Climate Change and the Human Mind: A Noted Psychiatrist Weighs In

Author Robert Jay Lifton has probed the psyches of barbaric Nazi doctors and Hiroshima survivors. Now, he is focusing on how people respond to the mounting evidence of climate change and is finding some reasons for hope. 

Psychiatrist and historian Robert Jay Lifton has delved deep into the some of the darkest issues and most traumatic events of the 20th century with his research into the mindset of Nazi doctors, terrorism, the experiences of prisoners of war, and the aftermath of nuclear attack, which he chronicled in Death in Life: Survivors of Hiroshima, winner of a National Book Award.

Now, at the age of 91, Lifton has turned his attention to climate change. In his new book, The Climate Swerve: Reflections on Mind, Hope, and Survival, Lifton argues that we are living through a time of increasing recognition of the reality of climate change, a psychological shift he refers to as a “swerve,” driven by evidence, economics, and ethics. 

Robert Jay Lifton

Robert Jay Lifton

In an interview with Yale Environment 360, Lifton talks about how far into this swerve we are, how natural disasters are critical in changing people’s minds about climate change, and the losing battle the Trump administration is fighting by continuing to deny the science behind global warming. “It’s becoming more and more difficult to take the stand of climate rejection,” he says, “because there is so much evidence of climate change and so much appropriate fear about its consequences.”

e360: You’ve written about fragmentary awareness shifting to formed awareness. What is the difference between the two, and where are we on that continuum in terms of climate change?

Lifton: Fragmentary awareness consists of a series of images that may be fleeting, and in that sense fragmentary. In relation to nuclear weapons, it has to do with the weapons themselves, some Hiroshima film or pictures, descriptions about deterrents, and hydrogen bombs.

Formed awareness is more structured awareness, so that there’s a narrative. There’s a cause and effect – hydrogen bombs actually creating the possibility of literally destroying the world and killing every last human being on it. And there was, in that way, an image that was clear and sequential – a narrative, a story.  And there’s a parallel with climate. With climate images, when they’re fragmentary, we may have an image of a storm here, of sea rise here, a little bit of flooding there, the drought. But when that becomes a formed image involving global warming and climate change, we take in the idea of carbon emissions leading to human effects on climate change and endangering us. And in that same narrative, there can be mitigating actions to limit climate change.

e360: Are we now entrenched in the formed awareness stage or are we on the verge of that?

Lifton: It’s hard to say exactly, but we’re moving toward formed awareness. Or putting it another way, there’s much greater formed awareness than in previous time. When you just follow the reports, the discussions of causation, you find more and more statements about carbon emissions causing climate change, human responsibility for a radical increase in global warming, and the necessity of taking significant steps toward mitigating these effects.

I think one has to look at the Paris Accord in late 2015 as epitomizing this kind of formed awareness on a universal, on what I call a “species,” basis. It doesn’t mean that we’re perfectly clear on everything and that there aren’t still fragmentary tendencies, but it does mean that there is more and more formed awareness, of a kind that can lead to constructive action.

e360: You say that formed awareness doesn’t guarantee climate wisdom, but is necessary to it. What does guarantee climate wisdom?

Lifton: Sometimes people say, “Well, how can you be so optimistic?” I’m not expressing wild optimism so much as a form of hope. It’s quite possible now, because of the formed awareness, to take wise action. Without the climate swerve and the increasingly formed awareness, no such action would be possible. So that represents a shift going on that’s highly significant and that is hopeful, but it doesn’t promise the next step, those actions. 

“What I’m calling the climate swerve is something profound. It won’t go away. The climate rejecters are fighting a losing battle.”

e360: Of course, we’re discussing these issues with the backdrop of the Trump administration. Just a few days ago, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency canceled talks by three of its scientists who were scheduled to present on climate change at a scientific conference in Rhode Island. So there are certainly forces pushing any swerve the other way. How concerned are you about that?

Lifton: I’m very concerned about it. The Trump administration, in rejecting climate change and global warming, is doing profound damage every day. And it has to do with canceling regulations and trying to silence scientists and prevent them from expressing and bringing truths to the public.

In my book, I characterize Trump and people like [EPA Administrator Scott] Pruitt and others not so much anymore as climate deniers. I call them what I think is more accurate, “climate rejecters.” They, like everyone else, have to know in some part of their minds, that climate change is quite real and dangerous. They reject this knowledge as their primary conviction or source of action. They reject the knowledge because it’s incompatible with their worldview, their sense of identity, their anti-government and governance bias, and with all they would have to do and be if they were to take in these truths. 

It’s becoming, I’ll argue, more and more difficult to take the stand of climate rejection, because there is so much evidence of climate change and so much appropriate fear about its consequences. And I think we have to, on the one hand, see this as an emergency, and on the other hand recognize that what I’m calling the climate swerve is something profound. It won’t go away. The climate rejecters are fighting a losing battle.

e360: You cite the three forces of experience, economics and ethics as pushing the climate swerve. Do you see any one of those three most forcefully leading the swerve at the moment?

