The psychology of climate change

Climate Change Coaches
United Kingdom (Oxford)

When you think about climate change, you’re likely to experience a range of emotions. Some of us naturally feel inspired to act, but more often, we experience worry and anxiety or feel overwhelmed by the enormity of the situation. And if you feel galvanised to act and want to motivate those around you to do something too, you may find it really hard to influence others or even start the conversation.

“You only have to scratch the surface in a conversation on climate change to hear that people feel powerless about it.”

Step forward the Climate Change Coaches, who are creating a stir in the worlds of both climate activism and coaching, with an unusual solution in the race to save the planet. They work not on what people do about climate change, but how they feel about it.

Their starting point was to recognise that while climate change is being felt in the natural environment, it is driven by our actions as humans, and is therefore just as much a human behaviour problem as an environmental one. Given that most people come to coaching when they want to change something in their lives or their work, the team spotted an opportunity to bring everything that they know about behaviour change to our need to reduce our impact on the planet.

Founder Charly Cox puts it like this: “You only have to scratch the surface in a conversation on climate change to hear that people feel powerless about it. It is overwhelming in scale and time. Coaches work with that emotion every day. People come to us wanting to change but not sure how, and we walk them out of that stuck place and back into their natural sense of confidence and capability. It felt obvious that we should work on this too.

“We know that when people believe, and are believed in, they do incredible things.”

For Charly, this is a deeply personal mission, and one that she began after the birth of her daughter, in 2016: “I’ve been a coach for seven years, but when I thought of the world my daughter would inherit from me, I woke up to the reality of climate change. And what I then read really frightened me.”

Charly describes an experience that she has subsequently seen in a lot of people who have recently engaged with this subject. “It felt a bit like I’d been watching an incredible performance at the theatre, when someone tapped me on the shoulder and took me backstage. And when I got there I saw that the crew were being terribly treated, and that the set was a health and safety nightmare, and that actually, the theatre was on fire. When you’ve seen that, you stagger back into the auditorium, where everyone is still enjoying the show and say “hey, it’s awful back there, and the theatre’s burning!” And they say “It can’t be that bad, the actors look like they’re having a great time” and “If it was really on fire the management would stop the show and evacuate us”. And when you’ve not seen what’s really going on, that response makes absolute sense. But the truth is that the theatre IS on fire, and the management are as paralysed as we are.”

Charly quickly realised that yelling ‘The theatre’s on fire!’ wasn’t an effective way to inspire change however. Instead she found that using a coaching approach was far more successful. Listening to people instead of telling them, and following their interests, not imposing her own, enabled her to hear what really mattered to people and then to help them personalise their actions.

When we make change personal and enjoyable to us, we’re far more likely to sustain it, as anyone who has ever tried to lose weight or quit smoking will tell you. Many of us will have given up on something we pledged to do because we started out telling ourselves that we should do it, not because we wanted to do it. The Climate Change Coaches would say that that is a classic case of doubt making our decisions for us! They often see people making decisions out of fear or guilt (“I should”, “I ought to”, “I have to”) and that that leads to poor decisions that don’t stick. It also leads to solutions that aren’t very creative, like ‘the only way to lose weight is to go jogging’ when jogging makes you want to throw up!

The Climate Change Coaches approach is that rather than telling people what to do, we should help them regain their belief that it is possible to succeed and then decide their options. A bit like your doctor helping you to identify all the reasons that quitting smoking might make your life better, rather than telling you all the ways it might kill you, the team teach people how to be a thinking partner to others, not a doctrinarian.

Charly explains why this is important: “The beauty of a coaching approach is that we don’t need to tell people what to do, because when people feel good, they naturally come up with great ideas. None of us ever had a good idea when we felt bad or stuck, but when we feel empowered we regain our sense of creativity and possibility. Telling people what to do also isn’t fixing the real problem. The problem isn’t that people need more data to tell them what to do. We’ve known what to do to fix this since the seventies, and long before, and haven’t acted. The real problem is that we lack belief that we can act and that acting will lead to success.”

The team see that problem at all levels, from the general public to politicians and business leaders, and so they make a point of modelling the behaviours that they’d like to see leaders embodying, such as compassion, possibility and groundedness. This isn’t new to the team, many of whom have a background in leadership development.

Team member Hamish Mackay-Lewis is enthusiastic about the potential to inspire people to lead. “It is great to bring everything we know about leadership to this, because we know that great leaders help their staff to develop their self-belief and adapt their behaviour, and that they also know how to manage their own emotions and energy levels in times of change. We teach people not just how to build strong relationships that allow them to influence, but also how to recognise when they need a break, in order to keep their own conviction strong. We want people to be climate leaders as well as climate coaches.”

The team are bringing everything that they’ve learned professionally about helping people to master change to the problem of how we change our behaviour to reduce our impact on the planet. But they do more than that, because as coaches, they also create conversations about climate change that are free from judgment, blame or guilt.

Team member, Sarah Flynn is really clear about why this is important: “Climate scientists and environmentalists have told us that a big problem is the fact that people aren’t talking about climate change. When I tried to speak with my own friends and family, I noticed how awkward people seemed, and some admitted that talking about it made them feel deeply guilty. So, a part of what we do is creating the space for people to speak freely. At one workshop a woman put up her hand and asked if warming was really a problem, or if it wasn’t just part of a cycle of warming and cooling. For us that was a real sign that we’d made it safe enough for her to ask that question rather than staying quiet and never really moving forward. We can’t bulldoze past the views that don’t chime with our own. Instead we need to help people to make sense of what is a really complex problem. If you meet people where they are, they are able to share their concerns and doubts, and then move forward. If you don’t create that opportunity, or make them feel wrong for how they feel, then nothing changes, or they disengage.”

The Climate Change Coaches offer free coaching at events and taster workshops that give everyone some of the skills to be a climate change coach in their own work and community. They are busy creating a full training programme for those who want to use coaching to influence and empower others to act, whether as activists or internal champions in companies, or as communities who come together around this. They are also building an accredited training programme for coaches who want to support people doing this work.

Charly is excited about the future. “We have had so much interest from around the world from organisations and from coaches; it’s been astounding. We want to pass on skills so that we can create a global movement of people with the tools to tackle powerlessness wherever they find it. We are very excitingly in discussion with a publisher about Climate Change Coaching, the book! That will really help us to reach more people.”

The Climate Change Coaches believe that it is possible to solve climate change and we want everyone to believe that too. You can get involved! Invite the team to your organisation, event or community group for a taster workshop or some 1-1 coaching to reignite your capability and to learn how to revive it in others. Get in touch with them here.

Atlas Action: Talk about climate change with friends and family, with curiosity and kindness, and avoid slipping into ‘teacher mode’ but instead pose questions to get people thinking. Question your own automatic responses when it comes to changing your behaviour, and check that it is objective fact, not subjective doubt that puts you off. Remember what worked for you in other changes that you’ve made in your life, like exercising more or losing weight, and apply those same rules to doing things that support the planet.

(21 May 2019)

Project leader

Charly Cox, Founder

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