The Psychology of Climate Politics: How Pragmatic Action Turns Into Ideological Stagnation


Photo by SIMON LEE on Unsplash

I want to share an opinion about climate change.

But wait…

Did you feel that? What was that?

Was it your throat tightening up? Your jaw clenching? Stomach churning? Muscles starting to tense, preparing to defend a sacred ideological territory?

“Which side is he on…?” Should I prepare to like or loathe this article? Shall I prepare to invoke applause, interrogation, or antagonization through my keystrokes? Who is this guy with the cheesy smile, anyway?

All of these responses are welcome.

If I assumed correctly — if you did notice emotions stir up, just by reading the words “climate change” — then, waaa-hooo! I do have special powers!

Just kidding.

If you reacted emotionally, you’re probably in the majority. And your response makes perfect sense. The topic of climate change is so politically polarized — and therefore so enmeshed with our social identities — that, of course, we are going to assume a particular posture when this topical beast rears its head in our line of sight.

If you didn’t react at all, then I can only assume: a) you’re not paying attention, or b) your enlightened, and if that’s the case… teach us your ways.

Clearly, there is an emotional element to a topic that should not be distorted by the dysfunctional marriage of Left and Right in today’s world. We should be able to look at the facts as they are. But we don’t, and this prevents us from moving forward in a way that is both deeply necessary (Left: “yes!”) and deeply pragmatic (Right: “yes!”).

The Psychology of Separation

How did we end up in this dysfunctional marriage between Left and Right? Honey… how did we get here?!

In my estimation, polarization stems largely from not listening to one another.

Listening is fundamental to any relationship.

When one does not feel seen and heard — and especially when one feels hopeless and helpless about the possibility of this occurring — one’s actions become more extreme. The function of this is a sort of “acting out” behavior, a desperate and vitriolic attempt to simultaneously be heard and express anger towards the non-listener.

We are all familiar with this. We wanted a toy as a child, and when our parents didn’t listen, we threw a tantrum. We wanted our parents to see how much we wanted that toy and how upset we were. Because we lacked the the capacity to express this through language, we “acted out” and made a scene in order to get the point across.

Some version of this continues in our adult relationships; we never truly grow up. Our partner may be listening when there is a disagreement, but perhaps they don’t fully hear us. Despite our best efforts, we can’t seem to get the message through. So… How do I get my point across? The silent treatment. Leaving dishes in the sink. Avoiding sex. Refusing to hear their perspective. Heightening my side of the argument just to make my point. A similar dynamic may develop with relationships at work and other contexts.

The takeaway point is that when two sides can’t see and hear each other, they drift further apart. Their behavior becomes increasingly more extreme in an attempt to both strengthen their position and rebuke the opposing one. One side is right and the other is wrong. Two people, or two groups, begin fracturing apart and lose the capacity to see what is good in the other.

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What Are Your Deeper Needs?

What gets lost in the process of separation and polarization is the original intent behind one’s position. What begins as a rational, realistic, and non-reactive position turns into a distorted, dysfunctional, and derailed goal. The psychology of polarization turns pragmatic action into ideological stagnation. Two sides fight to get their own needs met, those needs increasingly detached from reality.

So, to work towards some sort of common ground, it’s helpful to clearly identify the deeper need or original intent of each side’s position.

Let us retrace our steps.

Currently, we find ourselves in a position where: the Left is willing to invest large amounts of time and resources to curb climate emissions and cultivate alternative forms of energy. At the extreme end, we must halt anything and everything that could harm the planet. The Right, on the other hand, might say that while climate change is indeed real and problematic, the investments being proposed will do little good (or could do harm, e.g., to poorer countries). On the extreme end, climate change is denied outright.

I think it is fair to say that from the perspective of the Left, it feels like the Right doesn’t care about the environment; and from the perspective of the Right, it feels like the Left is is pursuing some sort of political agenda.

There is of course truth in both.

But how did we get here?

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

I think there are deeper intents that are not being heard on both sides, turning pragmatic wisdom into ideological capture and, let’s call it, “na-na-na-boo-boo” behavior. Do you hear me now?!

Let’s do an experiment (you don’t have to do this in real life, unless you want to): let’s extend as much grace and empathy as possible to both sides.

What is the Left truly trying to express? If you ask me, underneath the spending packages, social movements, and political optics, there is a message that we need to care more deeply about the world. The world is clearly in trouble. We only have one of it. We need to take care of this precious planet that we are interconnected and interdependent with.

I wholeheartedly agree.

Let’s keep the experiment going. What is the Right truly trying to express? Perhaps underneath the skepticism, denial, and blocking of spending and investment in alternative energy, there is a message that we need to be rational about how we care for the world. Will the spending actually do any good? Will a rapid shift to alternative energy sources hurt poorer countries who rely on other forms of energy? Do we fully appreciate the causes of climate change — what if it’s not solely about carbon emissions, but also the degradation of other natural ecosystems, for example… do we have “carbon tunnel vision?”

These are all questions I wholeheartedly share.

But instead of hearing each other out — acknowledging the concerns of the Left and the questions of the Right — the psychology of polarization has spiraled us into separate realities. In order to have our concerns acknowledged, and our questions addressed, we find ourselves “acting out” in order to be heard: see the social and political “stunts” on both sides, a sort of theatrical expression of deeper emotions harbored by both groups.

How do we stop the spiral of polarization? How do we find common ground? How do we unwind ideological stagnation and allow pragmatic action to unfold?

We could start with listening.

About the Author:

Matthew Goodman, Ph.D. is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist and Clinical Assistant Professor of Psychiatry and the Behavioral Sciences at the Keck School of Medicine of USC. He offers consulting, coaching, and speaking on topics such as mental health, mindfulness, conscious leadership, and society and culture.

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Matthew S. Goodman, Ph.D.

Clinical Psychologist. Clinical Assistant Professor @ USC. Founder/CEO of The Middle Way. Writing at the intersection of psychology, spirituality, and society.