Wildfires, extreme heat and other weather events, like the ice storm this past February, have Oregonians thinking about climate change in a much more personal way. We talk with clinical psychologist Thomas Doherty, who helps people cope with anxiety, depression and other mental health issues brought on by the climate crisis. In 2008 and 2009, Doherty served on the American Psychological Association’s Task Force on the Interface Between Psychology and Global Climate Change. He says in the intervening years, he’s had more and more clients come to him looking for help with difficult feelings related to the warming climate and changes in the natural world.
This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: From the Gert Boyle studio at OPB, this is Think Out Loud. I’m Dave Miller.
There was a time when it was possible to see climate change as an abstraction, a problem on the horizon. That time is over. The cascading crisis is evident to everyone who is not willfully ignoring it. In the Northwest, in the last year, climate change has been tied to deadly heat, off the charts smoke, megafires, and drought, and it’s only going to get worse. More warming is already baked into the global system, because political and corporate decision makers have barely budged from our fossil fuel based status quo.
We’ve talked a lot about climate change over the last few years about emissions and ecosystems and political systems. We haven’t talked much about the mental toll that it takes on individuals. The grief and depression and anxiety that are directly tied to the world we are changing for the worse.
The psychologist Thomas Doherty has been thinking about and working through these issues with his patients for years now, and he joins us on the line. Thomas Doherty, welcome to Think Out Loud.
Thomas Doherty: Thanks Dave.
Miller: I want to start with a voicemail and then we can start talking.
Caller: I’m Debra from Milwaukie, and I am sorry to say that I don’t have hope anymore. We had an opportunity to make meaningful changes years ago, but people didn’t feel any impact of the warming climate in their day to day lives, so there was no sense of urgency. And now that more people are feeling the devastating impacts, the scales have tipped too far. Aquifers have dried up. Western North America is on fire. Three billion animals died in Australia’s fires, and even the arctic is burning now. It’s just, it’s too late to come back from this.
But in spite of all that, I really hope that this program can give me a reason to hope, because literally every day I fight off despair.
Miller: I want to give you a chance to answer Debra’s plea as we go. But I thought we could start with a bigger picture question, because I can imagine someone hearing my intro just now and saying “Why are you focused on feelings?” Because this is a political problem that boils down to math. It boils down to you know parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere. How would you respond to that meta question about this entire conversation?
Doherty: Thanks, Dave. And I appreciate Debra’s comments.
I think with environmental issues and other social issues, we have three basic tasks. Expression, description, and prescription. What we feel about the situation, how we understand it, and what we should do about it. And I think typically the powers that be in society, law, economics, policy, they tend to focus on description, often using data and science and prescription, what we should do. But that expressive piece is really important, and it’s always bubbling up. And so when we talk about eco-anxiety and things like that, I think it’s a form of expression. So I actually think it’s very important to talk about. It actually opens up our energy to deal with the problem in different ways. So I appreciate Debra sharing and I’d be happy to talk more about hope as we go.
Miller: I’ve seen in the past, you reference a British philosopher who has called climate change a “hyperobject”. It seems like it’s an important notion to try to wrap our heads around this conversation and any about climate change. What does that term mean?
Doherty: I think you’re referring to Timothy Morton’s hyperobject. I understand it, his idea is that climate change is a hyperobject. It’s a concept that it’s really too large for us to fully understand. It exceeds our understanding and it exceeds our ability to measure and kind of quantify.
And it is true. One of the things to think about with climate change is really recognizing the diversity of views that people have on this issue. That’s another way to think about it. There’s so many different ways that people will think about this. So we have to really kind of develop a kind of a cosmopolitanism about thinking about climate change and all the different ways that people talk about it, either in terms of science, or in terms of their spirituality, or in terms of policy, in terms of economics, and things like that.
But this hyperobject is kind of sticky in the sense that once you get into it, it’s kind of hard to find the edges of it. It kind of implicates us on all different levels, implicates us in our daily life and the decisions we make in terms of our products we buy, and our lifestyle. And also, we think in larger scale, about the economy, and government, and policy, and things like that.
It can be overwhelming. So one of the things to work on with people is to help them to get grounded a bit, to navigate this in a way that’s authentic for them.
Miller: Marsha has called in from Vancouver. Marsha, go ahead.
