highlights from episode 16 of a thrivable future:
Psychological insight into climate denial
How to talk about climate change without triggering a defence mechanism
Managing our own emotions and internal reactions
Working with organisations to guide climate discourse
Navigating ambivalence and resistance to climate action
FOMO and undoing the damage of poor past environmentalist communication
How to communicate effectively through one-way mediums
Degrowth, systemic change, and tackling difficult existential conversations
Why do people regurgitate old talking points?
Psychological impacts of climate change, and the healing power of human connection
Working together to solve problems that are too big for any one of us
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Featured Guest – Dr. Renée Lertzman
Renée Lertzman PhD is a psychological strategist and advisor based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She works with leaders and organizations who seek to scale impactful engagement across stakeholders, consumers and employees on ESG, climate and ecology.
Current clients include Google, VMware, Unity, and numerous start-ups and philanthropic organizations.
She has a MA from University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, and a PhD in Social Sciences from Cardiff University.
She has published Environmental Melancholia (Routledge 2015) and is currently working on a trade publication about applying the psychology of climate and ecological threats to our business and personal practices.
a thrivable future episode 16
Welcome to a thrivable future. The podcast covering all things to do with sustainability, thrivability and the important policy changes happening around the world. Hi, I’m Rebecca from the thrive project, the not-for-profit research and advocacy group. I’ll be your host as we talk with our experts and special guests about all the thrivability matters affecting the world today.
Before I introduce this week’s guest, I’d like to recognize Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the first peoples of this place, now known as Australia. We respect the Elders of the past and present, and we are grateful for the continuing care of the land, waterways and skies, where we listen, learn and thrive.
This week, I’m pleased to welcome Dr. Renee Lurman to talk us through climate psychology and how we can be effective in driving climate action. Renee is an internationally recognized climate psychologist and engagement strategist dedicated to accelerating broad scale global system change. She’s worked with a broad range of organizations from the world wildlife fund to the white house. Renee is also an esteemed author and in 2019, gave a Ted talk on turning climate anxiety into action.
Welcome Renee, and thank you so much for joining me today. Now, your Ted talk focused on turning climate anxiety into action, which I think is a fantastic approach. And I do highly recommend everyone listen to it.
But what I’m really curious about is how you approach climate denial.
Okay. So the Ted talk was recorded in 2019 and then it came out right when COVID was unraveling the world. And I think everything I was talking about is as relevant, if not more so now.
So the question about denial. I think we spend a lot of energy and time -those working on these issues- um, trying to figure out what is actually going on, how do we navigate it? How do we deal with it? And I think it’s extremely important to situate denial.
Psychologically denial is an extremely well known defense mechanism.
If you go back and you look at what we know about the human psyche and I don’t mean just individuals. I mean, we employ strategies for managing unwanted distressing or threatening information.
And this is just normal. And so denial is one of many defense mechanisms. And I think it’s extremely important to situate it that way, because if we really understand what’s going on, it can’t influence and change the way that we work with it, understand it and navigate it.
So starting at the baseline, asking this question, well, what might be going on?
Like, why is this denialism so active? And so. Intense. And I think it’s extremely important to start to inquire through the lens of this is the defense mechanism, what might be going on underneath the surface that leads people to refute and deny reality. And often that will take us into the terrain of anxiety, fear, people feeling overwhelmed, and often people not really knowing even how to engage with an issue like this, especially if it brings up conflict between one’s identity, let’s say as part of a group that prides itself on certain values that they perceive climate as in conflict with. A lot of people don’t know how to engage and I’ve, I’ve met and I’ve talked to many climate skeptics and deniers in the U.S. And so I know from that experience that it is not cut and dry.
That often what we find, if you scratch the surface and you actually pay attention to what is being communicated. What is often there under the surface is an incredible sense of feeling aggrieved, feeling vulnerable, feeling angry, left out. And righteousness, right. That kind of like, you’re not gonna take this away from me.
And who do you think you are? And-
Yeah, I see that. A lot of my family live in a rural area. So I definitely see that in my interactions with them, there is definitely a culture of not really engaging with the, the concept of sustainability because they view it as that threat to their livelihoods. And so I think that’s like a really hard thing to engage with it.
I suppose. That’s my, my big question is like, how do you approach talking about it, even when you understand that it’s coming from that defensive place?
Like, what kind of language do you use when you you’re talking about it to try and not trigger that defense mechanism?
