Taking action on climate change and environmental degradation

Maya Gimalova and Martin Milton ask if psychologists are doing enough.

We have recently seen increased media focus on climate change and environmental damage. In particular, Extinction Rebellion, a UK socio-political movement, has received a huge amount of press, media and political attention in response to its peaceful protests against our handling of the climate crisis. This is possibly as they have gone beyond relying on statements and turned to action, engulfing London streets, causing road disruptions, bringing traffic to a standstill in such major London thoroughfares as Oxford Street, Marble Arch and Waterloo Bridge. Other activists glued themselves to trains and London Stock Exchange to call the public and financial industry to act. The media has also paid attention to the international School Strike for Climate, Friday’s for Future, David Attenborough’s recent programme Climate Change: The Facts, and last year’s IPCC report.

We are seeing activists of different ages and from different backgrounds united by the same realisation – ‘climate change is real and we need to act now’. Their uniting calls are, firstly, for the Government to tell the truth, secondly to act now and thirdly to go beyond politics. And we are seeing some degree of positive response: MPs recently endorsed a motion to declare a climate emergency; there is talk in the US and the UK of a Green New Deal; and in Australia political campaigns have paid greater attention to climate damage. The awareness around the globe is rising but what about us? Are we psychologists doing enough? 

While this feels ‘new’ in some regards, it isn’t. Psychologists have long been aware of climate change and the urgent need to engage, with calls for greater engagement in the pages of this magazine on numerous occasions (including articles by Spence, Pigeon and Uzzell in 2009 and Rhodes in 2016). Psychologists have long reported that changes in the environment and climate have negative effects on mental health and wellbeing (for example, see Page and Howard in Psychological Medicine in 2010), and this is especially so in relation to already vulnerable populations. We know that the aftermath of natural disasters results in post-traumatic stress disorder and major depression (see for example Galea, Nandi, and Vlahov in Epidemiological Reviews in 2005) and moreover, psychologists have long recorded the ways in which environmental degradation evokes emotional responses such as helplessness, anxiety, guilt, despair and grief (see Norgaard’s 2009 World Development Report, for example). Perhaps we need to speak this truth more loudly and more effectively. We may need to be more assertive in our calls for action too. 

Despite our efforts to this point, the need to be consistently involved is becoming ever more urgent. How can we sustain and enhance our involvement? How might we be more effective in the communication of what we know? How can we support those involved on the front lines and explore the reticence of many others? These are important and urgent questions for researchers and practitioners to work on. 

It is time for another call for psychologists to take a more active role in this movement and utilise the momentum to share what we know. There is expertise within the BPS community but we need to offer greater time and attention to climate change and other environmental issues. And this is for all of us, not just high-profile officers of the Society, but practitioners and researchers alike, established professionals and trainees too. That may mean starting from a therapy room, mindful that a wider context could be a reason for distress, or supporting clients that bring climate and environmental related issues as key concerns. Or, we might put some thought into the support that brave and courageous activists at the forefront might also need, coming face-to-face with these anxiety-provoking and distressing facts in such a sustained and intense manner. 

At another level, it might be helpful to consider a new forum for BPS psychologists and our environmental work, rather than expecting this work to be subsumed into existing Sections and Divisions' partisan interests. Until that happens, we might more formally require all Divisions and Sections to consider the impact of climate change upon their core foci at meetings and conferences. 

Outside of the profession we probably have more of a contribution to make than we realise. We can draw on community and political expertise to consider community workshops providing space for people to explore their responses to climate change and encourage pro-environmental behaviour. Some members might design services with ecological issues in mind or actively contribute to political work, feeding into consultations, supporting formal party policy development or working with grass roots organisations.

Unquestionably there are many ways we might get involved, and without doubt the specific contributions are up to us to consider. However, not engaging, not thinking and not acting is probably not an okay thing to do, not an option that we have as individuals let alone for our profession. Not to be involved would amount to an abdication of responsibility.

Maya Gimalova
Counselling Psychologist in Training
Regent’s University London

Martin Milton
Professor of Counselling Psychology
Regent’s University London


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