Lifton: Probably the economics of it are most consequential in relationship to taking fairly quick action against global warming and climate change. There is this trend in general toward recognizing that the carbon economy is not reliable and could cause us all to suffer. And there are groups that advise large corporations about ways that climate change could harm their business, their operations. And you find many corporations and much of the business community deeply concerned about the problems of climate change. So the economics of it become crucial.

But you need, also, the public response. That comes from the experience of it — the experience of droughts, floods, wildfires, extraordinary hurricanes, all that we’ve been witnessing quite recently — so that climate change is no longer a thing of the projected future. It’s with us now. And that’s a difference in our relationship to time with climate change. Then the ethics follow from the experience and the economics. People begin to wonder about the ethics of taking from harmful oil and gas reserves that if burnt would threaten human future. That is a kind of ethical quandary. It shouldn’t be, of course, and it’s being recognized for the absurdity that it is, with more and more pressure to keep those so-called stranded assets underground and protect them from what I call “stranded ethics.”

“The mind can contradict itself; it can believe one thing one day and something else another day.”

e360: You write that swerves by their very nature are not orderly, and that this one seems particularly haphazard and, in almost all of its details, unpredictable. How so?

Lifton: Human beings are not linear, orderly creatures. We’re more complicated than that. And in the various studies I’ve done, the mind can contradict itself; it can believe one thing one day and something else another day. And we know that behavior is an adaptation to circumstances. Well, belief can be an adaptation to circumstances also.

All that is by way of saying that beliefs change, and that we’re erratic, our psyches can be quite erratic in general. That said, there can still be noted significant trends. So we have a swerve that’s irregular. The very term suggests irregularity in its origins from Lucretius, the Roman poet millennia ago. And yet, it can be quite definite in its direction. It’s been affecting us in recent decades, in my view, in profound ways. There’s a temptation to give up on it when we see powerful figures like Trump and Pruitt do the harm they’re doing to our country and to the world. But I think it’s crucial that we recognize the importance and the power of what I’m calling the climate swerve, which really amounts to species awareness of the danger that we face, along with a capacity to take the necessary steps to avoid, really, the end of our civilization.

e360: You write that, “The most important outcome of the [Paris climate] meeting may well have been enhanced awareness that we are all members of a single, threatened species.” In the U.S., at least right now, it doesn’t feel like the zeitgeist is “we’re in this all together.” But you take great hope from the Paris Agreement, don’t you?

Lifton: I take great hope from the possibilities it raised. I’ve never seen it as sufficient unto itself. In all struggle, in all movements, there’s never a kumbaya moment. There’s never a moment of satori, where everything is realized. Rather, there’s a continuous struggle with ups and downs. And with the election of Trump and all that he represents, and the extremity of his dangerous behavior in relation to climate, with all that, of course there has been a reaction and a response of, call it massive depression in relation to appropriate climate action. 

“In all struggle, in all movements, there’s never a kumbaya moment. There’s never a moment of satori, where everything is realized.”

Having said that, I think we should recognize the larger picture that even Trump has trouble extricating us from Paris. When there was this extreme reaction, angry reaction, all through the country with governors and mayors and all through the world with European countries, and an insistence on carrying through with the Paris commitments, he backtracked. And it’s unclear now whether we’ve extricated ourselves from Paris. The explanations or interpretations given by his administration are, as is frequently the case, unclear: “Yes, we will go to meetings about climate. Yes, maybe we can negotiate climate change. Yes, we’re still withdrawing from Paris.” The whole thing is uncertain because of the pressure of the swerve and the degree to which it’s taken hold.

e360: You write in your book that, “Nuclear and climate threats have both undergone malignant forms of normalization that suppress and distort our perceptions of their danger.” With regard to climate change, do you see fixes that involve geoengineering in the same light of malignant normalization?

Lifton: Yes. I see the vast projections of geoengineering as what I call a “rescue technology.” It’s calling upon technology to take over from what we human beings have been unable to solve in our own minds, even though it’s our responsibility to do exactly that. I see [geoengineering] as a desperate last stand, very ill-advised, and as a form of sometimes justifying the failure to take the necessary action in relation to climate change. And in that way, it could support what I call the “malignant normality” of climate change. Just going about things as they are now in this ultimate absurdity, as I call it.

e360: At the end of your book, you give an articulate explanation of why you, as a 91-year-old who will not see the worst effects of climate change, care about this issue. Could you share a bit of that now?

Lifton: It’s sometimes assumed that when one reaches the last stages of life, one shouldn’t have to care about the human future. One, after all, won’t be there. But it can be the reverse for many of us, and I think I’m hardly alone in this. If one considers oneself, as I do, part of the human flow, part of the Great Chain of Being, part of human connectedness, which extends from generation to generation, of course it includes one’s own children and grandchildren — and I have those. But it’s more than that. It’s continuing the human chain that one has been a part of. And in my case, that I sought to in some ways contribute to, in a modest fashion, all through my life in my work.