18 Nov 2014. Climate change and the media

Not enough attention is being paid to how climate news is likely to leave us feeling, and this matters greatly. When we feel unsupported we find it harder to bear climate news in a way that helps us live with it, and we are more likely to jump between alarmism and denial.


On disavowal in the media

by Sally Weintrobe

Climate change and the media discussion with journalists Anne Karpf, John Vidal and James Painter

Centre for research into Media, Identity and Culture (MiC) London Metropolitan University 


Not enough attention is being paid to how climate news is likely to leave us feeling, and this matters greatly. When we feel unsupported we find it harder to bear climate news in a way that helps us live with it, and we are more likely to jump between alarmism and denial.

What sorts of support can journalists offer people to bear the news about global warming? Common advice is, “don’t raise anxiety, always deliver good news along with the bad and use narrative”. How we understand this advice will very much depend on how we see people. In one view people are sets of attitudes to influence and behaviours to change. In another view people are real, present, seeking to relate and be related to directly, and have an inner subjective life involving their hopes, fears, strengths, vulnerabilities and moral concerns. My view of people is the second.

People need support to bear the news

Journalists may feel they need to be psychological experts to help people bear the news about climate change, but this is not the case. As human beings we all know intuitively how to relate to people when we tell them disturbing and challenging news: we offer fellow feeling, show empathy, don’t offer quick fixes and don’t moralise. We try to imagine what it feels like to be in their shoes.

The problem with climate news is that by now, because of inaction, it is so much harder to hear and to bear[i]. The situation is currently getting close to being emotionally unbearable to face. In my view the most tragic outcome of inaction on climate change – its true cost – is the emotional overload knowing about it now causes. Climate news is now trauma inducing news[ii]. It is traumatic when we realise we are not being cared about at the level of our survival. Also, to be offered so little scope within current political structures to exercise our collective care. People have a deep need not only to feel cared about but also to be able to exercise their care, not just individually but as citizens. It makes us human and gives meaning to life.

When traumatized, we find it harder to think in rational caring ways. Indeed we need to reduce emissions not only to stop environmental and social damage but also to limit damage to our minds.

Another source of the trauma is the guilt and shame stirred when we realize we are all implicated in the rising damage we can now see. People by nature are bad at managing guilt. They can tend to bounce quickly and defensively away from feeling ‘it’s all my fault’ to feeling ‘it’s nothing whatever to do with me.’ I heard a friend jump in this way after seeing climate scientist Chris Rapley’s new play 2071[iii] on climate change. At a meal afterwards, discussing the play, she suddenly burst out angrily, “it’s not all my fault! I won’t have it. It’s leadership!” I was very struck by this, as no one had suggested it was all her fault.

Time for carbon mitigation to enable us to stay below 2 degrees temperature rise has now almost run out[iv], and this raises survival anxiety. When people feel their survival threatened they are more likely to regress by turning to leaders and idealizing them as ‘saviours’ in a passive and helpless kind of way, even leaders who will in reality aggravate the problem and not address it with genuine measures.[v] They can also tend to become more focused on their own immediate survival, wanting to consume and hoard more, erect barriers and push others out. We are already starting to see these tragic consequences of our inaction.

A leader like Churchill helped people resist this sort of regressive pull to passivity or uncaring ways of thinking by supporting people to find inner sources of agency, strength and moral purpose to act for the good. Reporters are not political leaders but they can deliver news in a way that helps people rise to a challenge and not to regress. I believe this is a very important part of their current role and duty.

The most important and urgent task for responsible journalism in this most difficult situation is to continue to give the climate picture truthfully, in a way that helps people hear the truth and helps them rise to the challenges it poses them with. It does people the greatest disservice to think they can and should be protected from the truth.[vi] As responsible news givers – psychoanalysts are news givers too – we might feel very inadequate, helpless and hopeless, feeling we might be doing more harm than good with the truth and also that we have so little to offer. But this is to forget what a difference it can make when we give understanding and support along with the bad news. People truly appreciate not sugared pills or magic rescue plans but help to understand what they feel, the reasons why they feel the way they do, and that somebody cares they feel this way.

For example, I e-mailed an Australian climate colleague to commiserate about Tony Abbot’s Australian government abolishing the carbon tax. He replied, “The constant background feeling I have is one of fear. I am sorry to impose this on you.” I emailed back, “don’t say sorry. I am also afraid”. He did not need to apologize for disturbing me; actually, he helped me name the fear I was feeling. Feeling afraid is a rational response when we see national leaders as agents of corporate power driving us towards a dystopic future or no future at all.

I think journalists also need to work to mend a current split between mainstream media and social media in reporting on climate change. Social media carries more of the hopeful news about actions people are taking. We have outstanding leaders on climate change at the current time and ordinary people are showing an outstanding capacity to care about the problem and this needs to be part of the story in the mainstream press.[xvii]


I turn now to the widespread disavowal promoted by mainstream media. In a state of disavowal we see the reality but use magical thinking to rid us of its power to disturb us. The magical thinking includes trivializing or minimizing the reality; claiming it can be addressed by ‘quick fixes’ or that its effects will be suffered not by us but by people far away across the world or in the future.

I suggest the central aim of climate disavowal is to block awareness of our need to give up a particular uncaring mindset. In this mindset we believe we are entitled to cause environmental and social damage without counting the cost or bearing responsibility; we believe nature endlessly provides and even when aware this is not true and that nature has limits, we think others will pay the price and suffer the effects. I believe it is impossible to overstate the degree to which we are culturally in the collective grip of this mindset. The culture – including current mainstream media culture – actively promotes the mindset because it props up ‘business as usual’ and blocks social change and transition to a low carbon economy. A main way it promotes the mindset is by promoting disavowal of damage.

