Climate change protesters

Climate and Environmental Action

As respected health professionals, who have expertise in human change, we can add our voices and influence to show how climate and environmental actions are consistent with our responsibility to promote health, wellbeing, inclusivity and diversity.

The BPS Climate and Environmental Action Coordinating Group (CEAC) has been set up to coordinate action across the society.

The CEAC sets the direction and objectives for psychologically-informed climate and environmental action, bringing together representatives from across the BPS to coordinate and support the work of the networks, divisions and sections in this field.

The DCP has formed a Climate and Environmental Action Group (DCP-CEAC), with representatives from the DCP contributing to discussions and actions. The DCP-CEAC reports to the main CEAC.

There is also a Planetary Health Subgroup within the DCP's group of trainers in clinical psychology, whose purpose is to provide the clinical psychology training community with best practice on teaching, policy, research, and clinical practice in relation to planetary health and the climate and ecological crises.

The urgency of the Climate and Ecological Emergency was highlighted by Anthony Guterres, Secretary-General of the UN at the launch of the IPCC Working Group II:

"Now is the time to turn rage into action. Every fraction of a degree matters. Every voice can make a difference. And every second counts." (February 2022)

He described the report as "an atlas of human suffering". As psychologists we have a moral and ethical responsibility to play our part, along with others, to mitigate that suffering.

Public engagement with the Climate and Ecological Emergency is ever more vital.

Following the pivotal yet ultimately disappointing international climate Conference of the Parties (COP26) in Glasgow in November 2021, and then COP27 in Egypt in 2022 which acknowledged the global inequalities of the climate crisis, we are witnessing the horrors of war and the suffering associated with rises in the cost of living.

Government and business leaders need a strong public mandate to support them into taking the urgent actions that are needed to limit global heating, and to mitigate the harmful effects that are already underway.

As respected health professionals, who have expertise in human change, we can add our voices and influence to show how climate and environmental actions are consistent with our responsibility to promote health, wellbeing, inclusivity and diversity.

With Ryan Kemp as the DCP Executive's climate and environmental champion, we are engaging with BPS, ACP-UK, BABCP, and DCP Faculties to explore how clinical psychologists (along with other health professionals, psychologists and citizens) can take action on behalf of, and with, our particular client groups.

This is a rapidly developing area of knowledge, and we wish to keep abreast of new developments and initiatives that would be of relevance to the work of the BPS. If you would like to get in touch with any thoughts, ideas or resources, please email Tony Wainwright, Annie Mitchell, Ryan Kemp, or Marc Williams.

Hands holding a symbol of a globe

Climate and ecological emergency

Our latest special edition of Clinical Psychology Forum focuses on climate and ecological emergency.

Arctic Death Spiral - Andy Lee Robinson, 2017

Climate and environmental crisis

Our previous special edition of CPF was themed around psychology and the climate and environmental crisis.

What can practitioner psychologists do about the climate & environmental crisis?

1. Be gentle and bold

Try to engage with what matters most to the people we are connecting with (in different ways): our various human values and identities are tender, often fragile, and currently hugely threatened by massive change, uncertainty, and overload.

Climate Outreach produce excellent research-based resources that can help us engage well with the public and hesitant colleagues about climate and environmental concerns.

But gentleness is not enough. We must also be bold and courageous in speaking out, and engaging with all the suffering we face. We must accompany those who are directly suffering through climate harm and  and join with those who are taking direct action to raise the alarm.

2. Be curious

Notice any signs of sticking our heads in the sand, or colluding with vested interests (through exhaustion, inertia, power, and/ or privilege) and thereby resisting progressive social and personal change.

Be willing to challenge our various defences against unpalatable knowledge.

Question ourselves and others. Listen to the answers beyond the surface.

This book is thoughtful about this.

3. Read, learn, and educate

Explore the relevant facts and figures about causes and impacts of climate and environmental harm, and actions to take about it.

Here is one good source - there is no shortage!

There are helpful frameworks for educating others this topic, including the Medical School Council's Education for Sustainable Healthcare and the Planetary Health Alliance's Planetary Health Education Framework.

4. Engage with national and local NHS and Trust policy and quality improvement initiatives

For example, find out who is the sustainability lead for your Trust and discuss with them how you could help (such as audit, evaluation, behaviour change initiatives, quality improvement projects, awareness raising initiatives, declaring an emergency) to help meet policy targets towards the NHS Net Zero targets for your nation.

See the Net Zero NHS plan for England.

5. Assess

Investigate the ways in which environmental and climate changes are affecting the physical health and mental health of your own client group e.g. poor air quality, changing access to green spaces, impact of flooding, over-heating in homes, and exposure to traumatic events.

See for example this recent report about the association of climate harm with increased suffering (described in the report here as mental health difficulties):

6. Formulate

Build environmental factors into our formulations (eg draw on community psychology and public health frameworks and knowledge, such as the Power Threat Meaning Framework (PTMF) as well as our many other psychological frameworks for understanding change.) 

Formulate with and for individuals, groups and organisations.

Use our analytic skills to help problem solve, while also being respectful of others' skills and knowledge.

Be careful not to collude with any suggestions that feeling anxiety or grief about climate and ecological harm is somehow pathological rather than an appropriate response to real and serious existential threat and harm.

Here is Mark Burton's useful societal case formulation framework.

7. Intervene

Consider, for example, green social prescribing to link people to nature-based interventions and activities, such as local walking for health schemes, community gardening and food-growing projects.

8. Evaluate, audit, research

Contribute our research and evaluation skills and knowledge to assist climate engagement efforts by Trusts and community partners.

9. Supervise, consult, support

New generations of students and learners are generally more climate and environmentally aware and concerned than their predecessors.

