The Missing Factor in Climate Change Adaptation? Human Psychology

How well do humans respond in a crisis and how we will react in the ‘new normal’ of on-going climate crisis? This is a question I’ve been pondering more and more in thinking about the human and organizational dimensions of climate change.

For instance, within the mainstream discourse of climate change policy the argument is often made that we need to move beyond climate change ‘mitigation’ and focus increasingly on ‘adaptation’. While adaptation is a critical part of responding to the impacts of climate change, the implication is that adaptation is now the ‘main game’ and will involve relatively manageable infrastructure and planning changes. The problem here is that the scale of climate change on ‘business as usual’ (BAU) projections will likely exceed manageable parameters. Physically, there are clear issues over how humanity can adapt to 4-6 degrees Celsius warming in terms of a habitable climate, extreme weather events and the demise of food supplies. Indeed, some researchers have now started to focus on ‘transformative’ adaptation. As a recent commentator noted, ‘The words that need to be in our conversations are transformation, rationing and shared sacrifice’. However, this becomes even more complex once we consider humanity’s psychological ‘adaptive capacity’ in a situation of societal breakdown.

While many of us in the developed world have grown more wealthy and physically secure, we are also increasingly divorced from the natural world and reliant on sophisticated technologies for our daily survival and psychological well-being (witness the outrage and catharsis we experience when unable to access the internet or our email!). Moreover, our worship of economic neo-liberalism and the merits of individualism have denuded the communal ethos so necessary to managing crisis situations. We live like Gods, and yet the irony of this is that at the apogee of our economic development we are at our most vulnerable in responding to existential threat.

For instance, how ready are we to deal with the difficult ethical and moral implications that will flow from climate change in the next few decades? One example of this is proposed in Gwynne Dyer’s book Climate Wars. In one chapter Dyer outlines a future scenario in which the US responds to an increasing flow of climate refugees from Mexico and Central America by establishing a ‘hard’ border of automated machine guns and mines. He ponders how US citizens would respond to the daily TV coverage of mass fatalities as a result of these measures. Psychologically would we in the West be able to deal with the human loss of life that climate change will result in (potentially billions of people worldwide)? While I can foresee the prosperous North hardening it stance to the loss of life in distant locations, once the suffering is close and within our own communities – how then will we respond?

Some insight into the possible future responses is revealed in Margaret Atwood’s marvellous book Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth. In a memorable scene late in the book, Atwood explores how people respond to catastrophe in different ways drawing on the example of the Black Death in medieval Europe. She notes how some sought to protect themselves through selfish actions (fleeing or locking themselves away in their castles), while others gave their lives willingly to help others. Some saw the plague as an excuse to ignore normal moral codes (drinking, partying, rape and murder), while for others it increased their religious fervour:

“To sum up the reactions,” says the Spirit, “Protect Yourself, Give Up and Party, Help Others, Blame, Bear Witness, and Go About Your Life. These are the only six reactions possible in a crisis, if the crisis isn’t a war. If it is a war, you could add two more-Fight, and Surrender-though these might be dark subjects of Helping Others and Give Up and Party.

We are seeing some of these responses now starting to play out as the reality of climate change emerges in popular consciousness. The next decade of climate politics is going to be an ‘interesting time’. Beyond the physical impacts (heat, storms, disease, war), I wonder how our modern sensibilities will cope psychologically with what is to come?

8 thoughts on “The Missing Factor in Climate Change Adaptation? Human Psychology”

  1. My experience from the Christchurch earthquakes was that the most common response was one of helping others. A sense of community and support sprang up from nowhere. People who had previously never spoken to their neighbours started checking up on them, sharing supplies and helping to clean up rubble, silt and water. It was probably the only good thing to come from the disaster.

    You might have heard of the student army. A Canterbury university student, Sam Johnson, mobilised a group of university students who volunteered their time to help clean up and in particular shovel away the remnants of liquefaction from streets, gardens and in some cases, inside homes. At one point there were 13,000 students volunteering per week.

    Farmers living in the region also gave their services and equipment for free. Called the “Farmy Army” they helped to shovel 1100 tonnes of silt from homes –

    1. Rachel,

      Thanks for this – I was unaware of the extent of community action and mobilisation in responding to the earthquake. In fact there were similar stories of people’s better natures coming to the fore in other natural disasters (Hurricane Katrina, Sandy, etc).

      I guess my point was more along the lines of how our developed sensibilities will fare in a context of on-going climate crisis rather than one-off events. In the latter context, there is an assumption of returning to ‘life as normal’. However climate change adaptation often seems to miss the point that the physical changes we will see (which will be unprecedented), also involve challenges to our core assumptions of progress, material well-being and mastery over nature. Margaret Atwood makes the point that in circumstances of existential threat these myths are often jettisoned and then while some do indeed rise to the occasion, for others all bets are off and its a descent into barbarism. I’m hoping I’m wrong, however I think its worth talking about these things as too much discussion of climate change seems to assume away the darker scenarios of societal breakdown and over-estimate our psychological resilience.

  2. We won’t cope psychologically or otherwise when TSHTF. Does anyone really think we will? I’m more interested in how we’re coping now in the lull before the storm. My view back over 4 decades of societal responses is a steady shutting down of our imaginative capacities for the scale of change that’s needed. Thinking, ambitions and proposed solutions all get narrower and more tramlined into standard responses. This is partly due to the educational, media and institutional structures of society sinking more deeply into reductionism. But it’s also perhaps a psychological retreat from the horror of our self-destructive trajectory?

    1. Yes agree – our attitudes to climate change involve narrowing options. Indeed it is now almost an unspoken topic in the media and by politicians. In my darker moments I suspect world leaders know what is ahead and have decided it is better to just pretend the party will continue in order not to scare the masses. Others are clearly planning on how to get rich from the chaos that is to follow:

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