I am not a climate-change denier. On the contrary, ever since I interviewed the environmentalist Mayer Hillman for this newspaper 10 years ago, when he predicted most of what's happening today, I've understood that we're in the throes of something serious. I now recycle everything possible, drive a hybrid car and turn down the heating. Yet somewhere in my marrow I know that this is just a vain attempt to exculpate myself – it wasn't me, guv.Karpf makes reference to Sally Weintrobe's book Engaging with Climate Change in which several case studies are presented and psychological mechanisms of 'denial' as instances of coping with cognitive dissonance are explored.
Indeed, when I hear apocalyptic warnings about global warming, after a few moments of fear I tune out. In fact I think I might be something worse than a climate-change sceptic – a climate-change ignorer.
The fuse that trips the whole circuit is a sense of helplessness. Whatever steps I take to counter global warming, however well-intentioned my brief bursts of zeal, they invariably end up feeling like too little, too late. The mismatch between the extremely dangerous state of the earth and my own feeble endeavours seems mockingly large.
In this I'm not alone. I asked two colleagues about their attitudes to global warming. One, a 48-year-old man, said he thought about it often, was angry about the role of big business, but as to his own interventions, "I do feel it's like pissing in the wind really – I don't know why I bother." The other, a 57-year-old politically engaged man, admitted – "and I don't say this with any pride" – that he rarely thought about climate change: it simply doesn't interest him. When pressed, it turned out that he recycled, signed petitions to conserve old buildings and didn't drive, but quickly realised that he couldn't sustain his contention that "I don't harm the environment".
So how do we get beyond despair? Not, apparently, through campaigns that generate guilt: the book argues that apocalyptic warnings are counter-productive. If you accept the idea that we retreat from overwhelming anxiety, then generating more fear and guilt will just paralyse us even more, and is an excellent way of recruiting more ignorers. As Ed Miliband has observed, Martin Luther King never inspired millions by saying "I have a nightmare". The quick fix, meanwhile, denies the painful, deep feelings engendered by climate change, and what a complex business it is to reverse it.The proposed solutions, based on psychological therapies, will not convince everyone. Especially as they are of the 'more of the same' sort, of the hope to be able to repair the damage done to Mother Earth through lifestyle changes and changes in our mental attitudes (developing 'dark optimism', as one put it). But it is convincing to argue that 'Once you let go of both the desire for the quick fix or single panacea, and the conviction that nothing we can do makes a difference – ie a sense of either omnipotence or impotence – you create room for a plethora of different creative solutions.'
It is interesting that the Guardian calls her article 'confessions'. To a paper which sees itself at the journalistic vanguard of doing the right thing for good causes, including climate change, having such thoughts of ambivalence must be a sin.