Why Emotions Are Key to Accelerating Climate Action

by | August 17, 2023

  1. We spend a lot of time focusing on what we can do about the climate crisis – and for good reason. But today we’re taking a step back from the actions themselves to look at what motivates people to act (or prevents them from doing so).

    Yes, we’re talking about human behavior, eco-emotions, worldview, and more.

    So, to get us started, I have a question for you: How do the climate and ecological crises make you feel?

    Do you feel…

    • Scared about the future? Or the present?
    • Pissed off at the people in power who aren’t acting or have made the problem worse? Or others for not doing more?
    • Immense grief for all the people, plants, and animals who are needlessly dying?
    • Overwhelmed or paralyzed by the enormity of these problems?

    These are all completely normal and healthy reactions to the situation we find ourselves in.

  2. Learning about the reality of the climate crisis and the destruction of ecological systems that sustain life can bring up these kinds of emotions in us because our body and brain correctly interpret this information as threats to our well-being and survival.

    These emotions may not feel pleasant, but they are doing the job they initially evolved to do – providing us with feedback about our environment and relationships that help keep us alive and well.

    Whether conscious or not, on some level, we know that we are a part of these ecological systems that are breaking down – and that we rely on them for everything (e.g. food, water, air, safe places to live, etc).

    But even though these are hugely important issues (or, likely, it’s because they’re so big), many of us turn away from these emotions and thoughts as soon as they come up – suppressing them every time. Naomi Klein has an eye-opening passage on how, even if you know climate change is real, looking away from it every time it pops into your head with one rationalization or another is actually a form of denial.

    “I denied climate change for longer than I care to admit. I knew it was happening, sure. Not like Donald Trump and the Tea Partiers going on about how the continued existence of winter proves it’s all a hoax. But I stayed pretty hazy on the details and only skimmed most of the news stories, especially the really scary ones. I told myself the science was too complicated and that the environmentalists were dealing with it. And I continued to behave as if there was nothing wrong…

    A great many of us engage in this kind of climate change denial. We look for a split second and then we look away…

    We deny because we fear that letting in the full reality of this crisis will change everything. And we are right.
    Naomi Klein

    Denial is one of the stages of grief. And when it comes to climate, I think most of us are on a spectrum of denial, which makes sense for a lot of social and psychological reasons.

    But knowing that the planetary emergency is real without acting like it is real is problematic. It’s effectively ignoring the subconscious and unconscious alarm bells that are going off in your brain and body…not to mention ignoring the quickly changing physical reality of the world you live in.

    This cognitive dissonance (the discomfort a person feels when their behavior does not align with their values or beliefs) is not good for your well-being. It runs in the background constantly and is energetically draining.

    Crucially, these softer forms of denial (powered by the urge to quickly suppress our uncomfortable emotions about climate) are also blocking millions of people from taking more and more effective action to solve the problem.

    We’ll get to the specific tools and resources that can help you to start grappling with this. But first, let’s dive into the field of ecopsychology for some more insight as to what’s going on.

    What is Ecopsychology? And How Can It Help Us?

    When you peel back another layer behind these uncomfortable eco-emotions – when you ask why you’re feeling a certain way – you may find that they are arising in an effort to keep you alive or protect something you love.

    Again, on some deep level, we intuitively know that the breakdown of climate and ecological systems poses a threat to our present and future well-being.

    Young people in particular are reporting these emotions at high rates with 59% saying they are very or extremely worried about climate change and 45% saying these feelings negatively impact their daily life and functioning.

    The field of ecopsychology can help us to further understand these deeply rooted, innate alarm bells that are increasingly going off subconsciously and unconsciously in billions of people around the world.

    Ecopsychology combines the studies of ecology and psychology. In doing so, it takes a more holistic view of what’s going on with the mind and human behavior by considering the relationships between all life on earth, the life-sustaining environment we exist in, and the impacts we have on each other.

