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Navigating the emotional rollercoaster of climate change

A conversation with Dr. Renee Lertzman, climate psychologist, researcher and strategist.

Dr. Renee Lertzman on stage

Dr. Renee Lertzman speaks at TEDWomen 2019: Bold + Brilliant, Palm Springs, California. Image via TED/Marla Aufmuth.

This article originally ran as part of our Circularity Weekly newsletter .

Imagine a semi-truck is barreling towards us. We can see it coming, so I try to move us away from its collision course. Your response wouldn’t be, "Wow, Lauren, you’re really passionate about 16 wheelers! Have you always been such a gearhead? I’m so happy you have this passion." Certainly not. You would join me to step aside and avoid the imminent catastrophe.

This anecdote — borrowed from a recent episode of the podcast "This American Life" — captures what it can feel like to work in the field of sustainability and climate change solutions. As a looming, existential threat comes barreling towards us, it’s our job to push through the anxiety-inducing reality, get everyone else to take it seriously and do something about it before it’s too late.

Dr. Renee Lertzman is an expert on this type of existential change management — the practice, strategies and tools needed for organizations to confront an existential threat such as climate change.

A climate psychologist, researcher and strategist, Lertzman works with companies such as Google, VMware and Unity to apply psychological and social science research to engage with these complex and overwhelming challenges, and mobilize towards solutions. She recently founded Project Inside Out, an online hub and set of tools and resources to support people working on climate.

Lertzman will be speaking next week at VERGE 21 on the keynote stage alongside Michiel Bakker, Google’s vice president of global workplace programs, on leadership and rethinking the hope and despair binary. I’ll also be interviewing Lertzman in an interactive "Ask an Expert" session on balancing climate anxiety and action. In advance of these conversations, I sat down with Lertzman to discuss the complexity of working in sustainability and leading through the emotional rollercoaster of climate change.

Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Phipps: What does it mean to be a climate psychologist and professionally engage with climate anxiety?

Lertzman: My work is not about everyone sitting in a circle and just talking about your feelings, processing your feelings and then going off and saving the world. It’s much more about understanding what it means to be an effective practitioner today and in the future. We have to level up our emotional intelligence. And we have to create more norms in our sector where we can talk about when it's time to slow down, when it's time to take a pause. You know, bringing more reflection in in order to go faster.

How do we work with our own anxiety, our own anger, our own feeling overwhelmed, our own complicated relationship with hope and optimism?

You can't separate the human dimension of what is being asked of us in terms of change. It’s change work and change management.

Phipps: People often throw around the phrase "emotional intelligence." What does that mean for people working on climate solutions?

Lertzman: When I say "emotional intelligence," I don’t mean "be more emotional." My experience is that the sustainability sector has been dominated by strong feelings, people who have such a profound sense of urgency, passion and commitment. It can override and take over, and can therefore lead others to experience them as an activist or too intense.

Emotional intelligence is fundamentally about asking: How do we work with our own emotional relationship with our work and with the issues? How do we work with our own anxiety, our own anger, our own feeling overwhelmed, our own complicated relationship with hope and optimism? How do we work with that effectively?

The next part of it is to ask: How do we meet people where they are? And how do we bring a quality of empathy and compassion into every aspect of our work?

It's very hard to do that when you're trying to drive an agenda for change. And if you add to that targets, and add to that goals, and add to that objectives and key results — and oh yeah, the friggin' climate is changing and we've got like 10 years. If you add all of that together, it creates such an incredible sense of urgency and pressure that can make it very hard for people working in the space to actually access the ability to say, "I wonder how my operational team is experiencing what I'm asking them to do?" It's very hard when the pressure is so intense.

Phipps: How has the broader conversation around climate anxiety changed over the last two years since your TED Talk?

Lertzman: It’s completely exploded. Without exaggeration, a day has not gone by since late 2019 that there hasn't been something that's come out about the topic of climate change and anxiety, grief, mental health or wellbeing. It's really shifted and it’s now much more normalized to talk about these things. But we haven't yet figured out what to do with all of this talk about anxiety and fear and grief. That's where I see a massive need and opportunity for organizations to take this on.

Phipps: Project Inside Out offers an invitation for sustainability practitioners to think differently about the work that we do. Can you describe what that looks like?

Lertzman: People in this space have a very strong reflex to "right" people. They say, "This is the right thing to do, we've got so much at stake, and don’t you care about the planet?" But this is highly ineffective. It actually triggers people's ambivalence, it triggers people's resistance to change even despite our best interest.

We contrast this with "guiding," when you approach people in a relationship of respect, of honoring the other's integrity. And fundamentally, you're not trying to change the other person. You're guiding.

A day has not gone by since late 2019 that there hasn't been something that's come out about the topic of climate change and anxiety, grief, mental health or wellbeing.

We assume that we get results by educating people or by becoming cheerleaders and positivity police or the hope police, where we have to keep things really hopeful and positive all the time. And that's not necessarily very effective either because it's not rooted in relationship.

Phipps: On a personal level, what do you do when you're in a moment of feeling overwhelmed and anxious about the state of the world and climate?

Lertzman: I do three things. First, I bring myself back into my body. I ground and do some very basic breathing and meditation to remind myself of all the people around the world that are actually deeply caring and loving and working on these issues.

I bring that to my mind, because I may forget that because I'm not seeing it. So I remind myself of the company I'm in as part of a vast network of life. And then I remember my small part in that. It gives me a sense that it's not all on me.

Then I usually reach out to someone to talk and connect or just share how I'm feeling. It may not help everyone, but I'm someone who likes to be able to talk about how I'm feeling. And that really does help me feel better.

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