really concerning and troubling because, if you look at just the psychological lens, it's not how it works. We don't force ourselves to suddenly feel and behave in certain ways.

A solution-ier focuses exclusively on solutions and has no tolerance and no space for any kind of expression of feelings or uncertainty or ambivalence. It's almost a zealous focus on the solutions. And it can really shut people down. And it can really alienate a lot of people who are not there yet. They still are processing and asking questions like, "What does this mean for us? Why are we in this situation in the first plate?"

The solution-ier mode is that you have to just solve, solve, solve. And, frankly, that problem-solution binary isn't totally appropriate for the situation we're in. This is a state of being that is going to be continuing for the unforeseeable future.

The doom-and-gloom-versus-hope dichotomy or binary is false. And it's one that we really need as communicators, journalists, the media needs to be actively dismantling.

In actuality, the path forward is a middle path. And that middle path is one of authenticity.

It's really about authentic experience and authentic engagement with this crisis. There is enormous hopefulness and enormous positivity and deep inspiration and power with recognizing and facing directly the scale and the impact and the loss.

We're living in a time of severe wildfire and drought and flooding. And we've got to be able to look at that directly in the eye without being accused of being negative or focusing on doom. We've got to because that is what is reality. That is reality right now.

Humans need, first and foremost, to have their experience be validated.

The way forward is through the lens of emotional intelligence.

It means refuting an either-or way of approaching climate crisis (doom and gloom or solutions only).

It means getting out of the whiplash between the positivity and the negativity. As I say in the TED Talk, that's an artificial construct. Our minds don't work that way. It's not only negative for us or only positive. It's more complicated than that.

What companies can do to engage employees

There needs to be a level of endorsement at the leadership level. So that's one.

But what's equally as important is that people within the organization are actively empowered to take initiative, to propose pilots, to run experiments, to try things out.

The old model is a company deciding to be advocates of climate change and appointing a green team. That's kind of an older model. That's kind of what I see as a 1.0 model.

The new model is one that is really exciting to me and is more human centered. It's more authentic. It is about coming together. And looking at these issues together. And talking about what to do about this. It's more inclusive. People feel that they're really part of this conversation.

There have to be more people at different levels in the organization, in different parts of the organization, who are given the platform and the ability to initiate, to mobilize, to move things forward. It doesn't only live at the C-Suite.

And ideally, if it's done well, each person, no matter what part of the company you're in, feels that they have a stake in this climate change response. Nobody is exempting themselves because they don't know enough about climate. An effective response is one where everyone has something to add here and is a part of the response. It means creating an atmosphere where everyone all has a vital role.

Because, what really drives change is when people feel invited, they feel heard, understood, included.

One example of how to start this is hosting circles. I train people to facilitate climate circles or conversations, which are small groups where people meet over a duration of time, and they just simply come together and talk about what they're feeling and thinking about the issues.

And before long, it becomes about action. It really does.

People don't stay that long in the feeling, but you need to at least have the space to go there before getting into action planning. And if we jump right into actions and bypass discussing how people feel, then we shortchange and we short circuit the the potential to really do some amazing work.

A resource for those interested in further reading: Lertzman recommends Project Inside Out, an online resource she was commissioned to put together by the climate organization, the KR Foundation, based in Denmark. The online tool which provides guiding psychological principles for effectively working in climate change.

Also in this series:

Climate change is radicalizing young people — here's what that means and how to combat despair

Grief and anxiety over climate change drove this 30-year-old to write a letter to his future child

18-year-old climate activist shares how she finds courage to face a 'ticking time bomb'

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