Need to know
November 2021, and the 26th UN climate summit was in Glasgow. I was at home in Edinburgh, trying to motivate myself to get a bus, then a train, to join the march for justice. The problem? I wanted to spend this cold, wet day curled up inside with my children, like most of my friends would be doing.
It was a familiar dilemma. I hate that climate change is destroying the world my children and others will inherit. I hate that it is already killing people. But when almost everyone around me is acting as if everything is completely fine, how can I make myself do anything about it? How can you? How can any of us?
Scientifically and morally, the situation is clear. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), to avoid catastrophic climate change, we – the human race collectively – must cut our greenhouse gas emissions by 45 per cent from 2010 levels by 2030 and reach net zero by 2050 (meaning any remaining emissions are balanced out by human and natural removal of emissions). By catastrophic climate change, I mean the sort that destroys homes and crops with wildfires, droughts and floods. The sort that will kill many, many people, usually those who have done least to cause it.
To redress this terrible injustice, governments and corporations must change what they do, now. The situation is so urgent that all of us – as individual consumers, citizens and shareholders – must try to help bring about this change.
The climate emergency requires immediate collective action, but the problem is no-one seems to care. I live in the UK, and in rich societies like mine people mostly seem to ignore the climate crisis – at least outwardly. When I look around, most people aren’t changing their behaviour, they aren’t holding their politicians to account for inaction, or even talking much about the emergency. Climate apathy is everywhere.
In many cases, this apathy isn’t caused by people not knowing the facts about the climate emergency, rather it’s that they don’t act on what they know. Consider the latest figures on attitudes to climate change, as collected by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. They report that only 11 per cent of Americans are ‘Dismissive’, believing that ‘global warming is not happening, human-caused, or a threat’. More than twice as many people (26 per cent) are actively ‘Alarmed’ and they ‘strongly’ support climate policies – yet, even among this group, most ‘do not know what they or others can do to solve the problem’. (In between these two groups are citizens with a range of views, from those who are concerned, but see climate change as comparatively low priority, to the disengaged or doubtful.)
As a moral philosopher, this situation makes me want to bang my head against the wall. But, from a psychological perspective, climate apathy is less surprising. The way we live now, individuals are predisposed to weigh short-term gains more heavily than future ones. From what we eat, to how we get around, our embedded tastes, habits and attitudes are difficult to overturn. When these clash with ‘inconvenient truths’ like climate change, the easier option is to ignore the facts.
‘We are, at our core, imitators,’ says the psychologist Per Espen Stoknes in his book What We Think About When We Try Not to Think About Global Warming (2015). If our friends and colleagues don’t change their lifestyles, it’s less likely that we will. If they don’t challenge irresponsible climate policies, we probably won’t either. Take my own profession. It’s still the norm for academics to fly around the world for conferences and seminars. That makes it harder for any one of us to take the climate crisis seriously, or to change what we do.
This is part of a bigger picture: a culturally created image of the way we should live that revolves around exploiting our fellow humans and the nonhuman world, combined with an unrealistic faith in technology. Technical innovation is crucial. We need adaptation technology (such as drought-resistant crops) so communities can live with already-inevitable temperature rises. We need renewable energy and carbon capture and storage. But technological revolutions won’t save us in time, not without the political, corporate and individual will to use them appropriately: that is, to enable systematic change rather than shore up ‘business as usual’. And that requires a level of motivation, including a major turnaround by the mainstream media, that is currently lacking.
So climate apathy is explicable. But that doesn’t make it OK. An explanation is not the same as a justification. (I’m a philosopher; I can say that with conviction!) When basic morality pulls us one way but other psychological propensities pull us the other, the response should not be to ditch morality – and so, ultimately, our core humanity. Instead, we should galvanise ourselves to act. But how?
I tried to answer that question in my book Parenting on Earth (2023). I wanted a psychological toolkit to help me break free of climate apathy. To find it, I threw myself into the emerging field of climate psychology, I interviewed activists and psychologists, and read their books. In this Guide, I’m going to share with you what I learned about overcoming climate apathy. If you’re like the vast majority of those in the Yale study – you don’t deny climate science but haven’t yet motivated yourself for climate action – then this Guide is for you: to help you face up to the reality of the situation, and be part of the way forward.