It’s tricky. It’s complicated. So I take my cue from practices that work well in health sectors. So I’ve, I’ve trained and worked with clinicians who work with people around, uh, health and behavior change and so forth. And I really, um, find that very powerful and effective, which is how to be a guide. And so. Where we wanna start if you’re coming at this from a, as a guide, is that you first wanna seek to understand?
Uh, okay. Tell me more, like, help me understand where you’re coming from. You know, I respect you. Like I’m not gonna try to change your mind. But I wanna try to understand. And then you ask for permission to share where you coming from. Would it be alright with you? Are you open to hearing where I’m coming from?
Because it’s different from your perspective, would you be open to hearing about that? And that’s really important people can either say yes or no. Uh, and usually people will say, yeah. Okay. You know, uh, sure!
And so then you, you, you, you start with, of course, like first person, this is how I’m experiencing this. This is what is coming up for me. I’m feeling incredibly scared, overwhelmed, whatever that is. Right? But you’re not trying to change the other person. And then you can move into having some sort of dialogue, but what’s really important is that you wanna demonstrate that you are not gonna try to change the, the other person’s mind.
So it’s important to actually be genuine. To be coming from that place of understanding without trying to, you know, go, all right. I need to convince you, I, I have this specific agenda.
What we often don’t talk about in the space is how we manage our own internal reactions and triggers and sense of frustration.
Because it’s one thing to say that, but if you’re literally dealing with someone… like today on Twitter, someone posted something. I don’t usually engage on Twitter with like arguments and debates. It’s just like a total time suck. But someone posted something provocative, which is like, “Why are we talking about protecting water, water, doesn’t need our protection.”
And I was like, okay, like normally I wouldn’t go there, but I orated very gently. And I was like, you know, I can see that perspective. And I think that what people mean by protection is protection from human activity maybe that’s gonna D you know, impact the quality of water. Maybe we mean protection from overuse of a limited resource.
But, I was feeling so triggered, but the thing is, is because I’ve been working on this and practicing for so long, I do not experience that same kind of. Where you just are so flooded with emotion, that it’s hard to actually come into these interactions from that place of receptivity and curiosity. So there’s an inside job aspect to this work, which is checking with yourself before going into these interactions. Like how, where am I at? What’s my attitude.
What’s my energy like, and really practicing self awareness. Um, and noticing when you start to get triggered. Having some practices to manage that, which might include not engaging or stepping away.
Or, you know what I mean? Like there there’s things that we can do. But the other thing I think that’s really important that helps me. Is I try to commit this from a, a lot of compassion.
Now, when I say that it’s very triggering for a lot of people working in the ESG policy space, because there’s a confusion. Of compassion with acceptance, like, oh, I’m just letting you off the hook. And that’s not what compassion is. But compassion for me is it’s almost like what I’m confronted with people who are so in denial, what I focus on is. Oh, wow.
This must be so painful for them to have to come to terms with. What can I do to be a guide? And to lower the stakes enough for other people to be even open to looking at this and accepting this as part of our reality.
Yeah. Okay. I definitely understand that, you know, having that compassion perspective and I, I try to engage with that myself and I, I know one thing, my, my own personal, um, therapist mentioned to me. Because I have ADHD and that comes with like emotional dysregulation as you’re probably aware. So just having a pause before you respond to something. That could probably be a useful tool.
When, you know, having that, experiencing that frustration when en encountering people.
I think that practice of taking a pause is really important for all of us. And it doesn’t necessarily mean only if you’re in an interaction.
So I wanna be really clear that the work I do is with organizations, with leaders and with teams. It’s not so much focused on having an interaction with someone, although we all are having interactions all the time. So I think that actually bringing awareness and attention to how we go into interactions is something that we are not looking at and talking about enough.
And I feel like to be an effective practitioner in this space. It does involve learning how to take a pause.
So you mentioned that you primarily work with organizations. Can you tell me a bit about your approach to getting people, organizations themselves, to engage with climate action? While also meeting the needs or desires of multiple stakeholders.
So I don’t try to get anyone to do anything. Right. That’s the first part . So I feel really strongly about approaching this work as a guide. I think that’s a very powerful lens and way of being and working that if we were to do that more, we would see more progress happening. Now, what I mean by a guide is someone invites me in to maybe have an initial conversation or to explore something or give a talk or workshop.
Or, but usually it starts with like, someone is curious and they’re like, there’s something here. Let’s have a conversation. And my primary focus at that point is to listen. To seek to understand the context and where the situation is. Right?
