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Facing Your Emotions Around Climate Change

Understanding, acknowledging, and creating space for each of what Dr. Renee Lertzman calls the "three As" is essential to ensuring successful outcomes when it comes to climate anxiety.

Dr. Renee Lertzman has spent her career as a psychologist and author designing tools and strategies suited for the uniquely challenging nature of environmental work.

Lertzman first became aware of the need for these skills as an undergraduate student of psychology at the University of California at Santa Cruz, where she also happened to enroll in an environmental studies class. The science of climate change, even in the mid 1980s, was not encouraging.

"I found the experience of learning about environmental issues very emotional and very upsetting," she said, "and I was kind of unclear why there wasn’t more recognition of that."

Enabling an understanding of the attendant emotions in climate work, Lertzman says, is a critical part of ensuring successful outcomes. One way to understand these emotions is to acknowledge what Lertzman calls the "three As:" anxiety, ambivalence, and aspiration.

Anxiety: Anxiety can be sourced from many things. "It might be about the threat of global warming," Lertzman says. "It could be anxiety about the fact that I don’t want to lose anything that is precious to me, or that I don’t want to have anything taken away, or I don’t want to be uncomfortable." By recognizing the issues, one gives voice to the anxiety. More importantly, creating the space for others to voice their anxieties can establish connections and build emotional capacity.

Ambivalence: Ambivalence is a manifestation of being in conflict with oneself. "In climate and sustainability, we often focus on values that we hold in common," Lertzman says. "The reality is that most of us have a lot of internal conflicts." As an example, Lertzman said she experienced ambivalence while planning her travel from her home in California to the Omega Institute for the Drawdown Learn Conference. "I want to support the Earth but I also want to fly to Omega," she said. "I don’t want to be contributing to the problem but I want to get on a plane and take part in a climate solutions conversation with others. So, I am actually feeling more than one thing. I am feeling dilemma." 

Aspiration: This is where goals live. Aspirations can be for solutions, or connection, or belonging. It's no wonder that aspiration can come too early in the process. "I like to think of anxiety, ambivalence, and aspiration as these little people," Lertzman says. "We all want to hang out with aspiration, but really we also need to give some space for the anxiety and ambivalence to be there if we want to get to the aspiration more fully."

In this time of increasingly stark reports about global climate, Lertzman believes it is important to develop a conservancy or literacy when it comes to how we are feeling or responding to our climate crisis and to environmental threats.

"Anyone working in this field," she says, "who is trying to solve problems needs to develop some capacities or literacy of the emotional and psychological dimensions of these issues and to work with them, actively in what we do, whether you are a school teacher or a community organizer or a young person."