A List of 'Psychologies' in the Global Warming Story

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

ByABC News
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?

      * * * * * *

"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.

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.