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Image credits: Conceptual illustration of a designer cell sensing a target cell (by Ryo Tachibana), combined with a photo of earth.

Immunity to Climate Change

How to Overcome Humanity’s Immune Reaction to Acting on Climate Goals and How to Craft a More Inspiring Story

Dennis Wittrock
Dec 9, 2018 · 21 min read

Every generation has its defining crisis. In the 1980s we had the prospect of global thermonuclear war looming. Luckily, that particular doomsday scenario never became a reality. But it was pretty damn close, I was told. These days the number one worry-inducing topic is Climate Change. Or as The Guardian recently put it:

Outside of the desperate and the deluded, everyone knows that the world is in the early stages of a truly catastrophic climate change. As Sir David Attenborough told the UN climate change conference in Poland, “the collapse of our civilisations and the extinction of much of the natural world is on the horizon”. We have even worked out, with scrupulous care, what we must do to avoid this or to mitigate the effects of climate change. We know what to do. We can see how to do it. There’s only one problem: we do almost nothing. (The Guardian, Dec 5th, 2018)

When I first heard about Climate Change, I was still a kid. I must have been around 10 years old. I read about it in a German tabloid newspaper (BILD). They included a nice illustration condensing the basic scientific information. The energy of the sun is warming the planet, but the change in the atmosphere traps the energy like a greenhouse. I thought to myself, “oh my god, we’re being cooked alive!” That’s right, back then the language was slightly different. They talked more about “the greenhouse effect”, which is much more illustrative — and actually scarier than calling it “Climate Change”. While it may be technically true, that “the climate is changing” (and some regions may even get colder), by and large, we are slowly being cooked alive like the — by now — proverbial frogs in the slowly heating water. (Thanks, Al Gore, for using that imagery. It gives me nightmares.)

As a prematurely rational kid, I was naively assuming that, now that we knew we were trapped in a planetary greenhouse, we would do the reasonable thing and attempt everything humanly possible to avert this calamity. Little did I know about the world of ‘grown-ups’ out there and the complexities of human nature. Fast forward 30 years later, we’re still doing shit.

Meanwhile, I developed an interest in philosophy and psychology and learned a thing or two about why that may be. So my hope is that I can somehow put this knowledge to work in this article to spark fresh thinking about a new way to tackle the issue at hand.

Immunity to Change

In particular, I recently read Robert Kegan’s and Lisa Lahey’s book “Immunity to Change: How to Overcome it and Unlock Potential in Yourself and Your Organization”. The info given on the book jacket reads as follows:

A recent study showed that when doctors tell heart patients they will die if they don’t change their habits, only one in seven will be able to follow through successfully. Desire and motivation aren’t enough: even when it’s literally a matter of life or death, the ability to change remains maddeningly elusive.

Hmmm… Sounds familiar? What does it remind you of?

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In Immunity to Change, authors Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey show how our individual beliefs — along with the collective mind-sets in our organizations — combine to create a natural but powerful immunity to change. By revealing how this mechanism holds us back, Kegan and Lahey give us the keys to unlock our potential and finally move forward. And by pinpointing and uprooting our own immunities to change, we can bring our organizations forward with us.

The immune system of your psyche

According to the authors, our psyche possesses a kind of immune system, not unlike the immune system of our body. In general, it is a good thing to have a vigilant immune system. It protects your body from harm by eliminating the stuff you don’t want to let get into it like viruses and bacteria. But from time to time immune system overreacts and attacks “the good guys” — think of leukemia or AIDS, or any form of autoimmune response that hurts more than it helps.

Similarly, the immune system of your psyche rejects information, opinions, claims, and beliefs that it doesn’t want to assimilate into its worldview.

It protects its psychic boundary, its coherence, its inner pattern. There is an ‘inside’ and an ‘outside’ to interior realities (“self-sense”, “ego”, “psyche”,…), as integral philosopher Ken Wilber pointed out. This invisible interior border is guarded by your inner skeptic, your inner critic, your controller, bullshit-detector or whatever name you want to give those psychic aspects or voices, whose job is to protect you from being gullible and getting screwed over by others. Yet, when it comes to attempting to change, they can seriously get in the way. Different sub-parts of you pursue different purposes, aims or goals. You are incoherent, at odds with yourself.

