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Trump’s climate policy may backfire, as he unwittingly plays an old psychologists’ trick

Donald Trump, president of the world’s second greatest emitter of CO₂, has unilaterally withdrawn the US from the Paris climate agreement. The international response has been largely in line with the simple statement from the EU’s climate action commissioner, Miguel Arias Canete, that this was “a sad day for the global community”.

But was it? Why Trump has chosen to pull out, and predictions on the policy implications are already well-documented elsewhere. As a social psychologist, I’m more fascinated by the implications for the social processes involved in responding effectively to climate change as a global community.

Social psychological research tells us that we form a sense of who we are from the groups we identify with (in-groups), and, at least as importantly, the groups we don’t (out-groups). Group membership can significantly predict a range of behaviours. For example, we are often more willing to help in-group members and quicker to denigrate members of out-groups. But if common goals arise – by design or default – they have the potential to unite otherwise distinct groups and create a shared or “superordinate” identity that can transcend everyday distinctions and the divisiveness that often accompanies them.

Meet the out-group. Shawn Thew / EPA

At first glance, a problem like climate change could be thought of as the ultimate international superordinate goal, with the Paris Agreement as its unifying totem. As climate scientist Simon Lewis put it in a piece for The Conversation, “The most striking thing about the agreement is that there is one. For all countries … to all agree to globally coordinate action on climate change is astonishing.”

But as Professor Lewis also points out, the main problem is that success depends on everybody doing their bit, and plenty of co-ordinated global policy changes. If, at the regular five-yearly stock takes, countries see others fudging or reneging, the precarious superordinate identity holding it all together will start to fray. There’s plenty of scope for evasion, hypocrisy and bluster built into the agreement, and there are no penalties for not complying. As one Conversation commentator pithily put it in response to Trump’s withdrawal:

Despite Paris, we are clearly some way off a sufficient superordinate identity. Just look at the huge inequality between nations in terms of vulnerability to climate change, responsibility for causing it, and ability to do anything about it.

My point here is that climate change requires a great deal of collective determination and action that is not yet clearly or consistently present at the level of nation states. Trumps’ withdrawal is a highly relevant intervention in this context, but not in the way we might think. Perhaps surprisingly, the concept of “paradoxical intervention”, borrowed from psychotherapy, explains why.

Donald Trump, the accidental shrink

Paradoxical interventions were developed in the 1980s as a creative approach to difficult psychological symptoms. They are designed to achieve the opposite of what they appear to set out to do, because of the strong counter response they provoke.

This might involve asking a client to spend time fully enacting their symptoms, with the effect that behaviours perceived as involuntary becomes experienced as voluntary. Or it might involve forbidding a client to do something in the hope that they actually carry it out (the classic example is telling couples in therapy struggling with intimacy that they must not, under any circumstances, have sex between this and the next session).

But what’s this got to do with Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris accord, group dynamics and superordinate goals? Well, his decision could fatally threaten the shaky superordinate premise of cooperative climate action, leaving it on the brink of collapse into in-fighting or despair. However, it might paradoxically achieve the opposite of what Trump appears to want – question the reality and urgency of climate change.

The US exit might galvanise determined communities and nation states around the world to take notice again, close ranks, form new alliances. It might start to look like the development of a shared “quest narrative”, which George Marshall, founder of the Climate Outreach and Information Network, considers in his recent book to be a vital but elusive ingredient in successfully responding to climate change. A quest narrative is another way of describing a superordinate identity.

We see some hints of this already, such as Canadian and Indian heads of state reiterating their desire to co-operate in the wake of the US withdrawal, and a more general reiteration of commitment from China and elsewhere. Meanwhile within the US, a coalition of various states, city mayors and other representatives have already pledged to adhere to the Paris Agreement.

Yes, Paris is promising but it is still easily rendered inadequate. Against this backdrop, we could almost see Trump’s withdrawal as a paradoxical intervention designed to kick-start a resurgent climate movement and revive a superordinate identity. I did say almost.

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