When we know what the problem is, why is it so difficult for us to show up and do what is required? As part of the Chats for the Goals series and Global Goals Month at UTS, I ran a workshop on Finding agency in an emotionally charged time. It was designed to delve into the intricate relationships we have with climate change, exploring how emotional intelligence plays a pivotal role in understanding and addressing our responses to the climate crisis. 

A 60’s party, updated for 21st century conversations 

The workshop explored a contemporary interpretation of the classic consciousness-raising party. These informal gatherings, popularised in the late 60s, provided a platform for women to voice their experiences of systemic gender inequalities, fostering solidarity, raising awareness to catalyse change.

Since then, this concept has found resonance across various social justice movements. The UTS event provided a space for participants to reflect on their personal relationship to the climate crisis, acknowledge their emotions, and exchange their stories and experiences of living at this moment in time. 

Why are we so stuck when it comes to the climate crisis?  

For decades now, the science of climate change has been clear: burning fossil fuels causes the planet to warm. This disruption wreaks havoc on our climate systems, with dire consequences for both humanity and the delicate web of life on Earth. And still, after more than 50 years of sounding the alarm on greenhouse gas emissions, they persist at dangerous levels. We now find ourselves facing unparalleled environmental challenges and are experiencing climate-related disasters with increased frequency and intensity.  

The complexity of the problem feels paralysing, as though we’re trapped in a trance of denial and overwhelm, struggling to confront the issue and demand the necessary changes to secure a liveable future for generations to come. How do we break free from this paralysis?  

Is climate change a type of trauma? 

We worry that if we directly confront our fear, grief or anger we fall into a pit of despair. The opposite is true. Research confirms that most people quickly move onto action once they acknowledge their difficult feelings.

Dr Jennifer Atkinson, University of Washington 

Psychologists now recognise that climate change evokes an array of emotional responses within us. The long list includes feelings such as fear about the future, helplessness due to the enormity of the problem, denial, and frustration or anger about inaction. We experience grief about the losses we are seeing, and also hope that we can still make a difference.  

Amongst a growing number of psychologists, Renee Lertzman encourages us to consider climate change as a type of trauma that at times pushes us outside of our window of tolerance. Within this window, we can problem solve, think clearly, make good decisions, and engage in healthy relationships. Outside of this window, our limbic system takes over and activates our fight or flight response. It prevents us from showing up at our best – and we need our best to come up with the solutions that are so desperately needed at this moment in time. 

Tackling difficult emotions with kindness and curiosity 

No need to give a PowerPoint about CO2 levels. Talk about how it feels to be living at this time. Talk about what you think the future holds. Talk about your fear, dread, rage, grief and everything else. This contributes to transformative change; it helps us collectively wake up from the trance of denial.

Margaret Klein Salamon, Psychologist 

As we moved through the workshop, many felt a sense of overwhelm due to the complexity of the issue. People who have been engaged with this topic for a while feel angry at ongoing inaction, and the glacial pace of change. Parents voiced worry for the future of their kids, and there were feelings of guilt and shame about not doing enough. 

Some noted that these emotions linger in the background but are often dismissed; acknowledging them as normal responses and hearing others share similar experiences was a relief. 

There was also positivity about the ‘prerequisites’ of the event: kindness, curiosity and listening. Allowing missteps from ourselves and others (we are in a crisis!) and being accepting of a variety of responses is so important. Uncertainty tempts us to slide into judgement, limiting our thinking; if we are aware of this happening, we can pull ourselves back into mindset of curiosity.  

All you need is love… and listening 

 The event concluded by exploring how love can inspire us to discover our role in this narrative and cultivate a genuine sense of agency. There is also hope in drawing on our collective wisdom and history, as the article How to heal in the Anthropocene from BBC Future explains:  

…there is great value and much-needed encouragement in learning from the ways people have learned to heal and find hope after trauma and devastating losses in the past. 

Examples are shared from Indigenous knowledge and learning through contemplation and listening, which we also hear about in Deep Listening for Deep Learning, David Yeats’ reflection on a secondment to South Australia’s Lower River Murray, home of the Ngarrindjeri Nation

You might also try ‘listening’ to the broad range of worldviews on sustainability in What shade of green are you?. You might be surprised to learn where your own views sit, and just how far the approaches to this theme can stretch. If you’re working with students, there are plenty of supports for those conversations too, from ways you can build sustainability into learning design to understanding how sustainability influences academics at UTS.  

  • I really enjoyed being part of this session and learning about this topic. I believe we can’t just tackle global problems merely with intellectual knowledge. Human beings are holistic – heart, mind, soul, spirit – and sometimes those other parts of us can thwart what we think is common sense. We do ourselves a disservice to not approach situations with a holistic approach. Look forward to more in this space.

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