Emotional methodologies for climate change engagement

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A range of methodologies exist to acknowledge, explore and encourage the processing of the complex, and sometimes contradictory emotions aroused by issues of social and ecological concerns. These can be termed ‘emotional methodologies’. These methodologies vary in depth, timescale, scale and accessibility, include group work exercises or individual practices, and lie at the interface of psychological and social approaches to engagement with climate change and other socio-ecological issues.


Climate change is often seen as an exterior problem, to be understood through science, and addressed through politics, infrastructures and technology. The emotional and inner landscapes of human responses to climate change need attention (American Psychological Association (APA), 2009). The driving causes of climate change, which underpin the emissions of greenhouse gas (GHG) and socio-technical infrastructure, can be located in the emotions, mindsets, thoughts and needs of billions of humans, predominantly those in industrialised societies.

The range of feelings (emotions and affects) connected to climate change and wider socio-ecological issues has implications for how individuals, organisations and societies respond and engage with the issues, the lack of sufficient response and the process of community action. In western societies, these emotions include fear, helplessness, guilt, anxiety, potential loss, grief, trauma, processes of anticipatory mourning and anger, and solastalgia (e.g. Norgaard 2009, 2011, Stoll-Kleemann et al. 2001, Lertzman 2015, Randall 2009, Head 2015, Doppelt 2016, Weintrobe 2013, Albrecht 2012) and ‘environmental melancholia’ (Lertzman 2015).

Emotional responses to climate change are influenced by many factors. These include the degree of importance given to social and ecological issues, values, proximity to the impacts of climate change, trust in Governments and institutions, and perceptions and experiences of agency. Research with climate scientists and activists in the UK (i.e. those with connection to forms of agency) suggests that there is an “undercurrent of trauma, despair and defensive coping” evident in both sectors (Hoggett and Randall 2016, 2018). Research on the relationship between climate change and grief has shown how climate change materialises the actual or anticipated loss of what participants valued and cared about in the present or future (Randall, 2009; Head, 2016; Cunsolo and Ellis, 2018; Lertzman, 2015; Wang et al., 2018, Hamilton, 2020).


Origins and history

Main concepts

Emotional Methodologies draw on a range of lineages. These include Western psychology, Eastern philosophies and spiritual practices, and indigenous social practices and wisdom traditions (Prentice 2012). They include grief work (Randall 2009, and Weller 2015) psychoanalytic theories and group work (Whitaker 2001, Bion 1961), ecopsychology (Rust 2008), trauma (Doppelt 2016, Herman 1992), faith based approaches such as Buddhism (Macy and Brown 2015), nature connection, deep ecology (Seed et al. 1988) feminist theory and practice, systems theory, and indigenous practices (e.g. grief tending).

Practical application in communities

Emotional methodologies have been used to aid and sustain climate change engagement.

The role of emotional methodologies and climate change engagement

Widely-used definitions of climate change engagement view it as a “personal state of connection with the issue of climate change” (Lorenzoni, Nicholson-Cole and Whitmarsh, 2007, p. 446), a dynamic process encompassing three inter-dependent aspects of ‘cognition’, ‘emotion and affect’, and ‘behaviours’ (Lorenzoni, Nicholson-Cole and Whitmarsh, 2007; Whitmarsh and O’Neill, 2011; Moser, 2016). Other engagement approaches draw on psychological theories, such as integral theory (Lertzman, 2015).

UK Government and Civil Society Organisation (CSO) climate change engagement strategies in the UK have primarily focused on the thinking and doing dimensions of engagement. Although positive emotions have been enrolled in the emotional and affective dimensions, there has been little or no space to acknowledge or work with and through the painful or difficult emotional and affective dimensions of engagement, which has undermined engagement strategies. Emotional methodologies offer ways that can contribute to active engagement with climate change.

