A List of 'Psychologies' in the Global Warming Story

Various "psychologies" bubble up as people seek to digest possible global doom.

December 30, 2009, 9:37 PM

Dec. 31, 2009 — -- Go hunting for psychological elements in the global warming story and you find them by the dozens.

Not just different types of denial ... and its silent twin, repression. And not just the "psychologies," so to speak, of how you react to those who appear to be in denial about global warming. (Ever find yourself feeling a little smug -- "psychologically superioristic" -- toward them?)

Rather, you'll find a whole zoo of psychological dimensions -- some ugly, some beautiful -- in how we react to and deal with the increasingly momentous news from scientists about how dangerous and transformative climate change increasingly is.

If you look, you might notice the psychologies of:

There are many others, plus, of course, perhaps the most important psychology of all: sanity.

What would sanity look like in the face of such a crisis?

Here is a list of just some of the many "psychologies" this reporter has spotted during the past five years covering global warming. They have been confirmed and elaborated on in conversations with various psychologists.

How many of them do you see in others -- or in yourself? Can you add any?

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"We have nothing to fear ... but fear itself!"

      --FDR's most famous words, delivered in 1933 when assuming leadership in the Great Depression.

FDR was talking to everyone about their psychologies, especially fear.

Translation: Be your own shrink, get control of your feelings, we gotta pull together now.

Great leaders instinctively do such "meta-psychology" when asking for group cohesion in some great effort -- as Shakespeare knew when writing his fictional Henry V's famous "Once more into the breach" exhortation to the English soldiers:

     "Imitate the action of the tiger;

     Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood,

     Disguise fair nature with hard-favour'd rage;

     Then lend the eye a terrible aspect;

     Let pry through the portage of the head

     Like the brass cannon..."

There is psychology also in how FDR says what he says in that grainy 1933 film clip (and in how actors deliver Henry V). FDR is bright, upbeat -- modeling the emotional posture needed amid such odds, just as parents instinctively do for children -- and some government leaders now when speaking of the growing climate crisis.

The leader sets both the intellectual and the psychological tone.

Even just to admit that global warming is frightening can be liberating, say psychologists.

It may free you to stop feeling bad about feeling bad about global warming, and allow you to get down to just feeling bad about global warming -- a far more productive attitude.

Do we really care what shape we leave Earth in for our children?

Some scholars report that psychotherapy's founding father, Sigmund Freud, had doubts about whether elders cared what they left for the young and suspected they often subconsciously resented the young ... for being young.

But many of today's psychotherapists report that the reappearance of the ability to express an "investment in future generations" -- in a long course of therapy -- is actually a sign of the return of mental health.

A number of psychologists this reporter consulted in a seminar at John Jay College run by author and psychotherapist Charles B. Strozier said that when they see a patient begin to express concern for what youth will have to deal with in the future, it shows natural and healthy empathy -- a return of emotional equilibrium.

Famous Harvard psychologist Erik Erikson called this particular symptom of mental balance "a sense of generativity."

This is a vital matter and good news in a story in which the vast majority of the world's climate scientists tell us that avoiding catastrophic climate as early as mid-century (when today's kids will be barely into middle age) requires that humanity act aggressively now to drastically reduce greenhouse emissions.

3. Climate Computers' 'Biggest Unknown' Is Human Psychology

Scientists who feed hundreds of data sets into computers to project how high the global temperature will rise by the year 2050 often say "the biggest unknown" is not how to assess reflectivity of smoke particles, or how quickly plants can absorb carbon dioxide, or what heat input from the sun will add ... but "what will the humans do?"

That is, how much heat-trapping gas will we keep out of the air in which years, and how much new heat may we prevent by other means such as, for example, artificially increasing the reflectivity of the sky or ground?

In other words, global warming is, at its core, a story about -- and depends upon -- human psychology.

Our actions, and lack of them, are psychologically based in desire, fear, curiosity and other emotions and subconscious motives.

"Panic, you die!" as the old saying goes.

The "three F's" -- fight, flight or freeze -- are reactions to clear and present danger that evolution seems to have built into our neural tendencies.

But they are clearly fatal in the face of an immense "slow-onset disaster" like that described by today's climate scientists.

