We have a challenge ahead. Scientists are clear about the evidence in support of human induced climate destabilization. Fundamental changes in our behaviour, our attitudes and values are required if we are to avoid catastrophic future scenarios. We are beginning to experience extreme environmental changes and yet responding to this reality is still resisted.
The Role of Psychology
For this reason, we as psychologists are involved. We know that understanding the human contributions to and responses to climate change is as important as understanding climate change itself; that if we are as a society, to successfully adapt to and mitigate the anticipated climate breakdown, we will need to make the most radical and comprehensive shift of our history (Naomi Klein, in: This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs The Climate (2014) ; Attenborough 10 July 2019 The Guardian ).
And, as Canada’s Professor Robert Gifford has stated: Climate Change is… the result of 7.6 billion people making decisions every single day. That right there makes it a psychological problem. apa.org/monitor/2018.
Psychologists are uniquely positioned to inform others’ understanding and to help change human behaviour and attitudes, and this is crucial to a lower-carbon future. To effect the extent of change required for survival, the behaviour and attitudes of people need to change, at all levels; in our homes, workplaces, our communities, local government/cities etc, in our regions, industries, government and institutions. Governments (of countries, regions and local jurisdictions) will need expert advice on how to motivate change, how to lead it, how to support it.
The NZPsS Climate Response
At the Society’s AGM In 2014, the membership passed two remits that have guided the development of the Society’s ‘Climate change response’, both in terms of its own practices as an organisation and the work it has been engaged in to inform members and others. This has also provided the mandate and basis for our sharing psychological knowledge and advice in professional networks in Aotearoa/New Zealand and internationally and contributing to the political measures to address climate change.
Significant actions taken by the Society began with the establishment of the Climate Psychology Taskforce (CPTF) and the development and publication of the Society’s Position Statement on Environmental Wellbeing and Responsibility to Society. The statement provides a fitting summary of the reasons for our climate response:
As psychologists, we function to promote the wellbeing of society. So it is vital that as a discipline, we acknowledge the profound impact humans collectively are having on the environment and urgently work to counter the ill-effects to the health and wellbeing of people and planet.
We acknowledge that the implications of environmental damage and climate change bring in new responsibilities and require an extended understanding of the nature of wellbeing.
We will work to ensure that psychologists contribute to mitigating the ill-effects of a climate-turbulent future, strengthening our capacity as practitioners at individual, community, governance and academic levels.
We will work with other disciplines, agencies and networks to achieve shared understandings, pooling energies and insights to influence and to find our way through conflict; to shape thinking, provide direction for interventions, and contribute to the task of mobilizing a collective response towards a healthier sustainable future
The Climate Psychology Taskforce (CPTF)
Since its establishment, the CPTF has actively promoted “climate psychology” (a legitimate discipline in its own right) through professional education including symposia, seminars, workshops and informative articles in our publications, and advocacy at a number of levels. We have also been preparing, presenting and providing information for health professionals, policy-makers and the public. This has been occurring in a number of forums, some examples of which are:
Developing effective international links with eminent members of the psychology profession who are involved in the major international bodies applying their attention to the issue of climate change and its effects on human populations. In 2019, the Society participated in an international meeting of psychological organisations to consider the role of psychology in addressing major global matters, particularly climate change (APA Global Health Summit).That international engagement has produced more effective networks for communication and collaboration regarding research findings and best practice which will be of considerable benefit to New Zealand. It also allows us to share our questions, concerns and issues with an international panel whose expertise, knowledge and experience are a major resource and it offers opportunities for us to contribute NZ’s evolving learning and knowledge in areas that are unique in the efforts to address climate related problems. All participants in the Lisbon Summit signed a proclamation [link] and resolution for action [link] and committed to ongoing collaboration, which includes regular online meetings and discussion and the exchange of climate psychology resources on a shared drive.
The CPTF has been active in informing and updating the Society’s members on climate psychology issues. In 2015 the Taskforce organised their first symposium on sustainable communities at the NZPsS Annual Conference (papers available under “Resources”). With further resourcing in 2018 the Taskforce organised a second Symposium on Psychology for a Sustainable Future for the NZPsS Jubilee Conference. This brought together international and local academic and practising psychologists, and highlighted Māori perspectives. Significantly, the majority of the international presenters participated in the symposium via video link.
At the 2018 conference, we also offered a workshop on sustainability and supporting psychologists and clients experiencing anxiety. That resulted in a series of workshops offered by the Society in 2019, designed to upskill psychologists and other health professionals - Hope in an age of eco-anxiety.
It has also been part of the CPTF mandate to support the Society’s own efforts to reduce its Carbon footprint as an organisation and a variety of initiatives have been implemented, including connection of participants in meetings, professional development events and conferences using online communication technology, with significant savings in air travel.
In terms of political influence, the CPTF put a lot of effort into its submissions to the Environment Select Committee in 2019 and 2020 on the Zero Carbon Act [link] and the Emissions Trading Scheme [link], respectively. As well as our researched written submissions on behalf of the Society, the CPTF represented those in person at the hearings at Parliament.