The Immunity to Change (ITC) Process

Kegan and Lahey (Harvard University) developed a step-by-step process that can help to overturn your own immunity to change. Here’s how it works. They use a 4 column worksheet (the “Immunity Map”) to guide participants through the process.

  1. It all starts with an initial commitment to change. This is your improvement goal. Let's use a new year’s resolution as a simple example: “I am committed to losing weight.” New year’s resolutions are quite illustrative, because you may have noticed that it can be quite difficult to live up to them.
  2. In the second column, you take stock of all the behaviors, that are directly detrimental to your espoused goal as noted in column 1. How is what you are actually doing or not doing different from what you originally intended? How do you sabotage yourself? So you intend to lose weight, but you had an extra helping of dessert, you stuffed yourself at the last family dinner, you snacked in the middle of the night while passing the fridge on the way to the bathroom? Make a painstaking list of all the undermining behaviors that contradict your original commitment.
  3. Column three is reserved for your hidden commitments: Imagine yourself following through 100% with the behavior in column 1. What is the worst thing that could happen, as you are envisioning yourself successfully dieting, working out and getting slimmer? There are a lot of different worries that may arise from actually achieving your goal. In the book, Kegan and Lahey discuss the example of a woman who had been sexually traumatized in her childhood. She had learned that overeating makes her less attractive for males so that she doesn’t get hit on — a situation that her psychic immune system wants to protect her against. So her hidden commitment is to stay safe. No wonder there is so much resistance to losing weight! For her, it feels like a matter of life and death. Her hidden commitment is directly contradicting the statement in the first column. The column 3 commitments brilliantly explain and express the column 2 behaviors. She is stuck and at odds with herself.
  4. Even deeper than our hidden commitments are our big assumptions in column 4. These are the unquestioned beliefs and axioms, upon which our worldview, our “philosophy” rests — our personal “myth of the given”. In our example, it might be something like “All men are dangerous”, “If I lose weight, I will get harassed”, or “If I don’t eat everything offered to me at the family dinner, my parents will stop loving me”. If we treat these unexamined assumptions as “the truth” it will be impossible to overcome the immunity to change. Kegan and Lahey suggest to treat them as “big assumptions” instead.

Turning subject into object: putting your big assumptions to the test

The thing about assumptions (or hypotheses) is that you can actually go and test them to see if they hold up to scrutiny. In most cases, they don’t hold up, because they consist of over-generalizations and rather crude and biased models of the world. Once the immune-system and its workings have moved from being subject (that which looks) to being the object (that which is being looked at) of awareness, it loses its hold and the new (now bigger) subject is able to move beyond it, instead of just fighting against the column 2 behaviors (which is futile, as long as the immune system is not transformed). The reflective move beyond being embedded in a view of reality to looking at your construct dissolves the psychic immune reaction, once successful testing of your big assumptions reveals that the reality is actually different from what you constructed it to be in your head.

The good news is that you can actually fulfill your commitment to change, once you’ve disabled your psychic immune system’s over-reaction.

Technical vs. adaptive challenges

Kegan and Lahey distinguish between technical and adaptive challenges. In order to solve a technical challenge, you need to figure out what steps you need to take and then execute on them.

You want to lose weight? Ok, you need to adjust your diet, take up exercise, cook fresh food, journal and track your eating habits, find a friend or coach to support you, etc. It may still not be easy to muster the discipline needed for the habit change, but if you are fully committed to the goal, working hard may suffice. It is a challenge, but you can do it.

Adaptive challenges are a whole different beast. It is a bit like chewing on a Zen koan, one of these paradoxical riddles that are being used in some Buddhist schools to help the student overcome his mental stuckness, e.g. “Show me the face that you had before your parents were born.”, or “What’s the sound of one hand clapping?”. Thinking harder won’t do it. That’s the point.