Research on EMs such as The Work that Reconnects, Active Hope, Inner Transition and the Carbon Literacy Project (Hamilton, 2020, see Table 1) found that participation in these EMs helped to develop emotional reflexivity, and to integrate the three dimensions of engagement. They supported community-led action on social and ecological issues in three ways:

  • As a route in to active engagement, by enabling awareness of emotions and their influence, and relationship and feedback between the dimensions of engagement
  • As coping mechanisms to cope with and get support for the ongoing emotional aspects of social change work, and to help prevent burnout.
  • Holistic engagement to broaden the expression and types of social action, so that participants could integrate political, practical and emotional aspects of social change

Links to key examples

The Work That Reconnects (TWTR) and Active Hope

TWTR is an evolving body of experiential group work processes developed in the USA, Europe and Australia in the 1970s onwards by Joanna Macy and colleagues (Macy and Brown, 2015). TWTR draws on systems and complexity theory (Capra, 1982), Buddhist philosophy (Nhat Hanh, 1993) and deep ecology (Naess, 1973). TWTR aims to empower participants to take part in the ‘Great Turning’ to a life sustaining society, through opening to emotions and developing holistic connections to others and the more-than-human world. TWTR uses a model of active engagement in socio-ecological change through three forms of action: “1. Holding actions to slow the damage to the Earth and its beings; 2. Transforming the Foundations of our Common Life, and 3. A shift in perception and values” (Macy and Brown, 2015, p.6). These are often summarised as hands, head and heart respectively. Active Hope (Macy and Johnstone, 2012) is based on TWTR, but is offered in book form as a way to experience TWTR in more accessible way.

Contexts: TWTR is mainly conducted in stand-alone workshops, or as an ongoing series of workshops. Active Hope can be worked through alone, or through facilitated reflective book groups typically over 4–6 sessions. Depending on the context, exercises can be adapted to suit those not actively engaged in socio-ecological issues, or those who would like to sustain their engagement. The depth of the exercises offered ranges from paired reflective practices, to rituals and ceremonies. Shorter taster exercises have been used as part of larger and more open events, such as conferences. TWTR workshops are offered across the UK, particularly in areas of social and environmental activism, and are often integrated into other approaches (such as Inner Transition, and XR Regenerative Culture), as shown in Figure 4.1. To address the acknowledged lack of diversity in TWTR facilitators and participants, and to increase the anti-oppression framing, decolonisation work is facilitated through the ‘Evolving Edge’ part of the network (TWTR, 2020a).

The limitations of one-day workshops were noted by Hathaway (2017), who highlighted the need for further opportunities to reflect on putting intentions into practice. Alongside academic research, Bradbury (2003) reflected that many TWTR facilitators integrate cycles of action and reflection into their facilitation practice, inhabit a space of open inquiry, and continually adjust workshops and approaches according to feedback and reflection.



Research related to community-led initiatives

Table 1 provides a summary of a range of EMs offered in the UK, a brief description of the EM, and a summary of existing research on the impacts of participating in EMs.  

Name, website, reference Brief description Research summary, where research found
The Work That Reconnects (TWTR)

Macy and Brown 2015.


‘Active Hope: How to face the mess we’re in without going crazy’

(Macy and Johnstone 2012)


Groupwork processes developed in 1980s by Joanna Macy and colleagues.

Draws on system theory, Buddhist philosophy and deep ecology, with focus on holistic connection to life.

Active Hope: drawing on the cycle of TWTR, a book which can be read and practiced individually or in groups. Resources for running the groups are available online via the book website.   [https://www.activehope.info/]

  • Johnstone (2002) and Hathaway (2017) conducted a follow up survey to TWTR workshop participants, and Prentice (2003), Hollis-Walker (2012) reflected on workshops, Hamilton (2020) conducted interviews with workshop participants and facilitators.
  • Majority of participants found experience ‘personally healing’ (Johnstone, 2002), a minority of participants experienced negative impacts alongside this (Johnstone, 2002).
  • Participants deepened connections to self, others and the more than human world.
  • Hollis-Walker (2012), Johnstone (2002) Hathaway (2017) and Hamilton (2020) noted the renewed commitment to action.
Inner Transition (I.T.)


