What’s Your Climate Dream?

An interview with climate psychologist Renée Lertzman

As this week’s media reports, there’s now a 66% chance we will pass the 1.5C global warming threshold between now and 2027—the first time a key limit will have been broken—it’s a good moment to ask: what is your climate dream?

Because if we don’t have any by now, it sure is a good time to get one.

Our recent online conference, The New Climate, will close with an extra chapter at our upcoming festival The___Dream in Sintra, Portugal this June 2-5. The conference’s eight weeks provided a space for critical and candid conversations about the nature of business, the responsibility we all have as “climate leaders,” and a reconciliation with the life we find all around us. It allowed for moments of awe, ambivalence, and attunement to breathe life, slowly and gently, into the detached and distanced human place we’ve created for ourselves.

At The___Dream, TED global curator and TED Countdown co-founder Bruno Giussani will be hosting a session called “Climate Dreams,” which will include insights from environmental peacekeeper Olivia Lazard’s most recent field research in Chilean mines, Accenture Song Mark Curtis’ call for making sustainability more human (instead of making humans more sustainable) based on his many conversations with chief sustainability officers, and the possibility for rewriting the narrative beyond doom-and-gloom via a conversation between Icelandic writer and climate activist Andri Snaer Magnason and afrofeminist writer and social critic Minna Salami.

Alongside, we’ll explore generative farming and biophilic design with Massimo Portincaso, Maurizio Montalti, and Christina Nesheva, listen more closely to what’s going on in the underground’s fungi networks with microbiologist Colin Averill, and and ask ourselves what kind of leadership we want to instill with Bio-Leadership Institute founder Andres Roberts and the SDG-matching IDGs, the Inner Development Goals represented by Tomas Björkman, Katharina Moser, and Jan Artem Henriksson, as well as an awe-inspiring walk with sustainability strategist Laura François.

Guests will also be able to discover the Sustainability Greenhouse, hosted by our partners diconium, H&M Beyond, and The DO School, where participants are invited to wrestle with climate-first challenges in personal and business contexts in order to keep nature—and the ultimate dream of a life-centered economy—present at all times. One of our special guests at the Sustainability Greenhouse is climate psychologist Renée Lertzman, who joined us as part of The New Climate.

Renée’s work as a climate psychologist and environmental strategist has a longer history than most. After studying psychology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, she pursued a Master of Arts in environmental communications at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and then went on to complete a Ph.D. at the Cardiff University School of Social Sciences in the U.K., leading to her premise of the “myth of apathy” and sparking the topic for her 2019 TED Talk on why we need to focus first and foremost on “attuning” to the very real anxieties, ambivalence, and aspirations many of us are experiencing.

Working with hundreds of companies, partners, and collaborators—including the Skoll Foundation’s Global Threats Fund and WWF—and drawing on a wide range of academic disciplines have allowed Renée to hone her approach and create successful operational strategies such as the ‘Three A’s’ and ‘Quadrants of Engagement,’ as espoused on her Project InsideOut—a rich online resource designed to support those on a journey towards more integrated, connected, and emotionally present leadership.

—The core of your mission revolves around something called ‘motivational interviewing’. What is that?

‘Motivational interviewing’ is a methodology created by two clinicians after realizing the way that people were approaching behavior change in the public health sector was not effective. They were telling people why they should do something and giving them information in a way that was just provoking resistance. They knew something wasn’t working so they came up with the ‘motivational interviewing’ methodology, which is designed to enable people to change through the spirit of guidance. The question then becomes about how we guide change, and how guiding is really about evoking the capacity and volition for change within another person.

This of course is also relevant for people working with climate change and sustainability, so I translated the methodology to that realm and that’s basically what I’ve been doing. I’m surprised more people aren’t doing it, frankly.

“A lot of people working in the climate space are still focused on schools of thought that are what I would call outmoded, pushing people to try and motivate them.”

Which is understandable to an extent. But what I’m trying to do is change the framework of the dialogue, the narrative, and the outcome. That’s my mission.

—You also talk a lot about emotional intelligence, a phrase that seems to have a variety of applications in different contexts—how does it relate to yours?

I invoke the term emotional intelligence as shorthand for the need to be attentive to the ways in which we do this work, specifically through the lens of relationships, and relationality. It’s an intervention to point out how we need to be self-aware and reflective of our ability to be in relationships with others, and those that we are seeking to enlist or work with. It references the fundamental need to be attuned. The concept actually comes out of neuroscience, more specifically from people like Dan Siegel, a pioneer in interpersonal neurobiology whose work deals with attunement. To me, my ability to attune to a variety of people regardless of backgrounds, perspectives, beliefs, opinions, and ideologies is an expression of emotional intelligence.

—And this underpins your concept of the ‘Three A’s’…

Yes. I delve into what the anxieties are that others might be experiencing, or that might be underpinning particular beliefs or behaviors. And I get curious about the ambivalence involved in how people feel when they are in conflict within themselves about different kinds of change; what we’re asking people to think about and engage with can be very complicated. And then aspiration is the third ‘A’, which is finding out what someone’s deepest aspirations are, or how they can be part of the solution. I’ve worked with hundreds of organizations and teams and leaders around the world and I have found that this approach is really game-changing. It gets us out of the mindset of “I have to try to convince you of something,” which can be triggering. My job is to be attuned to where you might be at.

