Climate Change Helplessness

Posted by Marcia Penner Freedman

I’ve noticed lately that conversations with my friends often turn into musings about the state of our planet and the effects of climate change. This doesn’t surprise me. It’s a topic we are all concerned about. But in some of my most recent conversations, I’ve discovered something that did surprise me. Several of my intelligent, educated, socially active, non-climate-change-denier friends are feeling helpless in facing the future realities of a warming Earth.

Here are a couple of examples….

There’s no hope. I don’t see a way out of it. In a short time this planet Earth is going to be uninhabitable, and there’s nothing we can do to stop it. (university scientist)

I’ve stopped reading the newspapers. I used to love my Sunday mornings reading the New York Times, but now, I open it up and read a little, and put it down. It’s too much. (author)

I’ve stopped thinking about it. It’s all too overwhelming. (retired scientist)

When I went online and checked out some of the blogs that are coming out on the subject of global warming, I found there is the tendency among some of those writers to express similar feelings.

For example……

For the first time in my life, I’m unsettled and scared for the future. I feel helpless in the face of this overwhelming issue. (blogger: The Bigger Picture Blog)

When I allow myself to think about climate change and its glaring realities, the emotional reaction created makes me feel like crawling into bed and curling into a ball (blogger: Existential Dread of Climate Change)

When people feel helpless, when they perceive that, no matter how hard they try nothing they can do will alter their bad situation, they tend to give up, accept their fate and fall into a state of inaction. Learned helplessness, as this process is called in Psychology, is a game stopper when it comes to solving problems. It can lead to depression and anxiety and a lowered sense of self.

The naming of this psychological process dates back to a series of seminal research projects in Psychology during the 1960s, when, sadly, shocking animals was considered all right in the name of science. From these investigations, the researchers concluded that an individual can learn to become helpless after unsuccessful attempts at confronting a specific negative situation. For example, a child who cannot learn to solve math problems no matter how many tutors and teachers try to help him, after failing over and over to gain control of the situation, will give up trying. Children like these are vulnerable to carrying their negative emotional reactions to their helplessness to many other aspects of their lives. Learned helplessness can become a personality trait.

But that’s not how climate change helplessness works. Instead, in helplessness over global warming, people like my friends know that personal conservation practices like recycling and cutting back on energy use are correct, but believe their efforts are ineffective simply because of the enormity of the problem. After all, in contrast to classic learned helplessness where inaction affects the individual, in climate change the impact of inaction can have far-reaching effects for millions and possibly billions of people. The person who is aware of this then becomes morally entangled in the problem of climate change. There’s the rest of the world to think of.

So, in this complicated situation of feeling ineffectual in the face of the enormous moral responsibility, people suffering from climate change helplessness might protect themselves from becoming depressed and lethargic.

Like my friends the author and the retired scientist, they avoid thinking about it. Like the university scientist who concludes that there’s nothing that can be done to stop the progress. Like the bloggers who recognize that they want to curl up in bed or who feel unsettled and scared and helpless. They all sense that climate change is out of their control. But that doesn’t mean they will stop trying.