I.T. is a core component of the Transition Network, the international network of the Transition movement. It covers a variety of practices offered as stand-alone workshops, or incorporated as part of group culture.
  • I.T. practices contributed to development of successful projects; encouraged emotional awareness in all activities (Banks, 2012), and developed literacy around ‘parallel processes’ within Transition groups (Prentice, 2012, p. 186).
  • The degree of integration or polarisation between I.T.  and more practical aspects of Transition Initiatives were noted by Ruchetto and Poland in Canada (2015), Power in Australia (2016), and Banks (2012).
  • By applying an approach based on ‘salutogenisis’ (the creation and generation of health and well being), Maschowski et al. (2017) provide insights into the ways in which taking action can be generative of wellbeing.
Carbon Conversations


Conducted through groups of 6-12 people, who meet for facilitated meetings, and work from the Carbon Conversations handbook ‘In Time For Tomorrow?’ (Randall and Brown, 2015).

The approach ‘addresses the practicalities of carbon reduction while taking account of the complex emotions and social pressures that make this difficult’ (http://www.carbonconversations.co.uk/.

  • Carbon Conversation groups provided structure to support the emotional responses to climate change (Randall, 2009).

Key conclusions following surveys and interviews with participants (Büchs, Hinton and Smith, 2015) were:

  • Sharing experiences helped participants become aware of and reflect on their feelings and inner conflicts.
  • Group dynamics affected participants’ capacity to do this
  • Supported participants to take carbon reduction action.
  • Works best for those on cusp of change.
Carbon Literacy Project (CLP)


Initiated in Manchester, the Carbon Literacy Project (CLP) “offers everyone a day’s worth of Carbon Literacy learning, covering climate change, carbon footprints, how you can do your bit, and why it’s relevant to you and your audience” (Carbon Literacy Project, 2020) and supports participants to take action in their workplaces and communities.
  • Internal and external research has been conducted on the CLP, and the CLP collects data and feedback from course participants and has evidence of participants becoming actively engaged with climate change as a result of participating in the training.


  • Ongoing research on the CLP demonstrates increased motivation, agency and engagement (Richards, 2017) and a range of political engagement resulting from participating (Moore, 2017).
  • Hamilton (2020) found that acknowledging the emotional dimensions of climate change was useful for participants.
Organisational change

(climate focused)

also see ‘Natural Change’ below.

To reach people at scale, inner and outer change needs to happen in all sectors, such as workplaces.
  • Research evidences how organisational cultures can undermine change-makers and sustainability professionals) (Andrews, 2017), thus there is a need for examples and models of institutional and organisational change which is transformational of both individuals and organisations.
Mindfulness based Interventions (MBIs)

Different MBIs will combine a variety of approaches to bring together mindfulness and social change contexts – see the Mindfulness and Social Change Network:



Contemplative Sustainable Futures: https://christinewamsler.wixsite.com/sustainable-futures

This includes a database of existing institutions, stakeholders, networks, projects and resources on the issue of inner dimensions and transformation in sustainability.

Mindfulness training is typically by a trained facilitator and mindfulness practitioner, to groups over the course of 6-8 weeks.

Mindfulness combined with social change is being offered by a range of mindfulness practitioners, e.g.  Mindfulness and Behaviour Change programmes delivered in UK to behaviour change practitioners (Lilley et al, 2106, Whitehead et al., 2017), and courses offered by members of the Mindfulness and Social Change Network.

  • A growing field focused on Mindfulness based interventions (MBIs) in social and environmental action and wider society (e.g. Whitehead et al., 2017, Lilley et al., 2016; Barrett et al., 2016; Wamsler, 2018; Bristow, 2019; Mindfulness All-Party Parliamentary Group, 2015). The research suggests that MBIs have the potential to support shifts in behaviour and adaptation in different contexts and scales, encourage a shift in creative and holistic policy making (Bristow, 2019).
  • Evaluations from Mindfulness and Behaviour Change programmes noted how participants increasingly understood the role of emotions, values and norms in their decision making, and concluded that these approaches “open up interesting opportunities for conceiving more empowering and ethically sensitive approaches to behavioural government” (Whitehead et al., 2017, p. 133; Lilley et al., 2016).
Nature Connection

E.g. Natural Change Project


Social Permaculture MacNamara, L. (2012)

e.g. Earth Activist Trainings (EAT)


Cultural Emergence:  [ https://www.applewoodcourses.com/cultural-emergence/ ]

Range of approaches to give experience of connection to nature, as standalone events or courses, incorporated into workshops and events.