What to do
Acknowledge your difficult emotions
How do you feel when you read the latest IPCC warnings, or see media images of floods and wildfires? Are you hit by a wave of negative emotions? You’re not alone. I feel shame, frustration, anger and grief. I am overwhelmed by love for my daughters and fear for their future.
A lot of people feel similarly. Almost 60 per cent of 16- to 25-year-olds are very or extremely worried about climate change, according to a survey of 10,000 young people in 10 countries, published in The Lancet in 2021. In a paper in the International Review of Psychiatry in 2022, a group of 23 young people from 15 countries (representative of their generation) described their ‘wide range of deeply uncomfortable climate-related feelings, including worry, sorrow, grief, fear, anger, hopelessness and responsibility’.
In letters to the website Is This How You Feel?, run by the science communicator Joe Duggan, climate scientists say they are ‘afraid’, ‘ashamed’ and ‘angry’, ‘disgusted’, ‘infuriated’, ‘confused’, ‘powerless’, ‘despairing’ – and much more.
These are deeply unpleasant emotions. No wonder many of us try to suppress them. But that’s not a long-term solution. It’s the first step on a spiral of ‘disavowal’, ‘perverse thinking’ or ‘doublethink’ – the endless mental gymnastics required to try to know something and not to know it, at the same time. As the psychoanalyst and academic Paul Hoggett warns in his book Climate Psychology: On Indifference to Disaster (2019), going down this path we risk ending up in paralysing despair or resorting to blaming others – immigrants, the poor, minorities – rather than admit that our own way of life is at fault.
Instead, try to accept your climate-related emotions. Name them. Talk to someone you trust about them. Make a practice of writing them down, and reflect on what has triggered you to feel this way. Doing this is going to be uncomfortable: in quitting the apparent security of climate apathy, you may have to endure what Stoknes called ‘a Great Grief’ (‘more-than-personal sadness … [this is] a feeling rising in us as if from the earth itself’). But it will be worth it. On the other side of this process lie less destructive ways of living.
Seek earned hope and find your people
To escape apathy, you need hope. Climate ‘doomerism’ is almost as dangerous as organised denial. But this is very different from the passive hope invoked by middle-aged people who sit back in their armchairs and say young activists like Greta Thunberg ‘give them hope’. It is an earned hope, built on self-honesty and determination. You cannot find this alone. Nor can I. But our ‘people’ are out there: countless engaged, passionate citizens working together for climate action.
Climate scientists often display this grittier, more sceptical optimism: a clear-eyed awareness of potential catastrophe, faith in human ingenuity, and a resolution to help. ‘I’m not yet willing to give up on a future where humans live lightly upon the planet,’ writes the earth scientist Jessica Carilli on Is This How You Feel?, ‘and I hope that you are not, either.’
My own hope feeds on teaching climate justice, learning from my students’ commitment and insights. It feeds on victories, such as the UK’s moratorium on fracking or the recent landmark court case in Montana, where a judge ruled that the state was acting unconstitutionally in approving fossil fuel projects without considering climate change. Perhaps most of all, it feeds on connecting with the parent activist movement, including the global networks Our Kids’ Climate and Parents for Future (which operates in 25 countries). The movement’s imaginative campaigning tactics have ranged from a Mary Poppins-themed song-and-dance protest outside the insurers Lloyd’s of London, to international parent climate marches.
Your ‘people’ may be in one of these groups, in powerful youth movements such as the Sunrise Movement (based in the US) or Fridays for Future (an international movement inspired by Thunberg), or in a plethora of other activist organisations. Look up local branches; make that initial connection.
As for those around you who seem indifferent, don’t take it at face value. The environmental psychologist Susan Clayton told me: ‘We think “Oh that sounds pretty bad,” but when we look around, we think that no one seems that worried and so we don’t express alarm.’ But, she said, those others may be watching us in turn, taking our silence as evidence that we’re not scared. You and your friends may be trapped in a circle of non-communication: one you could break by being open about your own fears, and suggesting something positive to do together.
