Rosemary Randall: Climate Change and Loss


The tensions between competing climate change narratives – science and economics – are discussed in a recent Grist post by David Roberts: “Smackdown: climate science vs. climate economics.”

Climate science describes numerous harmful scenarios emerging from any failure to slash greenhouse gas emissions. Meanwhile, climate economics projects these emissions reductions to be fairly affordable.

Roberts says his “palms start sweating” when he sees scientists panicking and hears economists telling him not to panic. He recommends we get “lean, mean, and nimble enough” to handle anything. Does this conclusion resolve the narrative conflict, for himself or his readers? To my thinking, no.

The source of this type of tension, according to psychotherapist Rosemary Randall, is the question of loss. In “Loss and Climate Change: The Cost of Parallel Narratives” (pdf), a 2009 article in the journal Ecopsychology, Randall describes the sense of loss as a dominant theme in climate scenarios – but a critically missing element in stories of climate solutions.

Yet in conversation with the public, loss creeps in. We encounter suspicion that, in reality, they will be asked to make changes that they find unpalatable, that will cost them money they do not wish to pay, or that they are being asked to make sacrifices that will damage their interests. They perceive threats to relationships, livelihood, aspirations, material wealth, way of life, status, and identity. They are right to be suspicious.

Randall argues that resolving this narrative tension, by restoring the processes of loss and mourning to public narratives, “would help to release energy for realistic and lasting programmes of change.”

Her recommendations:

  • Start telling the truth about loss.
  • Encourage realism about the nature of the transitions we face and what they mean to different people.
  • Listen to and involve diverse communities, who will have very different priorities and responses.
  • Appeal to people’s values and their capacity for concern.

Randall is founder of the Carbon Conversations project, which designs support groups that help participants address personal lifestyle adjustments. My thanks to Renee Lertzman for the discussions we’ve had on this topic.

Additional articles on the psychology of climate change:
Dan Gilbert on evolutionary psychology;
An introduction to Cultural Theory;
Tom Crompton on cultural values;
Kari Marie Norgaard on cognitive and behavioral challenges.