    After all, humans and our brains didn’t evolve in a vacuum. We evolved in and with nature for a very long time – hundreds of thousands of years…or billions if you consider our oldest biological ancestors. We have been shaped, in large part, by our natural environment and the ecosystems that sustained us.

    It should come as no surprise then that our emotions, behavior, and well-being are intertwined with and impacted by the health of, and our relationship with, these ecological systems that have sustained us for millennia (and that we continue to rely on today).

    So for us to really understand what’s going on in our brains and bodies, ecopsychology says we need to look at everything holistically. Again, that means we need to make sure we consider the health of the physical environment we exist in, the interconnected relationships between all life on earth (including us), and the impacts we all have on each other.

    It’s also important to acknowledge that this way of thinking isn’t new or novel. The study and practice of ecopsychology are rooted in tens of thousands of years of Indigenous people’s wisdom and ways of life.

    A few prominent concepts shared by many Indigenous worldviews include:

    • That all life, and the land we live on, is sacred and connected. Kinship with and gratitude for these spiritual and reciprocal relationships is crucial.
    • Understanding that humans are the youngest cousin in the tree of life. We have a lot to learn from our fellow beings, are not superior to them, and should be humble about all that we do not know.
    • The seventh generation principle. This connects people to the past and future by centering the question of how actions in the present will impact people living seven generations from now. As well as remembering and learning from the actions our ancestors took seven generations before us.

    Ecopsychology shines a light on this interconnected and relational worldview as a part of its goal to increase the well-being of all life on earth by repairing the human-nature bond.

    How can ecopsychology help us?

    Let’s start with a few of ecopsychology’s key principles:

    1. Your relationship with nature (physically, emotionally, psychologically, socially, and spiritually) has an impact on your mental health and well-being.
    2. The more we experience nature as a part of ourselves and ourselves as a part of nature, the healthier we are as human beings. Failing to do so leads to less connection, less belonging, a less accurate picture of reality, and, ultimately, less overall well-being.
    3. Denial and/or repression of our challenging eco-emotions in response to the crises we face prevents or decreases our capacity to act on climate (and live well in general).
    4. Learning to engage with and process these challenging emotions in a healthy way increases our well-being and helps give us the clarity and capacity to take action to address the root causes of the intersecting crises we are facing.
      • Engaging and processing these emotions is an innate human skill that anyone can learn (yes, that means you!)
      • We all have different challenges, blocks, and sometimes actual trauma (either personal or inherited) that impacts our ease in learning these skills.

    Ecopsychology is needed right now because it can help us to see the world and our place in it in new, more accurate, and more empowering ways.

    The dominant story and way of living in today’s industrial society tell us that humans are separate from and superior to, nature. We are told and shown through the mainstream economic system that nature is a resource to be exploited. And time and time again society shows us that, in today’s system, profits matter more than people’s well-being.

    We’re told that this is simply the way things are. And that there is no legitimate alternative.

    But it’s increasingly clear that these stories and exploitative systems are problematic (if we care about accuracy and long-term well-being). It’s also increasingly clear that they are at the root of the climate and ecological crises.

    And as Einstein famously said:

    “No problem can be solved by the same kind of thinking that created it.”

    In other words, to truly solve the climate and ecological crises we need to fundamentally shift our thinking and our worldview.

    To that end, ecopsychology is useful because it gives us a framework to:

    • Understand the full scope and impact of the human-nature relationship.
    • Identify misunderstandings or misalignments in our worldviews, norms, and systems that are causing harm to the human-nature relationship.
    • Guide us toward healing and re-designing these relationships with ourselves, nature, and each other so we can all live safer, healthier, fuller, and more just lives.

    Tools, Resources, and Guidance for Your Journey

    Alright, let’s get back to these eco-emotions that are arising (and suppressed) in so many of us.

    What should we do with them?

    How can we start engaging with these challenging feelings in healthy and generative ways?

    I’ve shared this before and I’ll share it again. I think Dr. Elizabeth Sawin put it really well when she said:

    “Honor your difficult feelings. You’re an animal whose life support system is in danger. It would be really weird to not be afraid or to not be furious about that. There’s intelligence in those feelings. Feel them, but don’t let them paralyze you. Let them move through and take them as information.”

