29 January 2012

Insights from addictions recovery applied to climate change

Chris Johnstone

For many years I worked as an addictions specialist in the UK health service, part of my role being to run groups exploring how to prevent relapses. One day the topic was ‘dealing with crisis’. John, a middle aged man, started the group by saying “I’m not sure I need to be here, as I don’t really have any crisis in my life”. Just a few weeks previously, John had been told he might only have a few months left to live if he carried on drinking. The life-threatening emergency of his alcoholic liver disease didn’t seem to have sunk in.

     Over the last thirty years, each decade has been warmer than the last and predictions made years ago of a rise in weather related disasters have, tragically, been proved correct. Yet in spite of record-breaking heat waves, droughts, wildfires, storms and floods, the proportion of people that have no concerns at all about global warming rose in US-based Gallup polls from 12% in 1991 to 28% twenty years later.
•  The real climate message is in the shadows. It’s time to shine the light.
•  Carbon tax pitch misses the mark: it’s the climate, stupid!
When I see figures like these, I think of John. I think also of how insights from health psychology and addictions recovery can be usefully applied to the challenge of communicating about climate change.
     With both climate science and health-behavior change, there are a range of ways that life-preserving responses to disturbing information get blocked. Significant here are the deliberate disinformation campaigns funded by those with commercial vested interests. For example, internal memos from tobacco companies prove they knew quite early on of the health risks of smoking, yet they still paid public relations firms to systematically cast doubt on research findings showing these risks.
     Many of the public relation companies who misled the public about smoking have been doing the same thing with climate change. When we talk about people being hooked on habits and closed to information, there is a societal dimension to this too.
     Even when warnings are clearly and accurately presented, there are further barriers to the information getting through. If people are attached to the habitual consumption of a substance, they tend to react defensively to suggestions that they should cut down or go without. Heavy coffee drinkers, for example, have been shown to be much more suspicious than non-coffee drinkers of research showing health risks of coffee consumption. Think how much more attached we are, as a society, to fossil fuel use than coffee.
     The scariness of a message can have effects in opposite directions. On the one hand, fear alerts us to danger and can motivate change. In addictions recovery, crisis can become a turning point when the alarm it generates is experienced as ‘hitting rock bottom’. However crisis isn’t always recognized as a wakeup call – sometimes it becomes just another step in a continued downward spiral. The way we think about fear, and our response to it, makes a crucial difference here.
     If fear is believed to be a bad or harmful thing that we need to protect ourselves from, fear management becomes more important than danger recognition. One way to reduce fear, in the short-term at least, is to avoid looking at things that frighten us. Disturbing information simply gets screened out, turned away from or not believed. This is how John, my client, could be so close to death but not recognize a crisis in his life. Psychological defense mechanisms like this help explain why, when the problems associated with global warming are getting worse, significant numbers of people still report having no concerns at all about the subject. They are ‘masking rock bottom’ rather than hitting it.
     A concept from addictions recovery that is useful here is the principle of ‘raising rock bottom’. We don’t have to wait for a devastating crisis before we can be jolted into awareness and decide to change. If we notice our concerns earlier on and take them seriously, this generates motivation to take preventative action. One of the most successful treatments in the addictions field is based on this simple principle of supporting people to hear themselves voicing their own concerns. Called Motivational Interviewing, it backed by an impressive evidence base. How can this approach be applied with issues like climate change?
     About five years ago, Rob Hopkins, founder of the Transition Movement, and I spent a day with Professor Stephen Rollnick, co-developer of the Motivational Interviewing (MI) approach, to explore this question. Professor Rollnick’s advice was ‘move from information giving to information exchange’. In medical consultations, MI involves a shift away from lecturing people about the risks of health-damaging habits, to instead being more interested in hearing how they see the risks and what concerns they might have about these. The stance is of being a ‘motivational listener’ who makes space for people to make their own argument for change.
     I got a chance to apply this motivational listening approach when asked to facilitate an audience discussion after a screening of The Age of Stupid, a film set in a possible future devastated by climate change. There were about fifty of us, and I suggested that we divide into pairs and take turns hearing each other describe the parts of the film we found most memorable, and also how we were left feeling after watching it. Then we gathered in one large circle and went round hearing each person’s response to the film. It was gripping. Everyone had something to say, and hearing our memorable moments was like having an action reply that reinforced key messages in the film.
     When we’re confronted with disturbing information, there is a process to fully taking it in. At first we might be aware only at a detached intellectual level, but have not fully accepted it or taken on board what it means. It is as though we’ve ingested the information but not yet digested it. Hearing ourselves talk it through, and experiencing our emotional reactions, are both ways we come to terms with disturbing news and accept its reality. Talking with each other after the film showing was a way the group digested what it had heard.
     So I’m wondering how often people get the chance to hear themselves voice their concerns about climate change. And I’m wondering what would happen if fear and alarm were welcomed as healthy reactions that show we’ve noticed something dangerous is going on. Climate change communication is often seen in terms of presenting information. The insight from health psychology is that perhaps it needs to include motivational listening too.
Dr Chris Johnstone is a UK based specialist in behavioral medicine who trains doctors in motivational interviewing. His next book, co-authored with Joanna Macy, is "Active Hope – how to face the mess we’re in without going crazy" (New World Library, published March 2012). He has a website at www.chrisjohnstone.info


  1. If interested in more that I've written on insights from addiction applied to climate change, please see these two related articles.


    For transcript of Rob Hopkins, Stephen Rollnick and myself exploring this together, see http://transitionculture.org/2012/01/30/rollnick-johnstone-and-hopkins-discuss-motivational-insights-for-transition/

    Key issues here are what helps us digest disturbing information and what empowers us to give our best response – Joanna Macy and I address these in our new book ‘Active Hope – how to face the mess we’re in without going crazy’, which comes out in March/April. See http://www.activehope.info/ for details.

    Chris Johnstone

  2. I'm currently working on a PhD in Christian ethics that is attempting to rehabilitate and situate (certain kinds of) fear as a positive feature of responding well to climate change. This was a helpful post and much appreciated.