Feed your imagination
To expose your own hidden emotions, and move beyond them to creative action, it will take more than a merely intellectual understanding of the climate crisis. You’ll need a personal connection: stories and storytelling, experiences you can relate to. Art, film, music and literature can provide just that.
In the book Reimagining Climate Change (2016), the political scientist Manjana Milkoreit explains that climate fiction can engage more viscerally than even the starkest of facts, because it appeals spiritually: ‘This humanisation allows us to feel, taste, smell, and think about climate change in a more personal way, creating meaning, relevance, and potentially the urgency currently absent from many political conversations.’ In other words, in sparking your imagination, it might just challenge your apathy.
Depending on your fiction genre of choice, you might seek emotional insight, solace and inspiration in N K Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy (2015-17), Kim Stanley Robinson’s Three Californias trilogy (1984-90), Barbara Kingsolver’s novel Flight Behavior (2012), Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy (2003-13), or many more.
Visiting my parents on the Dorset coast, I try to practise what the geologist Marcia Bjornerud calls ‘timefulness’. I cast my mind back from the present, where my children run in and out of the sea, through my family’s past to more distant history: Roman and Iron Age settlements; the geological upheavals recorded in stripes of sand and clay. Then I try to envisage how this coastline will appear, to those who live on it, in 200 – or several thousand – years’ time.
The idea is not to detach me from all present concerns by reminding me that my lifespan is almost vanishingly tiny, in the history of the world. (That might backfire, inspiring me to live only for the moment.) It is, instead, to impress on me just how far the decisions of my generation can stretch into the future. After all, we now inhabit a new geological age: the Anthropocene (or, more appropriately, the Capitalocene).
You could start with Bjornerud’s book Timefulness (2018) as a readable whistlestop tour of geological history, reminding us of what we cannot influence and what we still, so dramatically, can. Or try this exercise in deep-time thinking, adapted from the anthropologist Vincent Ialenti’s book Deep Time Reckoning (2020). Picture your own cities and landscapes as they looked thousands of years ago, or (drawing on the predictions of climate scientists) how they will look far into the future. To see what climate change could do to our coastlines for the next 125 years, try Climate Central’s interactive mapping tool. Ask yourself: what will be the artefacts of our throwaway, high-tech culture, buried for far-distant generations to discover? What will they make of us? And what legacy would you want us to leave, instead?
Re-connect with nature
My younger daughter has always been fascinated by animals, watching tadpoles in a pond with the same rapt attention that she gives to an eagle in the Scottish Highlands. She has something young children often have and adults only rarely: the capacity to lose herself in her attention to the nonhuman world around us. I want her to keep that; I need to regain it for myself.
Human-caused climate change is perpetuated by a widespread, ill-judged attitude that sees humans as somehow detached from nature, and by the idea that our collective exploitation of nature is perfectly fine. As an individual, one way out of climate apathy is to rebuild your personal bond with nature.
To start, follow the advice the nature-based coach Nadine Andrews gave me. Spend time outdoors without being distracted by your phone, or constantly seeking ‘Instagrammable’ moments. Instead, pay attention! This needn’t be a dramatic mountain hike or stroll along a picturesque beach; it can equally well be in your local park. Make a practice of observing the trees and wildlife. Notice how they change, week on week, season by season. Take the time to learn the calls of different birds, and use them to glean insights into their lives.
Not only is re-connecting with nature good for your mental health, it can also be a first step in cultivating what some philosophers call environmental virtues, such as ‘mindfulness’ or ‘respect for nature’. To put this into practice, the next time you’re tempted to buy more unnecessary plastic or order a burger, picture the many links in the chain of exploitation and suffering (human and nonhuman) that get the product to you. You might find it uncomfortable to do this, but the payoff is it will help motivate you to change your behaviour.
Think of our children’s futures
‘If you have children, how can you say their future is doomed?’ said Harriet Shugarman, scientist, educator and founder of ClimateMama, when I interviewed her for Parenting on Earth. For me, and many others, it strikes a fundamental chord: if our own children’s futures are at stake, how can we sit back and do nothing?