And usually what I find is that there’s a, there’s a core group of people within an organization who are trying to make change happen. And they are surrounded by it in, in dealing with a lot of dynamics that make it hard for them to have as much impact as they wanna have.
And so one of the most important things we start with is, you know, doing that kind of understanding of the context and what’s happening, but then I will often partner with teams and organizations and, um, train them, or maybe provide some guidance on how they can go out. And have interactions and conversations with their key stakeholders, starting with those who are most friendly and supportive.
Maybe in some cases across the organization in different parts of it. Right? So it’s almost like going out and doing a bit of the listening tour, but when we go out and do these listening activities. It is a form of stakeholder engagement. It’s like. We kind of forget that every contact is a form of engagement. And so going out and being present in how we listen and have those conversations is super important.
Then, coming back and looking at what are we hearing. Where some insights or some themes that are coming up, where people are wanting to see more action in some ways. And then my emphasis and a lot of this is reflected in my body of work called project insight out. You know, the emphasis is really on how can that team provide their stakeholders with tools and resources that help them be effective.
So it’s a little bit of like, a train the trainer model. Where if I’m successful, then I’m helping enable groups within an organization to show up and be more skillful at the complex stakeholder engagement, which does take time. It it’s really based on listening skills, but also knowing how to deal with resistance.
And so I’m really interested in building and nurturing people’s core capabilities and they can go out.
And do what they need to do.
So helping them with the human interaction element. What kind of strategies do you suggest for dealing with that kind of resistance?
Well, it has a lot to do with, as I mentioned before, listening and active listening and actively empathizing, I don’t wanna get too hung up on the interpersonal dynamic because a lot of what I’m talking about relates to how you would design a strategy or campaign or a communication or report or whatever it is you’re putting out into the world.
It might vary in what it looks like, but it really comes back to ensuring that the audience knows that you understand where their ambivalence is. We need to understand ambivalence at a much deeper level than we currently do.
Ambivalence is when people are feeling pulled in different directions, where they are experiencing conflict, they may not be fully conscious of the conflict, but they feel part of them is on board with you. And part of them is not on board. You recognize ambivalence by people basically kind of responding with: Yes, but. Or, yeah, that sounds like a good idea, but then you don’t hear from them again, or they don’t respond to your messages.
And that’s ambivalence, they’re feeling kind of stuck. And so it’s extremely important as practitioners to know how to recognize ambivalence and how to then work with it by naming it and acknowledging it.
And to say, so you might be feeling this way over here and you might be also feeling this way over here. Is that right?
People then have the opportunity to say, yeah, that’s absolutely correct. Or no, let me clarify. Or you’ve got it wrong or whatever. But then it’s like, and that helps build trust. Like, okay, this is not another tone-deaf ESG person.
Um, and then as a guide… You wanna, you wanna guide people through reconciling with the ambivalence. Where it’s like, well, okay, so what I’m hearing is this and this over here. Can you imagine- this is where open ended prompts come in.
Okay. So engaging, like with curiosity and questions.
Yeah, you are the one who’s asking the questions, but we push our solutions onto people and we then are met with resistance.
And whereas what I’m talking about is you really wanna ask questions that evoke from the other, why they may or may not be open, receptive or on board. And you meet that with, okay. I may not agree with that in. In fact, it might actually be factually wrong. You don’t try to correct them and fix it.
You basically say, okay, I get that. I see where you’re coming from, but this is a different perspective. Are you open to considering that, you know what I mean? It’s almost like martial arts where you’re really working with someone.
Yeah. I think that there’s a perception from people themselves that triggers that sort of like FOMO the fear of missing out. That if you’ve gotta be a good sustainable person and live a sustainable life. That it means missing out on nice things. Do you encounter that sort of feeling a lot?
Oh, absolutely. Of course. Yeah. I mean, that’s a huge legacy that we’re dealing with from decades of not great environmental communication. Like, we’re having to do a lot of repair and clean up from a lot of people basically saying we need to change. We need to stop doing this. Stop doing that. Let go of this, let go of that, reduce this.
There’s a lot of truth to that, but there’s a lot of gain and benefit that we also get. But this is why this work has fundamentally changed management. I mean, this is about working with people on change. So let’s actually understand the psychology of change, which is we’re gonna have to be able to meet that FOMO with a lot of grace and skill and compassion.
I can’t convince you. It’s just like, not a good use of my energy to say it’s not so bad. Like in actuality, we need to stop flying and consuming and so forth because we wanna leave a better world.