    Rather than looking away from your difficult emotions, it is critically important to engage with and process them.

    Really let yourself feel them.

    Ask yourself why they are arising.

    Listen to what they are trying to tell you.

    And keep in mind that this internal work is not easy. So make sure you have the right resources and support (helpful links, orgs, and opportunities below!)

    But, in my experience at least, it’s worth it. And it leads to more clarity and capacity to address the root causes of your uncomfortable emotions (e.g. the planetary emergency, massive injustices, etc.)

    “The refusal to feel takes a heavy toll. Not only is there an impoverishment of our emotional and sensory life, flowers are dimmer and less fragrant, our loves less ecstatic, but this psychic numbing also impedes our capacity to process and respond to information. The energy expended in pushing down despair is diverted from more creative uses, depleting the resilience and imagination needed for fresh visions and strategies. ”

    Joanna Macy

    You may also find Joanna Macy’s framework, “The Spiral of the Work That Reconnects”, to be helpful as you engage in this work. She identifies a process with four key stages to help guide people:

    1. Coming From Gratitude
    2. Honoring Our Pain for the World
    3. Seeing with New/Ancient Eyes
    4. Going Forth

    This is a powerful framework, especially when done in groups! (More info on it here and a video of people going through the exercise together here.)

    By engaging with your emotions, processing them, and continuing to step forward with action on your climate journey, you are strengthening your relationships with yourself, nature, and the people around you.

    Tools & Resources for Further Learning, Practicing, and Connecting with Community

    I highly recommend checking out:

    I would also highly encourage you to sign up for the Ecopsychology + Climate Action course Rachel will be facilitating online in October! Here’s a note from her about it:

    If this newsletter sparks something in you or piques your interest, I hope you’ll consider following that thread and going deeper into these explorations with me, and with community. I will be facilitating an 8-week online group course starting in late October that will guide you on a personal and collective journey into the field and practice of ecopsychology and will support you to integrate this perspective into your life and your climate action.
    I co-created this course in 2015 with Australian ecopsychologist Dr. Eshana Bragg, and I have facilitated hundreds of people through this experience. It never ceases to be an incredible honor and a joy. I’m excited to return to my ecopsych roots and adapt it for this community, and I hope you’ll join me!
    We will be sharing more information about the course and opening registration soon! If you want to be sure not to miss that, you can register your interest for the course here ❤️


    I should add that, though it may feel uncomfortable at first, talking about your eco-emotions in groups can be extremely validating, healthy, and supportive. The organizations listed above are all good options to join if you would find that kind of community and support helpful.

    Final Thoughts on the Importance of Eco-Emotions

    This emotional work is healthy, beneficial, and worth doing in its own right.

    But society is also facing a planetary emergency right now, which is an all-hands-on-deck situation.

    And despite a majority of people being alarmed or concerned about the climate crisis, there’s still only a tiny fraction of people acting in alignment with those beliefs. Which is another major reason why understanding, practising, and spreading awareness about this work is absolutely crucial.

    There are hundreds of millions of people who may join the climate movement or start investing more time into climate action if they truly let themselves engage with and process these deep and painful emotions.

    So encouraging and facilitating this emotional work is a massive, untapped, win-win opportunity. The suppression and denial of difficult eco-emotions could very well be a dam holding back a surge of climate action.

    And right now, given the increasingly extreme weather we’re already seeing around the world we need a lot more people working on this problem.

    So, though it isn’t often discussed, when it comes to accelerating action on the planetary crisis, emotional intelligence and ecopsychology are key.

    We are all capable of learning how to handle these emotions in a healthy way. And it’s worth remembering that in doing so, we will bring more love, connection, and belonging into our lives.

  3. All the best,
  4. Ryan & Rachel (we co-wrote this one!)

This post originally featured in the Crowdsourcing Sustainability newsletter. Sign up for the newsletter below!

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