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Does the Weather Make Us Anxious? Reflections on Anxiety, Emotions and Weather
by Renee Lertzman*

Two decades ago when I was in college, I came across the writings of Robert Jay Lifton. Lifton, a psychiatric researcher, had conducted a groundbreaking study on survivors of the bombing in Hiroshima. For the first time, a researcher had unlimited access to people who had experienced, and lived through, the experience of a nuclear bomb. Lifton coined the term “psychic numbing” to describe the stunning capacity for coping with events and circumstances that were arguably beyond imagination.  Further, he elaborated dimensions contributing to social trauma, constituting what he called “the broken connection.”[1] Through his interviews in Hiroshima, he began to discover the human need for continuity; to imagine life as ongoing beyond our own, and its constancy. Symbols of immortality included works of art, children—and nature. When there was a rupture or a “break” in these symbols, trauma and psychic numbing tended to take place.

The events in Hiroshima presented a radical alteration of nature, of the rhythms and cycles that had become taken for granted. Whereas nature had been a symbol of constancy and immortality through elements such as the mountains, the oceans and the seasons, it was now less certain and more mutable. With the bomb, we could see how, in fact, human intervention can alter things such as mountains, weather patterns, and air quality—things that had been previously taken for granted. 

I was studying psychology and environmental studies at the time and was sensitive to the phenomena of environmental change, whether through climate change or more tangible forms of impact, such as deforestation or contamination of the seas.  I began to wonder not only about the physical aspects of climate change and anthropogenic alterations of natural systems, but the psychological and social ones as well.  With Lifton’s work, I began to wonder if the awareness of radical changes in nature, including weather and climate, somehow constituted a form of “psychic numbing” that would enable us to continue on with our day-to-day lives, in the face of growing evidence of radical changes ahead.

Throughout my work as a communications professional and academic researcher, I have explored how we experience and respond to news about our changing world.  This doesn’t mean what our attitude, beliefs or values are, but the actual gut-level response to news about a changing climate. Attending to affect in particular acknowledges the profound role our visceral, often unconscious and energetic responses have in shaping our perceptions of environmental changes (and our subsequent practices and behaviors). We can think of emotion as being the tip of the iceberg—what we are most aware and conscious of (i.e. sad, fearful, angry)—and affect as the feeling tone and energy that informs responses, below the surface. Affect can include anxiety, loss, desire—subtle qualities perhaps linked with particular memories or associations, filtered through our subjective experience. Affect is a particularly useful concept because it acknowledges the highly complex nature of how we experience certain phenomena, mediated often through identity, relationships, social and cultural meanings and an instinctive craving for safety and security (whatever form that may be). While our attitudes, beliefs and values are key components of cognitive processing, research is increasingly reflecting the importance of affect in environmental communications and messaging. [2]

The focus on emotional dimensions and affect is particularly strong in psychotherapeutic and mental health sectors, where people are working on the front lines with individuals and groups, shifting destructive habits or behaviors, managing mental health problems, and working through loss, bereavement, or trauma. The focus is particularly salient in light of how humans process difficult or challenging information, whether about themselves or the world around them.

To say that the prospect of climatic change, and indeed its increasing incidence, can cause anxiety seems to be stating the obvious. And yet, this simple feature of communicating about climate change is rarely acknowledged in either practice or theory. We discuss framing the issues, and how we can translate abstract, systemic and highly uncertain content into terms different audiences can grasp, but rarely is the attention on the emotional tenor of such information, or the affective dimensions such as anxiety, anticipatory loss, or the experience of a threat to one’s way of life and identity.

If we accept—just for the moment—that information about climate change can arouse anxiety, possibly acute anxiety, then it seems worthwhile to acknowledge common strategies humans use for coping with anxieties. If we look to the field of psychotherapeutic practice and psychodynamic fieldwork, we find established strategies, or ‘mechanisms’ to ‘defend’ against anxiety, usually referred to as “defense mechanisms.” The phrase “you’re being so defensive!” is one we may often say in our personal relationships. But defense mechanisms are pervasive and salient to the topic of communicating about climate change. They may include denial (it’s not happening), projection (it’s all their fault), or disavowal (I know it’s happening but I am going to act as if it’s not). We are all familiar with this, because we engage in these strategies at various times, under various circumstances. The trouble with defense mechanisms is that while they are designed to protect us from the distress of psychic conflict and dilemmas (i.e. should I fly to see my grandchildren? Can I enjoy pineapple in winter? What would I do if the river rises?), they are largely unconscious and don’t usually lead to adaptive behavior. One doesn’t decide to deny the existence of a serious problem or bad news, it ‘just happens’—and it’s also done socially, as well as individually.[3] Socially and culturally we collude in one another’s attempts to manage anxiety and keep it at bay.

