Today I want to discuss two key psychological concepts, and how they impact our work to prevent the climate crisis. If we could get past these two mental roadblocks, an avalanche of powerful change can happen.
The first concept is denial. Here is what Psychology Today says on the topic: “Denial is a defense mechanism in which an individual refuses to recognize or acknowledge objective facts or experiences. It’s an unconscious process that serves to protect the person from discomfort or anxiety. For example, a loved one may insist that she doesn’t have a problem with alcohol, despite the fact that it interferes with work and family life. Or a loyal employee may refuse to see signs that his boss is stealing from the company.”
This not the same as “Climate Denialism.” That refers to denying the science of climate change. I see our current problem of denial as being more severe. When nearly 3000 cattle die from heat, the same week that New Mexico closes every park in the state due to fires – it seems difficult to deny that climate change is already a crisis and we should act. But the idea that climate change may already be out of control causes “discomfort or anxiety.” So people do their best to ignore it. They live in denial of these climate disruptions just as they could be an alcoholic who has lost friends, family and work, but cannot see it is a result of the alcohol.
The second psychological concept is cognitive dissonance. Here the individual experiences stress because their actions do not conform with their beliefs, or they have two conflicting beliefs or values.
I see cognitive dissonance and denial in people around me almost every day. They know that there is a climate emergency – but some how they can’t quite translate that into their own actions. None of us is living a carbon neutral life – but there are some glaring moments that I see out there.
Here are some examples:
- I have a good friend who strongly believes that she is an environmentalist. She brings her own bags to the grocery store and recycles, and complains that politicians are not addressing climate change. But when she recently bought a new vehicle, she bought the largest, lowest mileage, highest carbon emitting SUV on the market.
- A politician I know is running as a democrat, and thus is for climate action, but in the last year he bought a large diesel engined boat, and put a huge addition onto his house.
- Another friend bought an electric car – but goes on several cruises each year.
Health systems need to first move beyond their own denial and cognitive dissonance. Healthcare is about 10% of US emissions. Those emissions include particulate emissions which increase morbidity for people with cardiovascular, pulmonary, and neurological conditions, and kill about 8M people worldwide every year. Those emissions increase the carbon in the atmosphere and are creating the climate emergency. There is a real urgency to taking action.
Then health systems need to work with their communities to help people over the hump of denial and cognitive dissonance. These are health conditions that cause stress, discomfort and anxiety. Let’s help our employees, and our patients, and every person in our community find out how they can personally take actions that will slow the climate crisis, and save lives right now by reducing particulate emissions. They can take personal action – switch their heating and cooling systems to air source heat pumps, install solar, buy electric vehicles, reduce their travel by air, eat less meat, vote for those who will act on climate change, and so on. More importantly they can take community action. There is so much happening locally. The New York Times had a story on July 1 that included this: “Legislators in Colorado, historically a major coal state, have passed more than 50 climate-related laws since 2019. The liquor store in the farming town of Morris, Minn., cools its beer with solar power. Voters in Athens, Ohio, imposed a carbon fee on themselves. Citizens in Fairfax County, Va., teamed up for a year and a half to produce a 214-page climate action plan.”
So much that we can do, once we get past denial, and we resolve our cognitive dissonance by taking action. We also feel better, and live healthier lives.
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