Interview with Rosemary Randall on psycho-analysis and climate change

Most people will think psychotherapy is very much about childhood trauma and emotions. What do you feel it has to add to discussions about – and campaigning around – climate change?

Trauma and emotion are very pertinent to climate change. However you dress it up, climate change is bad news. It tells us that an altered climate will make some parts of the world uninhabitable and others inhospitable. It tells us that the impacts will be uneven, unpredictable and unfair. It tells us the problem is urgent and global. And it tells us that people like us in the developed world are the cause. We can’t continue to live like we do – our economic systems, social practices and personal lifestyles are unsustainable. Everything we are used to, much of what we hold dear and many of our dreams and aspirations have to go.

If you allow it to, this news hits you in the guts. You are likely to feel a plethora of emotion – disbelief, anxiety, guilt, anger, despair, grief. But of course, many people don’t allow it to penetrate very far. What psychotherapy does is give us insights into how people cope with bad news – how they stop it penetrating very far beneath the skin, how they armour themselves against its impact. Human beings are well equipped to protect themselves against the full impact of distressing or traumatic experiences. We defend ourselves in all kinds of complex ways. At one level this is necessary compromise – it helps us get through the day without constantly crying or allows us to find a manageable way to absorb something overwhelming, gradually coming to terms with loss and grief for example. But it also means that we can turn away from uncomfortable truths that require solution and would be better faced.

I’m sure you’ll recognise some of the typical psychological defences that people use to protect themselves, both against the knowledge of climate change and against the demand that they should take some action, whether personal or political. Some people deny it altogether, but it is more common to acknowledge it with one part of the mind, while denying it with another. For example, you may accept intellectually that climate change is real, but not allow yourself to feel what it means. You might talk to me about it now but forget our conversation as you climb into your car or plan a holiday. In this way you can protect yourself from anxiety and from having to take any significant action. You both know and don’t know at the same time – this is the process that psychoanalysis calls disavowal. You can see it amongst people who will happily talk about how dreadful the climate news is and segue seamlessly into chat about their recent holiday in the Caribbean. Other people regress to a childlike position, claiming that they have no responsibility, that they have no influence, or that they’re sure that if it is serious, government or new technology will sort it all out. Some people hope to be an exception or a special case of some kind, convincing themselves that the laws of nature don’t really apply to them, a defence that psychoanalysis would call narcissistic. They’ll tell you that they don’t expect climate change to affect England, or explain why their work or their circumstances mean that they must still live a high-carbon lifestyle. Others will pass responsibility and blame elsewhere, telling you that it’s the fault of the Chinese or the United States, the responsibility of government or industry. Psychoanalysis would call this projection. I described some of these defences in more detail in my 2005 article A new climate for psychotherapy and 2009 paper, Loss and climate change: the cost of parallel narratives. It’s also important to realise however that many defences are not just psychological but are culturally sanctioned and socially maintained. Defences are systemic, embedded in cultural assumptions and the practices of institutions. Acquiring a motor car is a socially accepted rite of passage, economic growth seems like a force of nature, industry finds it acceptable to window-dress with green credentials while continuing to trash bio-diversity. Individual subjectivity both shapes and is shaped by this wider environment. It’s easy to find others who will agree that you can’t personally have much effect/aren’t to blame/shouldn’t worry and institutions that will confirm that your real responsibility is to spend and exploit or ignore and deny the reality of climate change.

Many climate change campaigns seem based on the assumption that if you give people more information, they will use it to change their own behaviour.  What can psychotherapy tell us about why this assumption may be unsafe?

For many years environmentalists thought that all they had to do was tell the public about environmental problems and the public would go ‘Oh right. Thanks for telling me – I’ll join your campaign and I’ll get on and live a more environmentally friendly life.” They assumed that most people were like them, ready for the knowledge and eager to act. But of course many people were not like them and the information didn’t make much sense to them. They ignored it or rejected it. Most people’s gut response to new information is to try to fit it into their existing schemas for understanding the world. People like Dan Kahan and Daniel Kahnemahn write very well about the cognitive aspects of this. If information doesn’t fit your way of understanding the world, you’ll reject it automatically and then come up with a rationalisation for why it’s wrong.

These cognitive analyses are very useful but psychotherapy points us more strongly to the affective domain and the way difficult information can make people anxious and tap into their inner conflicts. This might be the conflict between the information you’ve just been given and your aspirations. It could be the conflict between wanting to do what’s right environmentally and what’s right for your family. It might be a conflict between the desire for status now and the desire to protect the future for your children, or the conflict between a world-view that tells you that God is taking care of the world and information that tells you that people are destroying it. If the information makes people feel anxious, guilty, powerless, disappointed or attacked, then they will defend themselves against it in the ways I described above, or want to ‘shoot the messenger’. This isn’t to say that information is never appropriate. It just needs to be offered to someone at the right time, in the right way in a form in which they can digest it and make sense of it in their own life.

Can you point to some “success stories” where psychoanalytic insights helped shape a “successful” campaign?