Caller : Oh, good afternoon. Dave. Thank you so much for taking my call. I am calling because climate change has just been a decades-long concern of mine. And this summer, I don’t think anybody can deny that things have really gotten to a point of no return. So, to counter the despair and the angst of this whole situation, I decided about five years ago to join Citizens’ Climate Lobby. And so I’m working with some absolutely fabulous volunteers throughout the Northwest and throughout the country. And what we do is we phone, we write, we lobby our senators and our representatives, asking them to put a price on carbon emissions, because we believe that’s the only way, that’s the only way that we will get to the point we need to meet to meet the 2030 and 2050 carbon emissions reductions.
So I just want to encourage everybody who’s feeling the angst and the despair to get off your angst couch and do something. Join an organization. I personally recommend Citizens’ Climate Lobby. And if you want to take a step right now, you can go to cclusa.org/senate, and it will walk you through an easy way to call your senators.
Our Democratic senators in Oregon and Washington right now are talking about the reconciliation package, and what we can do to put climate change on that agenda. And so one thing that we are pushing for is to put a price on carbon emissions in this reconciliation package. There’s so many other ideas that nibble around the edges, but until we put a price on carbon emissions, we will not get where we need to go. I thank you for your time and I know I’ve been a little chatty here.
Miller: That’s alright, Marsha, thanks for calling in.
Thomas Doherty, what do you see as the connection between action of some kind, activism, as Marsha has been urging for others and describing it herself, and assuaging anxiety or depression?
Doherty: Anxiety is a normal emotion. Anxiety is essentially fear wrapped in a cloud, it’s the fear of a potential threat. Like we deal with any other kind of anxiety provoking situation, we try to dispel the cloud, get an understanding of what the threat is, and take some action. That’s why anxiety is very adapted and helpful. And so yes, typically taking action in our lives is going to be helpful.
With climate change, when I’m working with someone, I typically don’t start with action first, because I like to help someone stay with their feelings, really understand where they’re at, build a foundation of their own daily health and sustainability in some basic ways, and then think about what action fits for them in their life.
You can imagine a whole spectrum of activities for people. When I used to teach in college classes, I would have an exercise called the frontline exercise. And I have all the students line up in a line and I’d say “On this end of the line is the front line. That is the direct action. That’s where the tear gas or the smoke, Dakota Access Pipeline protests, or whatever. And then there is the back of the line, and you find your space in the line.”
Certain people are front line people. They’re going to be doing direct action, and other people, there are many other places to fit in. You can support the front line, you can work on the website, or the messaging or the fundraising or make the food or take care of the children.
So I do think action is important, but I also don’t think it’s- you know Thoreau, he has a saying, he said “It’s not characteristic of wisdom to do desperate things.” So I want people to take action, but not in a desperate way. In a way that they feel good about, that they understand, that fits for their life. I think Citizens’ Climate Lobby is a great program, and that works for a lot of people. But again, we have to be cosmopolitan about the different ways that people can approach. Not everyone has the ability or the interest to do the same kind of thing. So we want to start with the person.
Miller: Let’s listen to another voicemail that came in.
Caller: My name’s Alicia, I’m calling from Portland. I have been freaking out about climate change since I saw Al Gore’s film, An Inconvenient Truth. And I have been feeling for years, like I live in Alice in Wonderland, upside down world, that’s totally insane, where the biggest threat to human existence in all of human history is right up close to us and we are acting like it’s no big deal. I actually feel now emotionally, a huge relief, despite all of the terrible events that are happening, because at least I’m living in a world where people recognize that it’s a problem. I talk to people now, neighbors, friends. Every conversation begins with “The weather’s weird.” People are concerned, they’re freaked out, they’re upset, and I feel like we’re on the same level now. And I don’t wish it on anyone, but we’re not going to solve this crisis if people don’t think it’s a problem.
Miller: Thomas Doherty, how much of an increase have you seen in your own clinical practice, or in conversations with colleagues, in clients seeking help specifically for mental health issues related to climate change?
Doherty: That’s that’s really interesting question, and I get that a lot. I first started formally studying mental health and climate change well over a decade ago when I was working with the American Psychological Association Task Force. And at that time, a lot of the climate impacts were talked about in speculative kind of distant terms or problems for another part of the world.
