A blind spot for the climate crisis?

Matthew Adams with a letter from our January issue.

As the UK gears up to go to the polls in December, the BPS shared its own ‘psychological manifesto’, highlighting overarching priorities for government. In it, they state:

‘Any government serious about improving the lives of the public and understanding why intractable social problems persist must ensure that their policies and interventions are based on an in-depth understanding of human behaviour.’

Much of the manifesto is welcome, not least a call for all parties to commit to addressing the underlying determinants of ill-health and inequalities.

As I read through the manifesto, I was intrigued to hear what the BPS would have to say about the climate and ecological crisis – possibly the most ‘intractable social problem’ of all, an issue a number of political parties are calling for as the exclusive focus of a TV debate. Furthermore, as I argued in The Conversation in 2018, we need psychology to help make sense of how and why this problem is intractable – the cognitive, emotional and social processes involved in making sense of and (not) responding to that crisis.

There is nothing. No mention at all. Perhaps a few years ago, prior to the last election, this might have been just about excusable. But today? In the last year or so the climate crisis has become recognised by more and more people as an urgent and unprecedented problem: think of Extinction Rebellion (XR), Greta Thunberg, Green New Deal, school climate strikes, Blue Planet.

Politicians, charities, protestors, and young people are coming out onto the streets. Other professional bodies too. At the beginning of November, the editor-in-chief of one of the world’s most prestigious medical journals, The Lancet, explicitly urged ‘all health professionals to engage in nonviolent social protest to address climate change in the face of government inaction’. We’ve seen doctors, therapists and counsellors and scientists making similar declarations around the world. They are all sharing the same message —the climate crisis requires immediate action.

Why the blind spot in psychology, at least from the professional body that represents us all? Psychological approaches to climate change have tended to focus on individual behaviour change, decision-making processes communicating pro-environmental messages: How do you get people to recycle more? Buy electric cars?

Similarly, in addressing the climate crisis in the US, the American Psychological Association is hardly a standard-bearer for an ambitious response. It is happy to position psychological expertise as a resource to be tapped by organisations and policymakers keen to ‘help people adapt to a warming world’. As the APA call to climate action states, ‘we’re the experts on individual behaviour, we know about messaging and how to create interventions’. The BPS manifesto similarly emphasises the ‘power of evidence-based behaviour change interventions’, though not in relation to the climate crisis.

The problem for a discipline in thrall to tinkering with individual behaviour change is that it completely misses the bigger picture. The wider social, political and cultural processes and alliances that perpetuate the ‘intractable social problem’ of climate crisis doesn’t enter the picture, in fact, remarkably, the climate crisis is ignored entirely.

Thankfully, many psychologists are increasingly addressing the climate crisis, its psychological and health impacts, and the denial and defence mechanisms involved in coming to terms with it. What we need to see from our official bodies is more leadership and less platitudes. As XR have so provocatively reminded us, the first step is to tell the truth and declare a climate crisis. The next step is to adopt a more ambitious and radical agenda. Informing behaviour-change interventions is not going to cut it. Individual action matters, enormously, but right at the top of the list of significant behaviours is coming together and demanding a collective response from governments and policymakers for the benefit of all. Psychology should be examining the massive impacts of climate change in terms of ill health and distress, but also finding ways to facilitate social support, activism, and the fostering of hope.

But to begin, if UK psychology’s professional body really wants to intervene in politics, and it should, it needs to get its act together and join with doctors, scientists, educationalists and young people across the globe in making it an urgent priority to call out continued governmental inaction over the climate and ecological crisis, and yes, encourage mass civil disobedience.

Matt Adams
Principal Lecturer
University of Brighton

Editor’s note: See this month’s column from Chief Executive Sarb Bajwa, in ‘News’, for the Society’s position on the climate crisis. See also our online collection ‘Action on climate change’ for more on the role of psychology and psychologists in tackling climate change.

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