Actually, given that Kofi Annan's global Humanitarian Forum estimated that some 300,000 people already die each year because of global warming, this disaster may not be at all "slow onset" for some.

Fight -- This violent approach, which may have increased odds against some saber toothed tigers, isn't even imaginable here -- though some impossibly grandiose schemes, such as launching thousands of giant mirrors into space to reflect the sun's heat, may feel a bit like a thwarted physical urge to do, at least, something.

Flight -- Not possible, given space travel's infancy. And the mental flight of denial or repression is little help.

Freeze -- This is obviously useless and perhaps a tricky problem for leaders who both listen to climate scientists and need to help keep society engaged with the problem.

This reporter heard a famous scientist (who's now in the federal government) at an off-the-record international climate seminar at Harvard University admit to a large audience there that, "We scientists are sometimes loathe to talk openly of how serious global warming may be because we don't want to paralyze the public."

"The public" deals in both "group psychology" and "psychology of groups."

This is clearly of the greatest importance if humanity is to "get this right," as Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said humanity must.

The zeitgeist-conscious, 1930's, Depression-era filmmakers of the Andy Hardy movies depicted a helpful if perhaps naive group psychology every time they had Mickey Rooney's or Judy Garland's eyes grow suddenly wide, as they said, "I've got it! We'll all put on the best darn show this town has ever seen!"

Cut to montages of joyous group effort and then a great show in Uncle Joe's barn amid all of which the problem the town was facing somehow evaporated.

In the U.S. Congress, this is called "the can-do spirit." At a hearing on climate change many months ago, Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, asked former Democratic Vice President Al Gore about how government might help inspire the "can-do spirit" among Americans in the battle with global warming.

After Pearl Harbor, it wasn't hard for such group psychology to lock in against fascism. Climate scientists have long warned that if humanity waits for a real "climate Pearl Harbor" to fire up global group psychology, it could well be too late.

6. Groups (Plural) Psychologies

Americans divide up into roughly six groups on global warming, according to a survey conducted by Anthony Leiserowitz of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.

Where would you place yourself -- or various relatives and friends?

Alarmed -- 18 percent

Concerned -- 33 percent

Cautious -- 19 percent

Disengaged -- 12 percent

Doubtful -- 11 percent

Dismissive -- 7 percent

Leiserowitz told ABC News that, in a way, this division into six may be partly arbitrary -- one might describe 12 or 20 such categories in relation to climate change -- but that it nonetheless gives a reliable general picture of public attitudes.

There is also an underlying psychological reality that is apparently illuminated by another study.

Psychologist Richard Mollica, who runs the Harvard Program in Refugee Trauma at the Massachusetts General Hospital, told ABC News that decades of surveys around the world have found that traumatized people tend to group into various categories of mental vulnerability, regardless of ethnicity, religion, culture, race or even the type of trauma suffered.

The general lesson for the climate crisis, said Mollica, may be that regardless of the solidity of the science about climate change, there always may tend to be groups with differing reactions to it.

Recognizing this difference of styles that some scientists say may even be built into the human genome may have a calming effect.

It may help soften the urgent desire you might feel for everyone else to react to the same problem with the same psychological style you do.

You can find much on the Internet about the many forms climate change denial can take.

This reporter spotted one that I've dubbed "the Cessna." Psychologists have confirmed that it's a common phenomenon.

A Cessna -- or other small private plane -- suddenly appeared in the minds of many people on 9/11 when they first heard the words, "Did you hear that a plane flew into one of the Trade Towers!?"

Even some commercial pilots who watched from a distance as that first plane hit the towers thought to themselves something along the lines of: "Could be a drunk, or a terrorist, or a deranged suicide, or instrument malfunction -- but it's a small private plane."

It is the natural tendency most of us may have to assume the least bad possible, given the terrible news we've just learned.

Psychologists have various terms for this, but they talk generally of it being a denial technique to minimize the trauma in a way that allows people to keep their "meaning system" intact amid a crisis.

Trauma, even feared future trauma, they say, tends to shatter the complex "meaning systems" each of us builds in our minds to make it possible to get through life -- our general presumptions about how things are.

