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Overwhelming worry

Interview: Charlotta LomasAugust 14, 2014

Psychotherapist Rosemary Randall counsels people on their feelings of powerlessness and anxiety around climate change issues. In this interview with DW, she explains how this can contribute to a neccesary transformation.

ängstliche junge Frau
Image: Max Tactic - Fotolia.com

Climate change can be overwhelming - a person often ends up feeling disengaged and helpless, or even anxious about the issue of climate change. This can lead to a vicious cycle, where a person doesn't take action because they feel powerless, which in turn prevents transformative change from taking place.

In the United Kingdom, psychotherapist Rosemary Randall has set up a special kind of therapy to tackle "climate anxiety." She's set up workshops called Carbon Conversations, which focus on climate change communication and community engagement. DW spoke with her about this work.

Deutsche Welle: How do Climate Conversations work - what gets discussed?

Rosemary Randall: It's talking about the impact our day-to-day, everyday lives have on the climate. People come together to talk about how they feel about these difficult issues and what they can do to change the impact they have. Through conversation, we have a lot of material which we use in the groups which show people where the emissions are and what the actions are that they can do to affect that. We talk about what the obstacles are, and what the process is of making those changes.

Participants at the UN Climate Change Conference in Warsaw (Photo: EPA/RAFAL GUZ)
Frustration is another emotion climate change can elicit - including over the slow pace of policyImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Who are the people attending carbon conversations and what are their reasons for coming?

The people who come are from the 15 percent of the population who are concerned about climate change, but don't know what to do. [For example,] a young person who has heard something about climate change, is upset and concerned but has tried to talk to their friends but has been rebuffed and doesn't know what to do; an old person who all their life has tried to live an ethical life and finds themselves confronted by a daughter who's moved to Australia; a middle-aged person with children who is suddenly terrified about the future for their children growing up in this uncertain world.

Why is climate change so overwhelming for people?

I think it produces anxiety, it's alarming. If you think about the challenges of climate change, people meet it with shock. If you say to somebody, "your carbon footprint is 15 tons, we need it to be 1 ton" - they turn away from it. If you tell people that they've got to spend money doing up their house, they can't fly or their commute is unsustainable, people throw up their arms in horror, and say: "I can't do anything about this. I don't want to think about what's happening. I don't want to think that my lifestyle is causing these problems."

Polar bear on ice floe
A person can also feel a sense of guilt over climate change, like when it comes to threatened speciesImage: Fotolia/st__iv

Do Carbon Conversations offer any practical support for how individuals can take action to reduce their individual carbon footprint?

The average UK carbon footprint is around 15 tons of carbon dioxide per year, and we aim to help people halve that. These aren't things which they will do in a couple of weeks - these are things that might be taking place over a number of years. So somebody might be looking at the unsustainably of their life generally, and saying, well at the moment I've got a 40-mile commute to work over the next five years - can I look at changing my work or moving house so I don't have that anymore.

How can we change the conversation about climate change from one of fear and anxiety, to one of engagement and action?

Rosemary Randall
Randall hopes the group therapy sessions can spark a rethink on the climate issueImage: Randall

I think climate change has suffered from being labeled as an environmental issue, and so you can think about it as doing my bit to save nature. I think it's quite easy to reject. It's an issue which needs to be seen as a big political issue, but as an issue which actually affects all of our lives. It's not just about so-called saving the environment. It's actually about what kind of society we want to create.

Rosemary Randall is a UK-based psychoanalytically trained psychotherapist who researches, writes and blogs on climate change, and facilitates workshops on climate change communication and community engagement.