Ask trainees about their pre-occupations about their future and explore with them how psychology practice can contribute to positive change -eg  through community action, public health initiatives and beyond, and linking them up to help with Trust initiatives as part of their placement learning.

Consider supporting trainee research/ evaluation on climate related issues. Offer supervision, consultation or support to climate concerned people outside clinical settings.

Be humble too, in recognising and valuing the wisdom of others.

10. Act in accordance with our ethical responsibilities to protect our fellow humans, and other creatures

This may involve taking bold action, both now and for future generations.

"We live in a rapidly changing world, where new ethical challenges come from many sources. These include the unprecedented opportunities provided by innovations in science and technology as well as the threats posed by climate change and global conflicts...

The discipline of Psychology, both as a science and a profession, exists within the context of human society. Accordingly, a shared collective duty for the welfare of human and non-human beings, both within the societies in which Psychologists live and work, and beyond them, is acknowledged."

Read the BPS Code of Ethics and Conduct.

To act on your convictions may include protesting. You may feel moved to protest and that is an ethical position. Protest can take many forms and members should reflect on the form their protest will take. We encourage peaceful protest. Peaceful protests can be disruptive but should never be deliberately illegal or violent.

11. Be good role models and leaders, attending to equality, diversity, inclusion, and power

There is lots of advice available about how to make good personal decisions about healthy climate actions (fly less, eat less meat, reduce energy use, buy less stuff and so on), but beyond individual behaviour change (which many citizens simply do not have the financial, social or personal resources to make), effective climate action requires systemic, economic, and political change.

We can add our voices to wider calls for political and social action, including re-iterating our understanding of the social determinants of health. Some of us are engaging in activism, with groups such as Extinction Rebellion, XR Psychologists, Medact, PsychDeclares, Climate Psychology Alliance, or supporting Fridays for Future.

As health professionals we are highly respected members of society, and so our voices count for a lot, especially at a time of unprecedented interest in psychology and well-being. We can help join the dots between distress, trauma, social justice, equality, inclusion and the better lives we could all lead if we were enabled to live more sustainably.

There are lots of ways of sharing leadership: for example here are some great resources on women's leadership for planetary health, with particular inspiration from the global south:

Challenge your organisations to reduce waste, plastics and carbon. The NHS is one of the biggest carbon producers in the UK. Hold your leaders and boards to account.

The wealthiest individuals and countries produce vastly greater carbon emissions, and yet poor and marginalised communities are the most affected by climate change and least able to adapt to its consequences. Here is a good review of these issues.

Here is another resource for understanding the operation of power in the climate and ecological crises.

And this Lancet scoping review paper shows that "racism and climate change interact and have disproportionate effects on the lives of minoritised people both within countries and between the Global North and the Global South."

12. Share mutual care and team up with others

Demonstrate and assist in looking after ourselves, and one another, to avoid exhaustion and emotional overload in caring for the environment.

Model good boundaries, management skills, and kindness to ourselves as well as to others. Vikki Reynolds is inspiring in offering an approach that "resists burn out with collective sustainability".

The climate and ecological crises are caused by humans and must be solved by humans working together. Find others to team up with who are concerned about this topic and who are taking action.

The BABCP has a special interest group for climate change.

The Climate Psychology Alliance is a community of therapeutic practitioners and others who seek to understand and support the psychological and emotional responses to the climate and ecological crises.

The UK Health Alliance on Climate Change and MedAct are organisations representing health professionals' voices in the climate and ecological crises and undertake action on climate for a more just and sustainable future.

XR Psychologists is a group of academic and practitioner psychologists that engage in environmental activism.

13. Communicate well

Try to be conversational rather than didactic in engaging with people about climate and environmental matters: be succinct, use reflection, explore values, identities and knowledge.

The climate scientist Susan Solomon has said that effective environmental problem solving requires that the solution be personal, perceptible, and practical.

Use these three Ps – and read more about them here, and their application to the pandemic too.

14. Balance doubt with hope, constructively

Genuinely show your positivity and determination about climate action, along with sharing realistically what we know of the troubling facts and figures.

Facilitate and nurture positive feedback loops wherever possible. Getting the right balance is tricky.

This US research article concludes:

"Climate change communicators might consider focusing on constructive hope (e.g., human progress, the rise of clean energy), coupled with elements of constructive doubt (e.g., the reality of the threat, the need for more action), to mobilize action on climate change."

15. Be creative

Draw on our knowledge of theories about processes of change, including playfulness, storytelling, enchantivism, indigenous wisdom, narrative and compassionate approaches such as Schwartz Rounds, motivational interviewing and more, to engage one another emotionally and thoughtfully, with good psychological care, through the tough existential challenges that we all face.

Enjoy the sparkle of new ideas and creative solutions and the possible prospect of a better world.

16. Protest, activate and provide accompaniment

Richard Horton,  Editor of the Lancet, has said:

"All health professionals have a duty and responsibility to engage in all kinds of non-violent social protest to address the climate emergency.

Our colleagues in ACP-UK "believe that clinical psychologists should consider participation in peaceful protest to highlight the urgency of the crises as part of their professional obligations."

We can join with our colleagues in Medact, whose mission is "to support health professionals from all disciplines to work together towards a world in which everyone can truly achieve and exercise their human right to health."

We know that climate and ecological harm is most badly affecting those who are in the poorest and most marginal places on earth, and who have done the least to cause the damage.

Garret Barnwell, Gay Bradshaw and Mary Watkins (2022) call for ecopsychosocial accompaniment with those at the front line, through: "radical availability, steadfast witnessing,  self-reflexivity, attunement to others' needs & desires, & committed response-ability".