An adaptive challenge is like a Zen koan: in order to solve “it”, you need to solve yourself. The Immunity to Change Process is designed to help you do that. By mapping out your psychic immune system, you are gaining a perspective on that which has you. In the process, you become a larger version of yourself, able to embrace your prior limitations and consciously work on them in order to overcome them.

If we mistake an adaptive challenge for a technical challenge we will be stuck until it dawns upon us that we haven’t gotten the problem definition right.

“We have even worked out, with scrupulous care, what we must do to avoid this or to mitigate the effects of climate change. We know what to do. We can see how to do it. There’s only one problem: we do almost nothing.” (The Guardian, Dec 5th, 2018)

We know what needs to be done. But that is not the real problem. Our immunity to change is.

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Albert Einstein: This guy knew a few things about solving difficult problems…

Applying the ITC process to the problem of Climate Change

When I looked at my own behaviors and the collective behaviors of humanity with regard to lack of actions against climate change, I noticed that we’re individually and collectively stuck in a similar place. I felt inspired to fill out an Immunity Map — for myself and for humanity. Here’s what I came up with:

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Immunity Map with respect to action on climate goals.

Let’s take a quick walk through the columns. Before we do, let me preface it by saying that this is not necessarily meant to be the definitive take on what is going on, simply some of the more salient items that I can see at the moment partly in myself, but especially in the collective sphere.

  1. Commitment (Improvement Goal): I put it quite straightforward as “Reduce global C02 emissions to mitigate climate change.”
  2. Doing / not doing (vs. #1): Despite what some (but not all) of us are saying, that we want to be doing (e.g. Kyoto protocol, Paris agreements, etc.) instead we’re still continually raising CO2 emissions; we do business-as-usual, we shrug off rising sea levels, extreme weather phenomena, melting of polar ice-caps; we’re denying, ignoring or doubting the facts established by science, represented through the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
  3. Hidden commitments: Most people, especially in the developed world, are committed to keeping up their luxurious lifestyle, not cutting back on energy usage, air-travel, meat-production, cheap electricity and the seemingly endless addiction to all forms of fossil fuels. A central worry is that if one country unilaterally moves in the right direction (column #1), it will lose its economic competitiveness compared to the others who are not applying the stricter standards. This, in turn, will hurt the local economy and lead to politicians being voted out of office in favor of a more liberal economic policy. The argument is even stronger from the perspective of newly industrializing countries. The first world built its economic power by burning fossil fuels for centuries. Now China, India, Brazil, etc. are supposed to be on a strict voluntary carbon diet? That’s deeply unfair. There is a strong commitment to short-term thinking. This is not plain stupidity. The immune system simply does its job, protecting the basis for economic success, which is closely connected to staying in office for any serious politician (a strong incentive). In that sense it works just fine — it is just that, unfortunately, it prevents us as humanity from making the substantial progress we need with regard to our emission goal (#1).
  4. Big assumptions: Some of the underlying assumptions that we collectively hold, or shall I rather say, that are holding us (hostage), are “only material wealth brings happiness”, “our economies need to continually grow indefinitely”, “we can externalize the costs of our economic actions”, “economic growth depends on exploiting fossil fuels” and “we cannot overcome the cycle of destructive international competition — the nation that moves first loses out economically”. Of course, all of these assumptions are very debatable — that is if we were able to hold them as such. Instead, they are being unconsciously held as self-evident truths. They’re the water we’re swimming in, the myth of the given. They’re subject, not object.

So we’re at odds with ourselves, racing towards the end of the cliff at full speed. Will someone please step on the brake and turn around the steering wheel? Well, not if our immune system is not upgraded and transformed to a more sophisticated version of itself…

Testing our collective ‘big assumptions’ about reality

The purpose of the following section is to model what a reality-check of our big assumptions about reality could look like. The basic pattern is to take one of these claims about reality (from column #4) at a time and devise concrete experiments to check if they hold up to scrutiny. It is basic science. If the claim says “the earth is flat!”, we think of ways we could collect data that could possibly falsify it (e.g. a satellite image of the earth). If our map of reality is incorrect, we have the chance to update it to a more correct version, which dissolves the basis for the contradicting behavior (column #2). Let’s have a look.

