The question of psychology, climate change, and our apparent inability to deal with the problems, is an extraordinarily complicated question, so please excuse the length of this attempted foray.
First off I’d argue that, in the case of climate change, we probably cannot isolate individual psychological inabilities to deal with the problems, from the social and political inabilities to deal with problems; they are almost certainly all related and interconnected.
We live in a society whose huge success has depended on ecological despoliation and the production of greenhouse gases (GHG). This is a reality. The ‘available energy’ we have had to innovate, to build the form of prosperity we have, and the levels of military expansion and protection we have had, depends almost entirely upon fossil fuels, concrete (with heavy GHG emissions) and steel production. The rest of the world, to a large extent (not completely), would like the same levels of prosperity for at least some people, and the same levels of military security, and those things currently appear to need expanded use of fossil fuels and steel production – although some people are trying to do it with renewable energy, but that is hard and a little uncertain.
So we live in such a society, and are psychologically adapted (to the extent we can be) to that society and to its consumerist drives. Many people find their main source of psychological satisfaction in buying products, and this keeps the economy, its production, and its energy usage going. Note I’m not arguing that buying products is necessary for human satisfaction or happiness, but simply that this is encouraged by our social arrangements – politicians and business people get worried if people are not buying things. Buying things often (not always) also encourages ecological destruction and pollution – this is the nature of our lives and social dynamics.
If people accept that climate change and ecological despoliation is occurring and occurring at a rate which is dangerous to their individual and social lives, then they are faced with what we might call an existential crisis. Their ways of living are apparently destroying those ways of living. Most of what they know about how to act is potentially disruptive of that ability to act. Much of what they do to protect their families, is potentially harmful to those families. What apparently produced stability in their worlds, now appears to produce instability, and so on. This realisation can be paralyzing.
This problem is extremely hard to deal with at an individual level. How do you find out what to do? How do you make and take effective actions, without keeping the destruction going? How can you, as an individual, stop the apparently suicidal course of world social order? How do you fight against your source of prosperity? What might result if you do? It may seem too complicated, too horrible.
Deciding what to do may be close to impossible in the circumstances. You may feel stunned, drained, anxious, depressed etc. Conception of the world proves difficult, disruptive and disturbing. There are no standard social guides to what to do. Advice from anyone, is really only conjecture – it cannot be anything else. We have not faced this problem before, on this scale. However, should you decide to act anyway, you then face another, and possibly even greater, social problem.
Faced with the same issues as yourselves, many currently more powerful people have decided to ignore the problem, or decided that it is too difficult or that it does not exist. To their minds solving the problem means potentially destroying their prosperity, potentially destroying their military security, potentially destroying stability, and potentially destroying the relations of power and wealth they apparently benefit from. If climate change is true, and its effects are potentially really bad, and we try and stop it, then it seems that some extremely powerful and large corporations can no longer make money out of selling and burning fossil fuels. Some other companies will have to stop destroying ecologies to get resources. Some companies will have to stop over-fishing, destructive agriculture and forest felling.
If all this is true, then the situation is certainly psychologically dislocating for powerful people, and the established interests of their organisations and paymasters.
Those powerful people will not act on their own. They will team up with each other, to defend their apparent interests. Hence they can spend a lot of money and a lot of effort, trying to convince you that nothing can be done, and nothing should be done. They can politicise climate change, claiming that if you are a real conservative, real Republican, or real pro-business person, you will understand that the science is a conspiracy, and that solutions to climate change are socialist and hence bad (or evil) and so on. They try to appeal to fundamental parts of your social and psychological identity, to make you ignore the problem, support existing modes of wealth and power, and to encourage you to attack those who disagree. Indeed the politicization of climate, makes it much harder for people to talk to each other about it, which reinforces psychological incapacity and silence. After all, to those who recognized climate change, it appears that ‘deniers’ are trying to kill them, through denial. This also does not help calm conversation and psychological health.
Surprisingly rather than attempting to produce solutions (which may have uncertain social consequences), these representatives of established ways tend to denounce all potential solutions – and they sometimes may have a point, not all proposed solutions will be good solutions. However, this behaviour is unusual. Normally they can put forward solutions to problems, even if it is the one solution to all problems, but not here. This problem and this inability paralyses them (and is, in turn, part of their paralysis), and it paralyses a whole body of politics, a whole part of society. They have nothing left other than denunciation, the hope that it won’t be so bad after all, that scientists are wrong, and things can continue, or perhaps the hope that Armageddon is here, and they can do nothing about that, other than walk to their doom/salvation. Again psychology is entangled with social and political life.
However, as things continue to get worse, as fire erupts in forests which have not burnt for thousands of years, as droughts become more prolonged and farms become unproductive, as heat waves last longer, as land glaciers and ice shelves melt, as floods affect living areas, as weird weather keeps hitting, people may become more and more uneasy. They still have little sense of where to go, they have new things to learn and no way of learning. The distress will likely continue to increase, and people become more and more debilitated.
Eventually the psychological social and political systems will have few options
1) They will break down under their own inertia and inability to solve problems.
2) The people in power will start thinking that if they don’t do something then everything really is threatened, so they had better act, even if they don’t know what they are doing, or even if preserving existing power relations is more important to them than productive change.
3) New people with new ideas will try and take over, and there will be a political war.
4) a miracle will occur….. for example a new cheap easy technology may replace fossil fuels – but if it does not replace the social organization that occurs around pollution and destructive extraction will it do more than delay the point of crisis?
In any case, it is likely that realising that both psychological incapacities and capacities have socially and politically active backgrounds may be useful to overcoming some of the incapacities, anxieties and depressions that we face.
The reality is that we are not facing these problems alone and, while we may be encouraged to face them alone by people who want us to do nothing, or by the fear of being denounced by others, there is a necessity of facing the problems together with others; especially if we are going to undo our psychological incapacities. Perhaps discussing the way we feel about climate change with others in small groups might help us to clear away some of the incapacities to act? Then we might find out how to act, or how to promote solutions. Maybe we might even come up with solutions and persuade others to act. When facing such a problem, we need to work together, but we may need to converse together first in a reasonably collaborative and non-condemning environment, so as to build trust. Working together is important as it expands our capacity to act, our capacity to think, and our capacity to effect change, and have an influence in the world.
Turning away from problems because they seem insurmountable, or trying to solve everything by ourselves, is rarely helpful either to our pyscho-social functioning or to our success in solving the problems which produce their distress. This is especially the case, when the problem arises from the social dynamics we live amidst.