You mentioned that with organizations and stuff, that a lot of the communication, it’s not that interactional style. It’s a one way thing. How does that kind of communication work through an impersonal medium, like a report or social media even?
Well, it looks like doing some research or insight gathering to understand where the anxieties, ambivalence and aspirations are of your target audience. So it starts with that.
That’s attune, which is the guiding principle in project insight out. Number one.
Um, and then two, you wanna communicate in a one way format. You wanna demonstrate that you are aware and you wanna acknowledge that by saying, “You might be feeling this.” Or, “Some people might be thinking this.” Or you can use research or you can use statistics or you can use data. But you wanna acknowledge that you are aware of what people may be thinking or feeling as they encounter the piece of communication.
And then you wanna be able to say, and guess what we are aware of that. And that’s precisely why we are doing what we’re doing. Or we need you to be part of this or why you matter. But, you know, often we skip that part. And we just focus on pushing something out. And without that first part, we don’t necessarily have that level of connection and trust.
Which is why advertising works so well. You know, like, there’s a reason why, uh, marketing and advertising works really well. Because they do their homework. They actually invest a ton in consumer insights. They get deep into the psyche of people. And then they come up with these ads and marketing and brand strategy that gets there.
I’d like to see a little bit more of that sensibility with this kind of work, which is a more empathetic kind of human based approach where it’s like, okay, we’re inviting people into a conversation.
I was on twitter recently and, and saw a few threads on degrowth- that needing to stop the exponential growth impacts. Is that something that gets talked about a lot in your field?
Not a whole lot. I work with business mainly. Yeah. And I’m very interested in partnering with business and with the change agents within business to drive change at a systemic level.
I think that if conversations about growth and about profit margins and all that. I’m more focused on enabling people to have those conversations more effectively. How do we take something like that? Which just these supercharged topics, about like asking people to rethink our entire model about profitability and about what is a good life.
And like, these are really big existential human questions. And I wanna help ensure that people working on these issues are at least well equipped to navigate these really these, these landmines. So that they can be more effective.
That makes a lot of sense, cuz yeah, it is huge. That kind of growth and consumer model is entrenched in our culture. So it’s difficult to try and even conceptualize, I think like begin having a conversation about moving away from that.
I did wanna ask because one thing that I do come across myself as well is with like climate skeptics, they have really specific talking points. I feel like that that’s part of that defense mechanism. Where they’ll, you know, have things like climate change is, you know, over reported. Or they’ll, they’ll say it’s, you know, a natural thing that’s happening anyway. It’s already happened in the past. It’s not like, you know that it’s not manmade .Or it’ll like move on to like, it’s nothing we can do about it anyway. So. Just, you know, live your life and, or she’ll be right. We’ll figure it out.
So do you have different approaches when coming across something that’s maybe been like the messaging that maybe isn’t coming from the person themselves, but them repeating something they’ve heard?
Well, that’s the case most of the time. And this isn’t new. I mean, I’m thinking about a research paper that came out almost 20 years ago. That was so insightful where it was this researcher, I think in Germany, called Suzanne stole Leman. She did this beautiful analysis of all the things that you just described. They’re very common. They get circulated and they’re often produced in the media. And they’re reproduced. I mean, this again is like how we make sense of the world.
We, we are meaning making, sense making. And so we’re drawing on repertoires primarily through, you know, our tribe, our media, and so forth. And then we just kind of pick it up and run with it. And then when you’re doing interviews with people or having conversations, which I’ve done, like hundreds of. You hear these things over and over again.
And it’s like, they’re literally just channeling what is being said on Fox TV or by some pundit on talk radio or whatever. Well, I mean, that’s just what happens and we do that too.
Yeah. It’s not like a them or them. It’s just what people do.
Yeah, exactly. And so a lot of climate activists and advocates are also like parroting positions that they picked up, you know, from someone they read or whatever that they love.
And so that’s just a big part of what we do. The, the issue is when we get stuck in our different sets of meaning making. But again, it’s just a way of making sense of the world that takes away the pain.
It’s a deescalating of the pain, cuz it’s really painful to have to confront climate change. And I wish that we were more attentive to that. But we are in pain too.