Members have also been invited to contribute to media interviews and podcasts on psychology and mental health
Members of the CPTF
Co-convenors: Dr Jackie Feather and Brian Dixon Members: Dr Marg O’Brien (former convenor); Dr Philippa Pehi;
Dr Marc Wilson; Dr Neville Blampied; Jasmine Gillespie-Gray; Nick Lawrence; Dana Ashwell (student rep)
Contact: Executive Director
Effect of Climate Change on Mental Health and Wellbeing
What is evident is that adverse weather patterns, loss of land and livelihoods and displacement of people from their homes and communities will have devastating outcomes, particularly for the less privileged. Our response requires widespread adaptation and amelioration of effects. Uncertainty and lack of control will increase, and we know these are key factors in psychological disorders. There is growing psychological knowledge about the mental health outcomes of climate change. Clinician members of the Society are already seeing emotional distress in clients that is being described in the international literature by terms as eco-anxiety, eco-paralysis, climate despair or solastalgia - a form of existential distress, commonly related to environmental change. However, psychological research also indicates that people are finding positive ways to cope.
As psychologists we are beginning to understand many of the adaptive measures that can help people to cope with climate change. These include individual as well as community based interventions that will enable capacity building and, among many other options, environmental preservation programmes that can provide “a sense of stewardship and personal investment” that can mitigate the potentially negative psychological effects (See Hayes et al 2018).
The Response of Psychologists/Psychology
In responding to the existential threat of climate change, and more than at any other time, we\ will need to understand the behaviour of people, their motivations, their frustration and anger, their helplessness, depression and suicidal intent. We are already seeing this as the reality of climate breakdown is experienced and yet, we can take steps to ensure that those most vulnerable and most disenfranchised will maintain a sense of hope.
The NZPsS Position statement sets out the responses we envisage:
To counter environmental degradation and facilitate action-based adaptation, mitigation and transformation psychologists can offer:
* Interventions to ensure understanding of the causes and consequences of environmental degradation, especially climate change (given the 2014 NZPsS AGM remit).
- Knowledge based interventions to stimulate interpersonal/public discussions and enhanced engagement in climate action
- Process-based interventions to facilitate the development of self and community efficacy in community-led solutions
* Interventions to overcome emotional responses associated with this understanding. These responses including depression, anxiety, helplessness and hopelessness
* Community-based climate protection interventions to facilitate:
- A reduction in urban energy consumption
- More sustainable urban waste disposal and water conservation
- Low carbon urban living transitions to sustainability
- Consumer/citizen participation in above (i.e. environmental conservation)
- Citizens, communities, commerce and councils (local governments) working together to contribute to sustainable urban development
- The formation of people-networks that encourage new ideas and promote the learning, experimentation and creative problem solving required for resilient communities.
Psychologists in many parts of the world are moving to use their expertise in theseendeavours. Health professionals will be increasingly involved in a comprehensive response to climate change and the transition required to sustainability. The NZPsS’s responsibility is to ensure that our own psychologists have the opportunity to contribute to these endeavours in the near future.
Aotearoa New Zealand Climate Psychology Task Force planning – actions following Lisbon Summit
Presented workshops for psychologists and other health professionals on effects of climate change on wellbeing and possible responses to that: Auckland – November 2019, Dunedin - deferred, Wellington – Late November 2019
Zoom meeting of Climate Psychology Taskforce (CPTF) providing briefing on Lisbon Summit
Report to NZPsS Executive on Lisbon Summit – B Dixon
Publication of article in Connections re Lisbon Summit – Brian Dixon
Prepared submission to Parliamentary Select Committee on Mental health and wellbeing commission Bill for Ora Taiao (The New Zealand Climate and Health Council) on climate change and mental health and wellbeing issues
Submission to Parliamentary Select Committee on Climate Change Response Amendment Bill (Emissions trading) for NZPsS
Talk to Dunedin Green Party branch on climate and psychology – B Dixon
Six month to one year aims
Review of 2019 workshops – consider professional/public education in February 2020
Planning NZPsS conference symposium on climate psychology – August 26-28 2020 online.
Invite keynote and guest speakers
Invite contributions, attendees, participants
CPTF joining, taking active local/regional role in international network for sharing information and resources
Approach Government and Ministry for the Environment for funds, support, resources for climate psychology contributions to implementation of Zero Carbon Act
Increase ‘reach’ of CPTF to membership and other psychologists – IT, website, groups, promotions
Invitations to present to Auckland (Waitemata) DHB psychologists and to conduct workshop with staff of a major energy company wanting to shift focus to sustainability
Collaboration with Australian colleagues (APS)
Planning joint conference on climate psychology issues 2022
Collaboration with overseas psychologists on:
Zero Carbon implementation support
Work to establish ‘Oceania’ Climate Psychology network