—Do you have an example of how this approach can be effective?

I did a whole project where we were interviewing climate-skeptic Republicans in the United States and listening to the provocative things they were saying about it all being a hoax created to take certain things away from them. You have to be able to hold steady with that and really just listen, and then you find that there is often anxiety, ambivalence, and usually aspiration. Once we tune into those things we can really understand and engage—only then is there potential for any kind of traction. Unless that’s happening, we are in an oppositional kind of dynamic, where it’s us against them and you really can’t get anywhere.

Overall, what I’m trying to do is encourage people working on climate and sustainability to take the high road. It’s up to us to rise above and stretch ourselves out of our comfort zones. We can see this as an opportunity to grow and develop who we are as human beings and our capacity to have more compassion, empathy, attunement, generosity, kindness, and love. In a weird way, the world is asking that of us now, or at least giving us the chance to evolve into the ideal conditions for that. I think it takes a certain level of fortitude and courage to really say, “I’m willing to step into this even though it’s going to be uncomfortable.”

The idea of the hero’s journey, the person who is going to go off and save the world, is old. Now it’s about community and collectivity and we have to ask ourselves: “What is my contribution?

—You’ve been working in this field for a long time now. Have you seen much progress in the business world?

When I work with a leader or group of leaders, they usually already “get it,” meaning they are ready to reimagine and rethink their whole approach to integrating sustainability and climate SDGs into their businesses. What I do is really about enabling them to be effective as change leaders, and to become guides themselves. That’s the model. But there is also always resistance since what I’m introducing is not easy. It’s about asking people to really take an honest look at assumptions and biases and beliefs about change, and investigate feelings about what’s happening in the world.

“A lot of people feel really scared and frustrated and overwhelmed, and all of that can make it challenging to do this work.”

But I’ve had a number of successes where I feel really good and excited, usually when there’s a partnership with a leader, even a C-level leader, who has the courage and the humility to look at themselves and say “Oh wow, I have a lot to learn.” In my experience, this is rare but it does happen.

—Can you give any specific examples of a major success of this kind?

One example that comes to mind is when I worked with VMware. We started with their intuition that although they had ESG goals, most people in the organization didn’t really know what they were, or felt disconnected from them. They wanted to get to a place where everyone in the company could feel they were co-owning them, to change them from feeling esoteric, technical, or abstract to being visceral, emotional, and connected with their work.

It’s a very positive company culture overall, and we were able to dig into their broader organizational aspects and bring all the psychology and social science we know about and tap into this really fundamental need to feel a sense of belonging and being part of something together. We engaged in a series of thought sessions and dialogues where we could come together as this cohort of leaders and talk through theories of change using the ‘Three A’s’ and the ‘Quadrant of Engagement’ and basically went on a journey.

What was really cool about it is that they ended up designing their own engagement framework. It didn’t even come from me. And that, to me, is the ideal scenario for any collaboration, whereby it’s not me coming and telling them how to do things. I just serve as a guide for them to use their own expertise in terms of their organizations and work cultures.

—You mentioned that you still meet a lot of resistance…

Yes, definitely. And especially with large, multinational organizations, we all know that change there can often be hard, slow, and very complex. And even if I aim to be very thoughtful about how I come into a system so that I’m not proposing what people are doing is wrong, but rather how we build on what the company is already doing well and move it in a different direction, there can still be a lot of resistance from, say, teams who feel that their ownership is being threatened. A lot of it is the marketing mentality whereby teams can feel they are just too invested in pushing out campaigns to people.

What I’m suggesting is that there’s a need for that, and a value for that, but it’s never going to be enough to truly shift the culture. It goes back to the theme of relationality. What about this work is relational? How do we channel the desire to heal, repair, make things better, and use it to find more skillful ways of guiding people through change? Note that I don’t use the word ‘solution.’ I don’t think that’s the most helpful framing, because it’s not about solving or fixing, it’s actually about repairing and healing, metaphors that draw from nature and the biosphere.

—How do you feel about SDGs and IDGs?

“My perspective is that SDGs have had their time, but by now it’s an old, outdated mindset.”

While I really do acknowledge and honor the effort and the attempt, at the same time we are beyond that point and in a totally different moment. Now it’s about interconnectivity and relationality between domains, the kind of thing Otto Scharmer talks about where everything is incredibly interrelated, and that means we have to start engaging in a different way, a way that’s much more decentralized. That’s more about the local, the regional, the indigenous.

I feel like what’s missing from SDGs is the psychological, or we could even say psychosocial work that is required to truly address them. There’s a lot of trauma within us from things like genocide and displacement, exploitation and colonialization, and unless we really shine a light on that with as much compassion and fortitude as we can, we will just continue to sort of spin around. That brings us to the Inner Development Goals, which is a really beautiful attempt to acknowledge that even though it doesn’t quite use that terminology. I think it’s very beautiful and a really exciting indicator of where the field is going.


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