And, let’s be clear, they are at stake. For my generation, failing to address our climate apathy is not so much fiddling while Rome burns as building the pyres around the children we love, and any future babies we might bring into the world. If you’re a parent like me – or grandparent, aunt, uncle, godparent, teacher – you doubtless love the children in your life, often more than anything else. Thinking of them and their futures ought to give you a major motivational kick in the pants to help overcome your apathy.
To further tap into this, you could follow the example of the contributors to DearTomorrow, an art installation and website created by the parent-activist Jill Kubit and the behavioural scientist Trisha Shrum. Write a letter to a child who is important to you, for them to receive in 2050. If you’re a young person, you could write it to your future self, or the child you might have. Express your hopes and fears. Describe the world you want for them, in 27 years’ time. Then write down what needs to change, to get there, and what you will do to be part of that.
Seek support and practise self-care
Your aim is to escape climate apathy, but you need to beware tipping over into overwhelm. That means being kind to yourself along the way – and even seeking professional help if you need it.
Fear and worry are appropriate responses to our desperate situation. As the headline of a Guardian article by the activist Anjali Sharma puts it: ‘Dear Politicians, Young Climate Activists Are Not Abuse Victims, We Are Children Who Read News’ (2022). But climate- and eco-anxiety can also affect your mental health in ways that risk tipping you back into the very situation you’re trying to escape. Indeed, the use of the word ‘apathy’ is arguably misleading in this context – paralysis or hopelessness might be more apt. As the climate psychologist Renée Lertzman explained in 2008, feeling too much can keep us from acting, as well as feeling too little.
When Hoggett and his fellow psychoanalyst Rosemary Randall interviewed climate activists, they found that many go through a similar process: they see the severity of the situation, throw themselves heart and soul into the movement, then suffer burnout. To keep going, they learn not to preoccupy themselves constantly with painful truths, to refine their sense of agency, and find a balance between climate action and their own lives.
If you find yourself deep in climate-related grief, consider contacting a doctor, psychologist, or therapist. Give yourself permission to value and enjoy other core relationships and interests, and practise self-care. That means true self-care, not a commoditised, £100-face-creams-and-luxury-spa version. For many activists, it involves exercise, time in beautiful places, or with loved ones. For me, it’s running a mile outside, every day. It’s cuddling my daughters. It’s writing or reading fiction. It’s laughter-filled chats with my best friends. Whatever it means for you, keep space for it.
Key points – How to escape climate apathy
- Climate apathy is widespread. If you recognise the facts about the climate emergency, you’re anxious about what this means for the future of the planet and humanity, and yet you can’t muster the motivation to do anything about it – then you have climate apathy.
- Acknowledge your difficult emotions. It’s tempting to suppress or avoid the painful emotions triggered by the climate emergency, but that won’t solve anything. To start overcoming your apathy, confront the feelings the climate emergency provokes in you.
- Seek earned hope and find your people. While it’s important to face up to the seriousness of the situation, it’s also important to foster (realistic) hope that change is possible – finding like-minded movements and people can help with this, from the Sunrise Movement to Parents for Future.
- Feed your imagination. To really fire up your motivation, don’t only consume scientific facts about climate change, but immerse yourself in relevant fiction too, including by authors such as N K Jemisin and Margaret Atwood.
- Practise ‘timefulness’. Humans are prone to exceptionally short-term thinking. Zooming out to see our generation as part of a much bigger historical and geological picture can help to overcome this and bring home the seriousness of the climate emergency.
- Re-connect with nature. Another way out of climate apathy is to rebuild your personal bond with nature. Put your phone away and really pay attention to the natural world.
- Think of our children’s futures. If you can’t find the motivation to act on the climate emergency for yourself, do it for the children in your life. Thinking of them and their futures ought to give you a major motivational kick in the pants to help overcome your apathy.
- Seek support and practise self-care. Beware climate- and eco-anxiety affecting your mental health in ways that risk tipping you back into the very situation you’re trying to escape. Seek help if you need it and give yourself permission to enjoy other core relationships and interests, to avoid becoming overwhelmed by climate grief.