It takes strength to resist the uncaring mindset and the culture that promotes it, and to live with the pain of knowing about the damage the mindset has caused. Disavowal can be so emotionally seductive in that it makes the situation so apparently un-disturbing, but in reality it leaves people feeling helpless and hopeless, vacillating between alarmism and denial.[viii] We know deep down it is a quick fix not a genuine solution and that it is based on magical ‘as if’ thinking.

Tracking disavowal

We need to keep a very vigilant eye on disavowal. It can be hard to spot as its content keeps changing with changes in the climate and it resists being seen in ways that are as wily as Machiavelli’s fox. It is hardest to spot when it uses a part truth to undermine what is true. Here is my understanding of cultural disavowal in recent times

Around the time of Hurricane Sandy, weird weather came into main public consciousness. Whenever a link was made with climate change, a chorus of media voices said, “ that’s unscientific. You can’t draw that conclusion from one example of weird weather.” This is true. But most often this point was made not to inform but to minimize or close down the subject of climate change, and this is disavowal.

With Sandy now more recognized as likely to have been related to warming, the main focus of disavowal has shifted to adaptation. It is true we need to adapt, as climate change is already here. But, very often adaptation is brought in to shut down the subject of mitigation, as if they were options to choose between. This is disavowal. The way to avoid rising carbon emissions and address global warming is mitigation.

Disavowal has also recently shown up as two deadly ideas that I believe are linked. One is, “it’s already too late”. It may be, but it is presumptive and arrogant to state this as known and given, especially with what is at stake. The other is, “we can delay mitigation a while longer”. We simultaneously seem to have already run out of time and still have enough time for further delay. Both these positions are often in practice used to support the idea of carrying on as usual, and they involve fantastic manipulations of our sense of time and urgency. When their main aim is to support business as usual (i.e. no mitigation) they are disavowal, and they leave us between alarmism and denial.

Another form of disavowal, currently being robustly challenged, is ‘it can’t be done’ (i.e. mitigation is impossible). And, the latest still only semi-conscious form of disavowal is that we, the privileged ones in the global north, are going to be able to protect ourselves from the effects of climate change with adaptation measures and by hardening up our feelings[xii]. A siege mentality is starting to show its ugly presence, together with Noah’s Ark imagery. But this idea only keeps afloat by disavowing the seriousness of where we are now and airbrushing out the reality that in this situation we will all sink or swim together.

I began by saying disavowal shifts its focus and can be hard to spot. What makes it far easier to spot is understanding that its aim is always the same: to airbrush out the need for immediate and urgent carbon mitigation measures, either at a collective or individual level.

Tracking disavowal in the media.

Mainstream media works to airbrush out our realistic anxieties about climate change, while at a deeper level when it does this it drives up anxiety. I suggest an example is BBC Radio 4 reporting on the IPCC’s 5th assessment report in September 2013. The Today programme presented the IPCC report accurately, sticking to it as its main item, while interspersing it with other topical news. Auntie BBC is good at breaking up bad news into chew-sized pieces, and sometimes this approach helps us keep calm enough to think clearly and carry on. But this time because the news was so horrible, this approach was not calming. Again I stress the horrible news was not global warming but that global warming was not being addressed in genuine ways.

In these circumstances I suggest we might see Auntie BBC as cut-off sort of aunt, not one who is emotionally containing. But, to her credit, one could still appreciate her as a truthful Aunt.

Then as the journalists here know, later that day Radio 4 gave serious airtime to a non-scientist who said world science is wrong and climate change is a hoax. What did we hear? I suggest the wishful part of us heard, “phew, no need to mourn and face reality after all and no need to feel so afraid.” The reality-based part of us heard that Auntie BBC had lost her way and this left us feeling even more anxious and afraid.


In conclusion, giving the true picture about the seriousness of climate change has never been more important. The true picture includes how the news leaves us feeling and how disavowal drives the human climate to dangerous tipping points. I believe journalists need to relate to people with care and support and to leadership because of this.




[i]Damage has been allowed to pile up to the point where civilised life, indeed life itself, is threatened. There is very little time now to turn this round, and to do so at least 4/5 of known fossil fuel reserves must stay in the ground. In this situation, the heavily subsidised fossil fuel companies, from a position of considerable power, have set their sights on extracting and burning as much fossil fuels as they can.

[ii] Weintrobe (2012) On the difficult problem of anxiety in thinking about climate change goes into the way climate change arouses traumatic levels of anxiety, guilt and feeling abandoned. Engaging with climate change. The topic of trauma is being taken up recently. See for instance, x and y, etc.

[iii] 2071 was put on at the Royal Court Theatre in London in 2013.

[iv] Indeed it may already have run out.

[v]Note the way that immediately after 9/11 Bush’s popularity shot from 55% to 90%. See: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/7814441.stm

[vi]Climate scientists themselves have softened the message and this has only led to further damage – see Kevin Anderson.

[vii] Ban Ki-moon said joining the recent climate march in New York led him to shift from feeling he was representing the United Nations to feeling he was representing the United Peoples of the World. As reported to Bill McKibben at the climate march.

[viii]Anne Karpf described this vacillation so well in her Guardian article (2013): http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2012/nov/30/climate-change-you-cant-ignore-it

[ix] A perverse understanding of ‘resilience’.