Thus, denial is often initially a survival mechanism, they say. It can help you keep your act together long enough to begin to deal with the new reality.

During five years of covering climate change, this reporter has noticed many people quietly pushing beyond their initial denial as they catch their breath and get ready for the changing world that climate scientists have long warned us is already here.

I often still find myself being pulled back out of denial when I talk to yet another climate scientist.

Psychologists find it natural that we should have evolved brains that quickly put away painful thoughts, when it's helpful and possible to do so, in a way that allows us to get on with life.

One psychotherapist told a colleague who covers global warming that what he was feeling in response to all the worrisome news about global warming was not depression, as he'd thought, but grief.

Depression, said this expert, robs your energy, makes it hard to work, whereas this colleague had become more journalistically productive than ever. Grief -- for example, at the thought of the loss of 10 to 20 percent of Earth's species as the heat rises -- is an entirely different psychological phenomenon and relatively familiar to psychologists.

8. Poe's 'Imp of the Perverse' and Global Warming

Edgar Allen Poe, America's great writer admired worldwide for his creation of new genres of psychological fiction (in addition to inventing the genres of both science fiction and the detective story out of thin air), wrote a psychological treatise thinly disguised as a short story entitled, "The Imp of the Perverse."

This "imp" is the impulse that Poe finds in us to sometimes feel compelled to do something precisely because we know we shouldn't -- as if the daring naughtiness of it has a deep grip on our need for excitement and drama.

Perhaps all the apocalyptic movies of late ("Knowing," "The Day After Tomorrow," "2012," "Apocalypto," "War of the Worlds," "Terminator") are somehow Hollywood's response to a growing need in us to see the horrors of runaway global warming that scientists say we risk if we don't act.

We know we can't wait to see what it would be like, for then it would be too late to stop it -- but paradoxically, we often can't help but wonder about the horror we know we must prevent.

John Jay's Strozier, who has also written a book called "Apocalypse" about apocalyptic Christian sects, says that such sects' favorite topic of conversation is often imagining what it will be like when the Apocalypse happens and the Messiah returns -- conversations that sometimes occur in a mood of what he calls "Apocalyptic glee."

Strozier adds that some apocalyptic groups appear to have long since taken news of potentially catastrophic climate change in stride, as if unsurprised by the sort of universal upheaval they've been counting on and eagerly awaiting.

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The above are just some of the many psychological dimensions to be found in the global warming story.

Perhaps you can add some under our "comments" section. (What about the coping psychologies of humor, for one. Heard any good global warming jokes lately?)

But even so short a list as this is incomplete without what is surely the most important psychological category of all -- sanity.

Sigmund Freud, according to some scholars, was not all that interested in the subject of sanity. He compared it to a diamond -- strong and sparkling but essentially too clear, you see through it.

They say he found psychopathology, with all its flaws, more interesting.

But today's psychologists, including Professor Strozier and others, speak of what they describe as the fascinating and complex structures of sanity - of mental health.

Proponents of an emerging paradigm of psychology called "Affect Regulation Theory" say it is just as important to understand the complexities of what they call healthy "adaptive states" as it is to understand unhealthy or "maladaptive states."

They say that a number of mental states that have traditionally been labeled pathological are often more rigid - inflexible, unable to adapt successfully to a crisis or other urgent requirement.

New-York-based psychologist Daniel Hill says that, in general, "states of mind that are maximally complex and therefore stable and flexible are ideal."

This view suggests that, by and large, a healthy state of mind is one in which it has complex access to a variety of moods and information and to a wide range of possible approaches with which to respond flexibly and appropriately in any given situation.

A combination of maximum complexity with maximum flexibility could have great advantage in so complex and challenging an event as accelerating human-induced global warming.

Those struggling with climate change -- scientists, policy makers, government leaders and economists -- often speak of the need for great flexibility as they deal with the enormous and continually emerging complexity of facts and factors brought on by the climate crisis.

And to get a feel for what sanity might feel like, says one member of the John Jay seminar, consider how good it feels when you finally decide, after long delay, that you're going to clean up your room or office -- and then do it.

As the psychologists might put it, that action brings many transformations and regulations of affect -- a good feeling that can reinforce itself and lead to a better workspace, living space or world.

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