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By Marianne Celano, Ph.D., ABPP, on behalf of the Atlanta Behavioral Health Advocates
After the massacre of 19 children and two teachers at Robb Elementary School in Texas, I do not want to think about guns, particularly assault rifles. After learning that the world is not on track to avoid 1.5 degrees Celsius or warming, I do not want to think about fossil fuels. But on a beautiful day in Atlanta, guns and fossil fuels envelop me in a cloud of despair. Why? And what do they have in common?
Guns and Fossil Fuels Are Alike
Both threaten human life. Both are plentiful, even ubiquitous. Both disproportionately burden communities of color (Bieler et al., 2016; Clayton et al., 2021). And both pose more dangers to children than to adults. Firearms are a leading cause of death for children and teens. Children will bear more of the burdens of a warming climate, and for a longer time, than adults. They are uniquely vulnerable to the health threats posed by climate change, such as air pollution, heat stress, and infectious diseases (Ahdoot et al., 2015).
Guns and fossil fuels aren’t going away any time soon. A third of US households with children contain at least one gun; one in five households has loaded and unlocked firearms (Azrael et al., 2018). Gun sales have accelerated during the pandemic (Miller et al., 2022). Similarly, the fossil fuel sector continues to expand. In fact, the world’s 60 largest private banks financed fossil fuels to the tune of US $ 4.6 trillion since the Paris Agreement was adopted, with $ 742 billion in 2021 alone (Rainforest Action Network, 2022).
Discrepancy Between Public Opinion and Government Action
Most Americans support stricter gun laws, Pew Research finds, including universal background checks and a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines. Despite public support for such common-sense gun legislation, the US Congress has not maintained an assault weapons ban.
And even if stricter gun laws were passed, what about all the guns already owned, borrowed, or stolen? The United States has more guns per capita than any other country in the world; an estimated 400 million guns are in civilian possession. The fact is that we never know if going to school, a store, or a church will put us in front of a bullet.
Fossil fuels have a similar story. The burning of fossil fuels causes greenhouse gas emissions, the primary driver of the climate crisis. And greenhouse gas emissions are in some ways similar to guns, in that we can not yet get them back. Despite the vaulted promise of geoengineering or carbon capture and storage projects, these technological innovations currently cannot safely remove historic and current emissions at the scale that is needed.
Experts argue that only a drastic shift during this decade from fossil fuels to clean, renewable energy will prevent climate catastrophe (Pörtner et al., 2022). But despite global climate treaties and public support for meaningful climate action, the US government continues to subsidize the fossil fuel industry. We’re left with more sad facts: It’s getting warmer, and climate-fueled extreme weather is more frequent and severe. And heat waves are associated with an increase in violence (Clayton et al., 2021), which brings us back to guns.
What if we used the language of one of these public health problems to conceptualize solutions to the other? Should we discuss how to “mitigate” the rise in guns and “adapt” to a violent world? What would adaptation look like? Would we all carry guns and encase our bodies in armor so we can quickly intervene in school shootings? Would all deaths from climate-fueled disasters be identified as “tragic,” eliciting “thoughts and prayers” for survivors, while communities not yet targeted silently (and naively) count their blessings? Would citizens be encouraged to lock up their cars?
As crazy as these ideas sound, I argue that there’s an even more outrageous response to both guns and fossil fuels: doing nothing. Or, as some say, “it’s too late.” To me, this position is not only morally untenable but also irresponsible in the extreme. Over time, inaction compounds the cost of fossil fuels (Pörtner et al., 2022) and guns. And even if it is too late to roll back gun violence and fossil fuel emissions, I do not want to live in a world in which we have simply given up. My children and future generations deserve to thrive on a sustainable planet; for this reason, I work for change now.
The Role of Psychology
Sadly, proposed solutions to the twin threats of gun violence and climate change have become mired in partisan politics. Yet the discipline of psychology has much to offer in helping us understand and mitigate both gun violence (APA, 2013) and the climate crisis (Clayton et al., 2021).
Although psychologists have historically restricted their focus to studying and facilitating change in individuals, those with special training can facilitate change in families, groups, and systems. Psychologists are uniquely positioned to resolve the debate among activists about the priority of individual versus collective action (eg, should consumers try to minimize their individual carbon footprint or hold local power companies accountable for climate action targets?).
Psychologists have the expertise to answer several questions relevant to guns and fossil fuels. What is the most effective way to get gun owners to store firearms safely? How can we raise our children to feel safe when they hear about school shootings? How can we maintain children’s belief in a sustainable future on earth when they experience climate-fueled disasters? Most importantly, how do we balance anxiety with action (including political action) to inspire hope, the most renewable of human resources?