Over the past decade, we’ve seen a huge proliferation of research, workshops, conferences, strategy sessions, and articles about climate change communications. Why? Because how we communicate about this issue will determine how effective we are at mobilizing people to take actions.

We know about the barriers ranging from how the issue itself is complex and abstract, to the ways in which political ideologies may inform how people perceive the problem from the fields of behavioral and social sciences devoted to climate change communications. To date, we have tended to focus more on changing behaviors than actually engaging people with how they feel, make sense of, and experience the threat of climate change and its profound implications.

After teaching climate change communications and psychology for several years and working with many organizations and initiatives, I have noticed that how we think about climate change engagement tends to fall into four main categories, or what I call “quadrants.” They include a behavior change approach (let’s get people to do x and y), a values or social psychology orientation (focusing on values and attitudes people have towards these issues), a social innovation or solutions approach (let’s design the solutions), and finally a focus on the emotional and experiential dimensions, or what I would also call “affective” (the feelings associated with specific practices, actions or issues).

The “affective” quadrant is often ignored or comes last.

The other quadrants tend to reflect specific assumptions about humans; scratch the surface and you will find lurking certain beliefs, such as “people are apathetic” or “people only care about the bottom line,” or “people are more concerned about what hits close to home.” Such assumptions are natural and are usually based in some truth. However, they overlook the fact that we are largely driven by—or stalled by—affect and our emotions. Furthermore, affect and emotions are not limited to the individual, but are shared, felt, circulated and ‘contagious.’ (And it should be noted how psychoanalysts and clinicians define affect is not just about something feeling ‘good’ or ‘bad’— in clinical contexts, affect covers a huge range, including anxiety, desire, excitement, dread, and so on.)

So why is affect so critical to our work? Because for decades, clinical psychologists (especially those with a psychoanalytic approach) have identified how unconscious anxieties, fears, and affect shape behaviors and our response to specific threats. Denial along with projection, splitting and dissociation are concepts forged by years of clinical practice—not by social scientists. From a psychological perspective, these are defense mechanisms we all engage in, when faced with threats both actual and imagined. Defense mechanisms are unconscious strategies we use, both individually and collectively, to manage anxieties. They present profound obstacles for engaging people, i.e. denial (it’s not going to affect me or my kids; the science is not settled), projection (it’s their fault, not mine), paralysis, apathy and disavowal (I know this is happening, but I am going to continue doing what I do anyway).  When we trigger anxieties we almost always inadvertently trigger defenses—and when it comes to climate change these defenses act on everyone from greenie urban liberals to climate science naysayers.

So the question is, is there a more productive approach?

Underlying defense mechanisms is the “affect” associated with a situation; for example fear of losing the very things that help us feel human and keep our sense of identity and worldview intact, fear of the unknown, fear of losing control, and so on. When we communicate about climate we tap directly into these affects, whether we like it or not, no matter what quadrant we’re operating in.

A better approach is to acknowledge affect, have compassion, and work with it. One strategy is to incorporate what Buddhists call “skillful means” into how we negotiate these difficult and complicated feelings and emotions. What this looks like is meeting people where we are; when we recognize, acknowledge and “hold” potential anxieties, it has the direct effect of disarming and softening our tendencies to defend and distance. This is what a good psychotherapist does, and what we all can do in our work. And it is an incredibly powerful orientation in our work, if we seek to work with (and not against) people.

Working with, and addressing affective dimensions of climate change really boils down to one simple idea: creating a “safe space” and allowing people to have their feelings, without judgment or fear of recrimination. This can be accomplished in a number of ways, which will be directly informed by your specific situations and contexts.

Here are some guidelines:

Breaking the Climate Fear Taboo

1. Break the taboo of talking about our own experiences. Check in with how you feel. Find opportunities to speak openly with your people.
2. Listen. Ask questions. Be curious. Investigate (with an open mind) how people feel and the emotions we ignore. Design research with this in mind.
3. Don’t take everything at ‘face value.’ Remember that unconscious anxieties may surface in the form of resistance, anger, or focus on ‘results’ and ‘solutions.’
4. Develop compassion about anxieties. Recognize that being anxious is a natural response, not something to fight against, downplay, or suppress.
5. Acknowledge anxieties.
Naming fears can help dismantle paralyzing defense mechanisms.

Finally, we need to recognize these are charged, complicated issues that bring up a lot of mixed feelings and thoughts for people. It is strongly encouraged to partner and collaborate with psychologically trained or oriented practitioners, communications consultants, and clinicians (who would love the opportunity to help) on our communications strategies, practices and research. We don’t have to do it alone.

Renee Lertzman, PhD is a psychosocial applied researcher, and for twenty years has specialized in the psychological dimensions of environmental communications. She teaches, writes, speaks and consults internationally. She is currently Director of Insight for the B-Corp agency Brand Cool, and is based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her book, Environmental Melancholia: Psychological Dimensions of Engagement, will be published later this year. She can be reached at www.reneelertzman.com.


March 12, 2014