Draws on body of work on positive benefits of nature connection for wellbeing, and for resourcing engagement, alongside indigenous wisdom traditions

E.g. Natural Change Project, offers ‘transformative experiences of nature that help people find their path to live with passion, authenticity and confidence’ for individuals and organisations.

Cultural Emergence and Earth Activist trainings offered online and in person in Herefordshire. Focus on ‘The toolkit is designed to support us to be proactive and facilitate visionary responses to our global crises, starting with our own personal lives’

  • Many nature connection approaches draw from indigenous wisdom traditions and academic evidence of beneficial aspects of nature connection for wellbeing (Van den Berg, 2017), ecopsychology and deep ecology approaches (Naess, 1973, Andrews, 2017). For example, the ‘Natural Change Project’ drawing on nature connection experiences which contributed to an expansion of worldviews from anthropocentric to an ecological self (Key and Kerr, 2012; Kerr and Key, 2012; WWF, 2011), which in turn provided a deeper motivation for pro-environmental work.
  • Puig de la Bellacasa (2010) reflected on positive practical and affective outcomes: ‘the affect cultivated in Earth Activist Trainings is not despondency in front of the impossible, but joy in the hope of possibility’ (2010, p. 162).
  • The Permaculture Association has an online research digest, which summarises and links to research, both academic and non-academic
Grief tending and Ecological Grief Processes

e.g. Grief Tending in Community ( https://grieftending.org/ ) and Grief Composting Circles ( https://www.souland.org/grief-composting.html)

Ecological grief ceremonies: e.g. Remembrance Day for Lost Species

Grief tending processes draw on a range of indigenous wisdom traditions and offer workshops and processes which incorporates many types of grief (e.g. Weller, 2015) including ecological grief. Some grief processes also incorporated into spiritual approaches.

Remembrance Day for Lost Species (30th November) through hosting local and online events encouraged to ‘explore the stories of species, cultures, lifeways and habitats driven extinct by unjust power structures and exploitation, past and ongoing (from Remembrance Day for Lost species website)

  • The potentially transformative work of grief and mourning with regard to climate change engagement has been discussed with reference to the UK Mass Extinction Memorial Observatory (Cunsolo Willox, 2012), and public grief about lost species, environments and people through memorials who discusses (Windle, 1992). Akin to these practices Skrimshire (2018) reflects on the potentially transformative spiritual acts of confessing and witness through rituals which foster a public awareness, and Miles and Corr (2015) share learnings regarding the value of providing facilitated and held informal spaces to reflect on and develop different relationships to death and dying through the Death café movement.
Re-evaluation Counseling (RC): Sustaining All Life A form of active and engaged listening, with the aim of achieving personal and societal liberation through healing from past distress. ‘Sustaining All Life’ focuses on the application of RC to socio-ecological issues. Offered as stand-alone exercises in a variety of contexts such as the IPCC Conference of Parties and integrated into communities of practice through XR Regenerative Culture.
  • There is little academic research on RC, but that which exists (King, 2005) attests to the positive benefits of RC in socio-ecological engagement through enabling forms of emotional reflexivity.
Creative Climate Engagement approaches  

Cape Farewell

Tipping Point and Julie’s Bicycle:

Community Arts and Climate Change approaches (e.g. Awel Aman Tawe) )