Psychoanalytic insights have more often been used to power manipulative advertising campaigns, for example exploiting male anxiety about sexual inadequacy to sell them fast cars and cigarettes or tuning into female vulnerability about identity and body image to achieve a high turnover in fashion items. I would hate to see climate campaigners adopt such an approach but there is another side to psychoanalytic insight which is more helpful.

Psychotherapists frequently talk about the way that the therapeutic encounter creates what I refer to as a ‘safe space’ where it is possible to feel respected and understood, where you can allow your confusion and pain to spill out, sure that the other person will not condemn or despise but is willing to help you make sense of your predicament. It’s this safety that leads to the possibility of change. Campaigners are clearly not therapists and you wouldn’t expect them to be but it might be useful to think more about whether campaign strategies are likely to produce a ‘safe space’ where people can think about and process something difficult or are more likely to produce anxiety, guilt and defensiveness.

In my own work, the Carbon Conversations groups I set up try to offer this safe space. These are facilitated small groups where people explore their personal impact on climate change and they are deliberately designed to minimise guilt and anxiety and encourage the exploration of the dilemmas people find themselves in as they try to reduce their carbon emissions. Another similar example from my own work was the use of motivational interviewing techniques in one-to-one work talking with the public about their individual carbon footprints. Here, the key factors are the establishment of empathy and the capacity to listen, avoiding attacking resistance head on and supporting the other person’s self-determination and desire for change.

Neither of these are campaigning examples however and I think there is more work to be done to think about how campaign goals and mass communication can offer a safe space without becoming reassuring or cosy. I sometimes point to the wartime speeches of Winston Churchill as an example. He was of course a very powerful rhetoritician but what is remarkable in some of the speeches made in 1940 when Britain faced defeat, is how skilfully he manages to tell a very stark and frightening truth. He is blunt about the scale of the problem, refuses to blame, makes emotional connections with his audience, uses stories to make his points, expresses his confidence in the abilities of the population, is realistic about the difficulty of what he is demanding of people. The alarming information is there but it is offered in a way that allows people to think and offers them some agency. The speech manages to create a kind of ‘safe space’. Culturally and politically we live in very different times of course, but I think it is worth thinking about the psychological skill shown here and how to apply it in our very different circumstances.

Another assumption climate campaigners sometimes have is “we need a really big disaster to ‘wake people up’.”  From a psychoanalytic perspective, might this actually not be the way people would respond to some “big disaster”?

We can’t afford to wait for ‘really big disasters’, we need action now however difficult that is to achieve. There is also little evidence that disaster in itself changes people’s attitudes and if it does change attitudes we can’t say in which direction those attitudes might change. Australian opinion does not seem to be have been shifted by the recent droughts and heat waves for example. How people react to a disaster also depends a lot on political leadership and policy. While a disaster could conceivably mobilise people, badly handled it could equally well lead people to be fatalistic, divide people, alienate them, lead to social breakdown and the scape-goating of minorities. I sometimes wonder whether the desire for a disaster that would wake people up is actually an unconscious expression of the anger campaigners feel towards the complacent majority. It carries an unconscious thrust of ‘…and they’d deserve it’, ‘…that would show them.’ At an unconscious level, those who ignore us become our enemies and we wish revenge upon them for the frustration, humiliation and danger they place us in.

If you could have the undivided attention of the “campaigning community” (as if such a beast exists!) for a couple of hundred words, what would you write?

The campaigning community carries a huge burden. It is routine to be ignored. It is commonplace to be mocked. You are frequently attacked. Your task can feel hopeless. It is hard to bear knowledge that the rest of the population refuses to accept. Anxiety and despair are often your unacknowledged bedfellows and it is tempting to defend against these unbearable emotions by engaging in manic, angry activity. Finding the safe space where people can talk about the dark side of their own feelings about climate change could help campaigners face their own grief, reconnect with their creativity and work more effectively. Psychological skills are not just the preserve of psychotherapists. Listening, reflecting and empathising are ordinary, human skills for example. Becoming more psychologically adept could enhance political campaigns both by helping campaigners support each other through experiences of attack, disappointment and frustration and by helping them think more empathically about the responses of the people they hope to engage.


Randall, Rosemary (2005) A New climate for psychotherapy. Psychotherapy and Politics International 3:3 165-179 Wiley.

Randall, Rosemary (2009) Loss and climate change: the cost of parallel narratives. Ecopsychology. September 2009, 1(3): 118-129.

Kahan Dan (2011) The tragedy of the risk perception commons

Kahneman Daniel (2011) Thinking fast and slow. Penguin.


rorandall_9.8(1)Ro Randall is a psychotherapist and the founder of the Carbon Conversations project: psychologically based small groups which help people reduce their climate impact. She writes, runs workshops and lectures widely on the psychology of climate change. She is the author of the Carbon Conversations handbook and numerous articles and book chapters about psychology and climate change. Her blog and details of her publications can be found at She is a founder member of the Climate Psychology Alliance.


8 Responses to Interview with Rosemary Randall on psycho-analysis and climate change

  1. Dan Solar Salsa says:

    A very useful article, thank you MCM for bringing it to my attention. I will be sharing this.

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  7. Tremendous article. An interesting endeavour that brought a greater understaning to the reasons behind climate denial.

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