From bemoaning our fate to positive action

Dr Michele Hipwell writes on climate change.

Rose Kent (‘Letters’, September) advises caution when taking action on climate change. It stands to reason for people who heed the warning from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC) that we should do what we can to support action on change. This is the logical response to the serious emergency we find ourselves in. However, we know that it is also wise to strike a word of caution when embarking on climate change activism.

Coming to terms with the possible consequences of climate change and the need for urgent action is a tough call. Burnout is unfortunately one possible consequence. Isabelle Counson and colleagues wrote in BMC Psychology recently on mindfulness, work stress and trauma amongst Australian firefighters, and a blog post from Husna Rizvi on Act Build Change considered how to fight activist burnout. Activists, particularly young activists, need training to avoid burnout, along with support from peers and more experienced colleagues. Nick Breeze indicated in The Ecologist this January that Extinction Rebellion is not as sophisticated as previous generations of activists and will benefit from more training. Apocalyptic thinking is a shortcut taken when people are faced with something very difficult. Climate change activists need to be prepared psychologically.

Most people are not naïve enough to think that ‘doing our bit’ is a foolproof guarantee that all will be well. But it is important and useful, especially when action is taken by communities working together, expressing the will of local people and then influencing politicians who have the power to invest money in appropriate initiatives and research. Simple examples include the environmental projects conducted by community groups funded by the Scottish Government Climate Challenge Fund, or the work of the Transition Groups network.

While we know that there is a gap between what people say they will do and what they actually do, behaviour change strategies are helping us narrow the gap. With colleagues, I led a number of climate challenge projects targeting energy reduction in Edinburgh; 50 per cent of housing there is in tenements, which are generally hard to make energy efficient. We designed training manuals using behaviour change strategies and ran workshops and follow up debriefs after face-to-face communication with local residents. The projects led to changes in attitudes and behaviour, new learning, communities working together, and a reduction in energy consumption as well the setting up of positive initiatives.

Community projects led by the Climate Challenge Fund have resulted not only in lots of innovative projects and positive community engagement, but also in people learning from each other, sharing new ideas, working together, reaching the goals they set themselves, enjoying the challenges and meeting people in their communities. This is a lot more interesting, useful and enjoyable than contemplating our possible demise and global predicament. If we decide that climate change action isn’t realistic then we will stop trying to find strategies, new ways of living and new technologies that will make a difference. Importantly, we will lose hope.

We need to be prepared to understand the reason we experience difficulties. We need to take positive action, provide socially supporting settings to foster hope, find new ways to develop a sustainable society, invest in new technologies and support each other. While I am much older, I agree with this young and hopeful generation who have the will and the guts to try out new ways of living and to stop burying their heads in the sand or bemoaning their fate. They need support, not repression. Positive action also has the advantage of reducing guilt, anger and futility. This is not magical thinking; this is human ingenuity and resilience at work.

Dr Michele Hipwell
Health Psychologist, Edinburgh 

Picture: The coastline near the Graton area of Edinburgh, showing the Fife coast and its wind turbines.

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