The rich range of arts and creative practices can enable development of inner resilience through processes which can enable an exploration of emotions associated with social and ecological issues. Ranges from interventions bringing artists and scientists together, commissioning artistic responses to issues like climate change,  running workshops to enable creative and experiential exploration of social and ecological issues, and calls for poetry and art Cape Farewell curates a collection of testimonies and research reports offering a range of reflections about art and engagement with climate change, and the reflection it can stimulate (Roosen et al., 2018). Creating and listening to stories in communities can enable greater engagement in complex issues such as energy and climate change (Smith et al., 2017), and Burke, Ockwell, and Whitmarsh (2018) suggest further research into the value of combining participatory creative practices into climate change engagement. This does not negate the potential power of creative interventions such as films, theatre and plays, but acknowledges that these can sometimes be limiting and short lived (Howell, 2011).
Faith and spiritual approaches Most organisations offering group work processes and resources / guidebooks for exploring faith-based response – and associated practices, within local groups, and retreats and gatherings to explore together. Many faith-based and spiritual approaches are embedded within spiritual traditions and movements (e.g. Rothberg and Coder, 2013) which stretch back for millennia. They combine their faith with contemplative practices, rituals, and engaged social action, and an acknowledgement of inter-dependence.

Further research: How grief was acknowledged and worked with in The Work That Reconnects (TWTR)

Research on TWTR and Carbon Literacy project (Hamilton, 2020) showed that the grief associated with climate change reinforced and exceeded the existing literature (Randall, 2009; Head, 2016; Cunsolo and Ellis, 2018; Lertzman, 2015; Wang et al., 2018), and exceeded it.

The three main grief themes were:

  • loss of people, ecosystems and cultures - this includes peoples cultures and ecosystems close to home, and geographically and temporally distant. In TWTR this was reflected by a participant as:

“it was really helpful and really powerful for me to be able to go up and have space to express that… I just broke down in tears …  talking about ecocide and the loss of biodiversity”

“Sharing the grief of not having the answers, and the frustration and powerlessness it brings, is …  empowering”

  • loss of connection to the more-than-human world. Climate change materialised the grief of separation and loss of connection to the more-than-human world. This was experienced both individually and on a cultural level through having space to experience the impact of a cultural heritage that had been separated from the more-than-human world.

“ [TWTR] has enabled me to, I would say incorporate and live with the pain of what … industrial man has been doing to the land”.

  • loss of lifestyle and expectations: the anticipated losses of privilege, current lifestyles and secure futures. This included high-carbon aspects of current lifestyles that are valued, such as foreign holidays, to deeper issues such as questioning whether to become parents. This can also include the loss of expectation of the capacity to achieve positive change.  A participant in the Carbon Literacy Project expressed her grief as:

“if someone were to say you can’t, you can’t go to the far East ever again … would make me feel like, pfff, I would feel sad about that. I would grieve for that, because I like going to new places and doing new things

The movement of emotions such as grief operated in four ways.

Three ways were examples of emotional reflexivity which enabled participants to access the information contained within emotions which enabled and sustained engagement in community led action. These were:

  • movement into consciousness through emotions being acknowledged, felt and brought into individual and group consciousness (apparent in CLP and TWTR);
  • transformation of one emotion to another through expressing emotions, such as “grief alchemised” in TWTR; and
  • a changed relationship to painful emotions, mainly described in dance-like qualities, such as “turning towards” and “embracing”.

This reflexivity contributed to feedback and connections between the dimensions of engagement, and forms of agency, and contributed to active engagement with climate change. The movement of grief was positive and connecting for most participants.

The fourth category of movement was a vacillation within, between splits and opposing stories. This movement can be seen as a form of disavowal which has impeded active engagement, or a conflict between ways of being actively engaged, which may have contributed to forms of burn-out.  This occurred when there was no opportunity to explore emotions such as grief in more depth. It reinforces the importance of having methods – and permission – to acknowledge and work through the range and depth of griefs enfolded in climate change engagement, not dismiss some as not important. Depending on the context, these methods could range from acknowledging – and modelling – that emotions connected with the issues are normal, and can be worked through, to providing contexts and safe-enough spaces for the difficult emotions to be witnesses and worked through in more depth. For those involved with climate change engagement, it requires the development of empathy, compassion and having the capacity to listen to and acknowledge the tensions and dilemmas involved in changing expectations of the futures. As Randall and Brown (2015) remind us, developing empathy, compassion and the ability to listen also requires those involved in engagement to have done some exploration of their own emotional responses to climate change.


External links