Like, everyone who’s having to deal with this is dealing on some level with feeling stress, right? And we all manage it in very different ways and some manage it by being super positive and just focusing on what’s possible and very solution oriented. And some people deal with it by being in denial and saying, you know, this is humans, we’ve dealt with like major cycles of the climate for millennia, you know. And some people deal with it by saying, you know, this is a conspiracy theory. And…
I also wanna ask, because we are seeing some of the actual physical impacts of climate change now. Extreme weather events and, you know, heat waves, bushfires, floods, all of that. What kind of effects, you know, like psychologically speaking are we likely to see in people as things continue to escalate?
That question is so interesting to me because I get asked that a lot and it just seems very straightforward that we’re gonna see a lot of stress.
That makes sense.
So we’re gonna see, uh, people, you know, stressed, anxious, feeling overwhelmed, but also mobilize and activated. And I think that’s happening too. We wanna be really careful at this time, because if people feel stress and anxiety and they don’t know what to do with it, or where to go with it, it can easily go into avoidance or depression or people tuning out.
And we see that with young people right now in a really big way around the world. And so. I think it’s time to really recognize that this is heavy existential stuff and that we need to be able to help people process it. And the way that we process stuff is -this is all on my website, project insight, out.net- designed to help other people process what’s happening. And one of the ways is by naming and acknowledging and being real about what’s going on and letting people have their feelings and reactions to it, and then getting into smaller groups.
So any time you’ve got the ability to get people into small groups and having good quality interaction with each other, or even if it’s a really large group breaking people into small groups. So I, and I mean, like this could happen at a really big event. It could happen at a concert where you’ve got like thousands of people there. You could literally have people turn to someone next to them and take two minutes or three minutes to connect on a human level and just say, how are you doing right now?
You know, like that in itself actually would be game changing because it gives people much more resilience to cope and to handle this. When you know that you’re not alone and you feel connected with other humans and you feel like your experience is actually normal and natural, then that really helps set the stage for people being able to imagine what a different path might be and what my role in that, or my part of that might be.
But without that, those moments of reflection and connection, it’s very hard to get there. And then people just kind of like shut down. And a lot of people are in families where they can’t talk to family members, cuz they’ll just be shut down. They’ll be attacked or-
Told to shut up or whatever. And so that’s a very painful place to be. A lot of people are in right now. And so you have to find where the connection and the support is, find those networks and plug in so that you know, that you’re part of something. You’re not alone. Cause for some reason we tend to just go into this, like forgetting that there are how many humans on the planet, you know, there’s billions of people.
I think that that in itself is like isolating, cuz it’s like, there’s so many that you can’t really conceptualize it. Like how do you connect with 7 billion people?
Yeah. We don’t need to connect with every human on the planet.
But we can connect with those we are meant to connect with and trust that the reality. I mean, this goes back to the whole idea of networks and this is where systems thinking and network thinking -that’s starting to become more prevalent- is really, really powerful. It’s like, oh, I’m just one person, but I’m part of a network.
And actually anything that happens in the planet, I don’t care if it’s like, you’re the president of a country or if you are Google or Bill Gates or prime minister, whatever. Like no one has all the agency. And so what we wanna be doing is looking at activation of networks through the lens of agency and power.
And so that’s the reframe from, oh, it’s just me. I feel overwhelmed. I don’t know what I can do. It’s like, we’ve gotta get out of that cognitive trap and remind ourselves like, okay, I’m part of a network. I’m part of the human network. It’s not all on me to figure this out. In fact, I can’t.
I wrestle with that a lot. I feel like very aware of the burden of feeling like, what am I gonna do about this? And I better do whatever I can. And of course I act that. I live that way, or I wouldn’t be doing this conversation on a Saturday night. But I, I also recognize that it’s not all on me.
It is absolutely not all on any one person. And then I can kind of rest and relax a little bit more and, and remember, oh my gosh, there’s so many amazing, thoughtful, smart people like yourselves who are investing your energies. This is Sunday morning for you.
Yeah, exactly. Yes it is.
So it’s like, you’re putting your energy and your lives, like you’re doing it because you care, because you’re committed. And, and I think remembering that like, oh yeah. There are so many people doing all kinds of amazing things.
So what can I do? What can, how can I plug into that?
How can I be a part of that network? And yeah, that, that makes a lot of sense. Cuz I think, you know, we all have people that we’re connected to in so many different ways. So yeah. Trying to like plug into that and, and working together to make the changes can be really powerful. Definitely. From my perspective, I see like, all of the things humans have done in the, in history has been working together. So I think…
So I’ll end it there, but thank you so much for joining me because it’s been a great conversation. Really interesting to learn more about that psychological aspect of climate change.