We helped to sort of figure out that there’s multiple levels of climate impacts. There’s the actual disaster impacts that people might experience. There’s the extended impacts of migrants and refugees and economic problems that broadly wash over society. And then there is that third level, that kind of subjective impact. The emotional weight of carrying the issue, even if you are relatively protected, or privileged,
What has happened in the last decade is that these circles have started to overlap. So the disasters and the large scale social upheavals and the emotional things, it’s kind of what I call a singularity at times. There’s a climate singularity happening. And that’s what I see in my practice. It used to be that my climate work was somewhat specialized and a lot of my clients in my daily psychology practice would be thinking about what you imagine, people think about relationships and jobs and stress and things like that. But of course, in the last year or so, between the fires and smoke and various things in Oregon, everyone has been dealing with that. So we’ve had a bit of what I call a singularity happening here, where climate change is hitting home.
And I think that has been happening around the world, this kind of singularity, and it will continue to happen in various places.
Miller: Have other clinicians turned to you to say “You’ve been thinking about these issues for a long time now, can you help me?”
Doherty: Yeah. I’m starting to supervise- well, going back, I did run an academic program for a number of years teaching counselors how to do outdoor therapy and work on some of these issues. So that’s something I’ve been interested in. There wasn’t a program like this when I was interested in it when I was trying to go to school, so I hope to create one. So I’ve been doing this for a while.
But more recently, you know I’m supervising therapists that are going for their license that want to do things like outdoor outdoor therapy and walking therapy. And there is a whole generation of psychologists that want to get more involved in climate change, and I think as these climate impacts unfold around the country, this is gonna be more common for your typical therapist. And I think most mental health therapists have the tools, the basic tools to handle depression, anxiety, to help people’s set goals and things like that. So I think there’s a lot to apply there.
Miller: Let’s listen to a few more voicemails now. A few people who called in talked about children or grandchildren. Let’s have a listen.
Caller: My name is Kat G. I have been doing a lot of good grief about the state of our planet right now and it’s been very hard for me to watch. I’ve seen it coming for a really long time, like many of us, and it’s just really, really hard to watch. It’s like a long goodbye. What gives me help is our children. We have some pretty amazing young people on this planet and I think they’re the ones that are going to have to save it.
Caller: My name is Melanie Farnsworth. I live in Rhododendron, Oregon. And yes, I’m depressed about climate change, but I have grandchildren, and they’re teaching kids about climate change. When they were little, they were saying on extra hot days and extra snowy days, “Is this from climate change?” Now, it truly is. It was 111° here in Rhododendron this summer. It’s just not the best time to be a kid, I wouldn’t imagine. And this is adult-made. And that’s even more depressing.
Miller: Thomas Doherty, I’m curious what stands out to you in those. We have two different voicemails where kids or grandkids are seen both or either as a source of hope and a reason for despair.
Doherty: Children always come up in this conversation and for good reason. There’s a number of things to talk about here. One exercise is, for adults and for older adults, is just to imagine yourself being young. Naturalists talk about shifting baselines. We have a different baseline, each generation has a new baseline about the natural environment and what’s normal, and we have to understand that to young people, this is the world, this is a new world for them. And they deserve a chance to think about the world in a positive and hopeful way. Young people aren’t necessarily encumbered by some of the losses and the old views that older adults have. So I find it inspiring sometimes to think about being young and approaching the world in a youthful way.
We have to be careful of not saddling young people, particularly young children, with too much of a sense of duty. I don’t think that’s fair. When we think about children, we have to think about natural child development. Young children really benefit from play and connection with safe outdoor places, and make-believe and learning skills and building their competencies. Coming into adolescence, it is helpful to start teaching about science and about environmental issues and policy and things like that, but we don’t necessarily want to saddle young people with too much weight.
I think one of the terms that I use in general around this issue, an emotional validation term, is this idea of being a “climate hostage.” For many of us, we’re hostages to a system that we don’t have a lot of ability to control. And really, a small group of powerful people have stymied action on climate change here in the US and around the world. So many of us are, in a sense, a climate hostage.