What does this have to do with communicating about climate change, you may be wondering? There are a number of implications. First is the basic recognition that how people respond to such news may not correlate with the level of concern, care or anxiety. To shut down, deny, or turn away may be a normal response to information that appears to be overwhelming and threatening. Returning to Lifton’s concept of psychic numbing, the idea of extreme weather changes can be too much to consider and can lead to a turning away or ‘numbing.’ This presents a formidable challenge for communications.

Second is recognition that we cannot separate out emotional responses to these issues, as much as we’d like. This means assuming from the get-go that people may become upset, anxious or depressed about the topic of climate change and the weather, and it can lead to a sense of melancholy—what Glenn Albrecht has termed “solastasia,” experiencing profound loss of places altered through environmental change. 

How this translates into practice is another matter, and indeed there is a tremendous need for further research in this area, drawing from multiple disciplines and engaging in productive dialogs amongst psychologists, communications professionals, scientists, social scientists and humanities.[4] One possible take-away, if we look to the practice of psychotherapy with groups and individuals, is the necessity for people to feel safe and secure in confronting difficult or painful truths. This can take a number of forms, for example, encouraging social forms of engaging with these issues, so people are coming together and sharing socially what this means for us as communities.[5]  It can inform the ways we communicate about these issues across multiple audiences, with sensitivity toward providing both information and guidance in terms of actions. Or, it can be as simple as acknowledging that these are potentially frightening issues, but that we are all in this together, and working collectively for creative and informed responses.

Attending to emotional and affective dimensions of climate change and how we communicate can profoundly complement existing innovative studies in the psychology and communications of climate change. The more readily we can incorporate such dimensions into our work and practice, I suspect, the more effective we may be at getting our messages across, and having them ‘land.’

*Renee Lertzman, Ph.D. (rlertzman@igc.org) holds graduate degrees from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Cardiff University, UK. She is a visiting fellow with the Portland Center for Public Humanities, Portland State University, and a sustainability communications consultant. She will be presenting at the AMS 2011 meeting in Seattle, WA.


Footnotes

[1] See Lifton, R.J. (1979) The Broken Connection. New York: Simon & Schuster.

[2]  For example, see Leiserowitz, A. (2006) Climate change risk perception and policy preferences: The role of affect, imagery, and values.” Climatic Change (77), 45-72; Lorenzoni, I., Nicholson-Cole, S. and L. Whitmarsh, (2007) “Barriers perceived to engaging with climate change among the UK public and their policy implications.” Global Environmental Change (17), 445–459; Stoll-Kleemann, O’Riordan, T. and Jaeger, C.C. (2001) “The psychology of denial concerning climate mitigation measures: evidence from Swiss focus groups.” Global Environmental Change (11), 107-117; and Randall, R. (2009) “Loss and Climate Change: The Cost of Parallel Narratives.” Ecopsychology, 1(3), 118-129.

[3] For example, Kari Norgaard’s work on the social production of climate denial in a community in Norway; see Norgaard, K. (2011) Living with Denial: Climate change, emotions and everyday life. Cambridge: MIT Press (forthcoming).

[4] The role of the arts in climate communication is one of the more exciting areas in the field at the moment. For example, see the international project, Cape Farewell (www.capefarewell.com), a climate arts project with internationally renowned artists, working alongside scientists on voyages to the Arctic. See also my interview with Cape Farewell founder, David Buckland in Environmental Communication: A Journal of Nature and Culture, 2008.

[5] The work of Cambridge Carbon Footprint, UK is particularly notable: the organization runs “Carbon Conversations,” discussion groups that meet over several weeks, and incorporates non-threatening and low-key activities such discussing lifestyle changes and a game designed to address carbon emissions mitigation. See http://cambridgecarbonfootprint.org/ for more information. 


Figure Information

Photo 1: An ice lens carved from glacial ice (Photo credit: Heather and Dan Ackroyd, 2005 Cape Farewell expedition)

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