Where to start once you’re motivated
Once you’ve scaled the climate apathy barrier, what next? Should you cut your own carbon footprint or campaign for collective action? The short answer is both, but especially the latter. That’s fairer, more efficient, and more effective.
Without political change, the costs of action fall on those individuals who happen to be motivated – or, worse still, on the victims of climate change. Individual lifestyle adjustments can also be expensive, difficult or risky without the infrastructure to back them up. I’d love my kids to ride their bikes through town but with a relentlessly car-centric road system, it’s too dangerous.
Crucially, even if hundreds of millions of ‘ordinary’ individuals changed their lives, it wouldn’t be enough. According to Oxfam’s briefing in 2020, the richest 10 per cent of people produced 52 per cent of carbon emissions between 1990 and 2015, and the richest 1 per cent had double the carbon footprint of the poorest half of the world. Data from the Climate Accountability Institute show that the top 20 oil, gas and coal companies were responsible for 35 per cent of all fossil fuel emissions from 1965 to 2017. And International Energy Agency figures show that governments subsidised fossil fuel consumption by $1 trillion in 2022. Unless that changes, adequate mitigation is impossible.
Moreover, climate justice requires more than mitigation. It needs adaptation. That won’t happen without mass investment in technology, nor unless governments, councils and corporations change what they do. Justice also demands compensation for the damage already done, for example to the citizens of small island states, such as Tuvalu, whose homelands are vanishing beneath the waves. That, too, is inevitably political.
For you or me, promoting change means working with others to challenge institutions and reimagine how we live together. Cutting your own carbon footprint is part of that. (It’s also a way of minimising your own contribution to global emissions – or, in more philosophical terms, reducing your own ‘complicity’ in the harms caused by climate change.) But it’s not the only part. Like it or not, in this irredeemably collective crisis, we must all be activists.
I mean that very broadly. You could stand for election, support progressive politicians or lobby existing legislators. You could join climate marches or organise unusual protests, such as the music-filled demonstrations of parent activists I mentioned earlier. You could donate to climate justice NGOs such as Greenpeace or Friends of the Earth, invest in renewables, or petition your bank and pension funds to divest from oil, gas and coal. You could support climate education or campaign against fossil fuel propaganda. You could get involved in climate litigation, engage in civil disobedience with groups such as Just Stop Oil or Extinction Rebellion (XR), or contribute to the legal funds of those who do.
Obviously, you can’t do all these things. So ask yourself which groups are most inclusive, just and effective. Which need more support? Then consider where you best fit in. What are your skills, talents and resources? Are you a dedicated scientist, a brilliant economist or a natural communicator? Do you have time to spare, or money? I’m a philosopher and writer, so I produce books, letters and articles. I teach. I talk to my children about climate change. I also vote Green, join protests, and donate to carefully chosen charities.
I’m making progress in my personal battle against apathy. I’m vegan. I last flew for any purpose in 2018, and exclusively for pleasure in 2013. When I’m invited to give academic talks, I speak online or take the train. Most importantly, I did go to Glasgow on that sleety November day, and I was in London for the Big One, XR’s four-day action this April, with other parent activists, determined to make my voice – and that of others – heard.
It’s not easy, but it is possible. And the whole world is at stake.
Links & books
The websites for the UK-based Climate Psychology Alliance and for Climate Psychology Alliance North America are your one-stop shops for climate psychology research, resources (including podcasts), reflections, and ways to find support.
The climate solutions nonprofit Grist provides a great list of climate fiction suggestions to choose from.
Watch the film Don’t Look Up (2021). This hilarious but disturbing comedy satirises current political responses to climate change and highlights the role of vested interests and the media in perpetuating apathy.
The book What We Think About When We Try Not to Think About Global Warming: Toward a New Psychology of Climate Action (2015) by Per Espen Stoknes provides a helpful overview of the main psychological barriers to climate action, as well as an account of his own journey through climate grief.
My book Parenting on Earth: A Philosopher’s Guide to Doing Right by Your Kids – and Everyone Else (2023) is for parents, potential parents (or anyone with a child they love in their life) and is my attempt to make sense of what it means to be a good parent (and a good human being) in this warming world.