One of the most tragic outcomes of this situation, particularly fossil fuel or fossil fuel corporation propaganda, is that somehow we’re all responsible for climate change and it’s all of our individual faults and we need to work on our carbon footprint and things like that. But that’s not necessarily true. We’re not all responsible. Climate change is a government and a policy issue. And so I want to make sure that young people don’t blame themselves and their very existence for climate change, and for harming future generations.
Miller: Let’s take some more calls. Garrett has called in from Gresham. Garrett, go ahead.
Caller: This is the topic I think about often. I’m a young person. I graduated from college, only a couple years ago, I’m working in the construction industry and I see progress, but I also see lots else, in the construction industry. There’s a lot going on. I constantly think about what’s it going to be like when I’m 75? I can be an activist, but at the same time, Oregon is pretty progressive, and how much is my activism in this area going to be? It’s on my mind a lot. I appreciate you bringing up this topic.
Miller: Garrett, thanks very much for calling in. Scott called in from Eugene. Scott, go ahead.
Caller: Hello. I’m a general contractor, following up on the construction guy earlier, and I’ve got young adult children now, and it’s really difficult to know what to do and how to move forward. I drive a big truck, I pull a trailer. I burn all kinds of fuel all the time. Everything I do is carbon intensive, and I’m really concerned about myself, and I’m concerned about my family, and I’m concerned about how we survive every day. And this is just a challenge. And it’s very difficult.
Miller: Scott, thanks very much for that call. Thomas Doherty what’s your response?
Doherty: Well, I just appreciate all these comments. This show is really helpful. People rarely have a chance to share this, to share their feelings and thoughts about this. Research shows that we talk about climate issues less than we even talk about race in the United States. So it’s really important to have these conversations. These are all complicated ideas, and it does bring us back as the earlier caller talked about, into policy and legislation and pricing carbon and things like that. And I do believe that that is ultimately the direction to go. I think our legislators need to hear people’s voices and they need to hear those feelings, like the person that just spoke.
Hope. The earlier caller talked about hope. I think of hope as what I call a built emotion. Emotions are verbs. We have to have them, we have to work them. Hope is something you can get better at. I personally go in and out of hope. I have periods of hopelessness and I have periods of hope. When I am involved in a project, when I’m doing something like this conversation, when I’m writing, when I’m teaching, when I’m working with people, I tend to feel more hopeful. When I’m tired, or fatigued, or hear some bad news, I’m going to be less hopeful.
It’s said that hope is your highest vision of the possible. That comes out of some environmentalists here in Portland, “your highest vision of the possible.” So, it’s two things. It’s having a high vision, and something that’s possible. And if you can get on that, and work on that, that is a way to authentically built, not fake hope, that kind of real hope based on possible outcomes.
Miller: I was struck by a tweet I saw a couple days ago by Rebecca Leber who covers the climate crisis for Vox. She wrote “I’m asked all the time about how not to leave people too despairing on climate change, or what gives me hope. It feels like I’m expected to give others more excuses to not worry too much.”
I’m curious how you think about the helpful or healthy level of worry, given the deadly seriousness of what people are worrying about?
Doherty: Like I say, everyone gets to do their own apocalypse, right? We get to do it our way. That’s why I talk about that expression level. You get to say how you feel, that’s your thing. And again, coming back to the idea of a hyperobject, climate change is bigger than all of us. And there are way more answers and more approaches than any of us individually have. So I have to learn to make peace with other styles of addressing climate change, even among mental health therapists and among psychologists. There are different approaches, different theories and things like that. They aren’t necessarily always the ones that I would use or even agree with. But I have to respect that these people are coming at this issue from an authentic place.
That’s one of the most challenging things, and I think it actually holds up action on climate change is that people who are wanting to address climate change sometimes can’t get along with each other, and they really get attached to their specific method, or their specific solution. It takes a real big person to be able to focus on a specific solution, and also honor other approaches that might be different. And that includes honoring other emotional responses.
Miller: And letting everybody have, as you say, their own apocalypse. Thomas Doherty, thanks very much for joining us.
Doherty: Thanks Dave, this was great.
Contact “Think Out Loud®”
If you’d like to comment on any of the topics in this show or suggest a topic of your own, please get in touch with us on Facebook or Twitter, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org, or you can leave a voicemail for us at 503-293-1983. The call-in phone number during the noon hour is 888-665-5865.