“Only material wealth brings happiness”

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This is one of the big credos of the secularized western world. It is being hammered into our head through advertisement day in and day out. But is it true? What about family, friends, love, physical health, creativity, meaning? All of these are priceless and none of them can be purchased by material wealth. Yet too many of us are uncritical followers of this secular religion of consumption. There’s a hole in our soul (btw: yes, you actually have a soul). We try to stuff it full with things in order to make us happy (also see: “To Have or to Be”, Erich Fromm). If we were guided to fill it with those other things and activities, we might discover that our consumption frenzy and our obsession with material wealth (with all of its negative side-effects on nature) is actually not needed to lead a happy, fulfilled and meaningful life. Maybe we are just ‘spiritually malnourished’ and looking for happiness in all the wrong places…

“Our economies need to continually grow indefinitely”

Yeah, right. By now you have probably stumbled over the idea that infinite growth within an environment of finite planetary resources is probably not going to work out. Maybe we’re just fine with a circular, sustainable economy. The need for exponential growth seems to be driven by infinite greed.

The greed, in turn, is rooted in the prior assumption of material wealth being the main source of happiness.

“We can externalize the costs of our economic actions”

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When was the last time you got rid of a plastic packaging? Let me tell you, actually you did not. Disposable plastic doesn’t just go away. It is being put into landfills or ends up as microplastic in the oceans. You simply externalized the problem to the outside of your home.

Europeans used to export their plastic trash to China for recycling. Get the trash out of the country. But China isn’t taking it anymore. Now what? In the last years, there is an increase in public awareness of plastic pollution, especially the threat it poses to marine creatures. In the end, microplastic enters the food-chain and lands back on our plates.

With CO2 emissions there are no more externalities either. If our definition of “home” is extended to planet earth, all environmental ‘externalities’ are actually global internalities. If we keep on throwing trash onto our own living room floor, we will eventually stumble over it.

“Economic growth depends on exploiting fossil fuels”

Even if we go along with the assumption that economic growth is needed, it doesn’t need to be tied to the use of fossil fuels. There are plenty of models of how to build a green economy that creates new jobs by shifting to sustainable sources of energy — a new “green deal”. If we take the challenge serious that climate change confronts us with, there is plenty of work ahead of us. It will take a herculean effort to upgrade the current system into a sustainable version in time— everything from food production, industry, to transportation and all the other systems that are involved.

“We cannot overcome the cycle of destructive international competition — the nation that moves first loses out economically”

One of the main arguments that we keep hearing from national leaders when confronted with the demand for stronger commitment to the IPCC emission reduction goals for CO2 is, that if they take decisive action (for example by adding a carbon tax on fuel, like in France), they receive an immediate push-back by their voters. The industrial lobby cries out and points to the loss of competitiveness in international comparison, the loss of future investments and ultimately, the loss of jobs in the given country.

Since the economy is global, the money, investments, and jobs will simply move on the next-best country with fewer regulations. This economic incentive spurs what has been called a “race to the bottom” in terms of regulations — a truly vicious cycle. The less-heavily-regulated nations win the investments, while the nations that stick to the agreed C02 limits lose out to their competitors.

Those politicians that want to stay true to the environmental goals and heavier regulations will be kicked out of office after a while and get replaced by more neo-liberal leaning colleagues. Or, they may move into office with high ambitions for serving the IPCC goals but — due to public pressure — gradually morph into neo-liberals themselves to hold on to their seats. Voters get frustrated and lose trust in the political process itself. The overall system creates the wrong incentives. We’re stuck within ineffective political dynamics, a kind of “political prisoner's dilemma”.

Businessman John Bunzl, founder of explaining his concept in a TEDx talk

The market-forces (capital, investments, corporations) act on the global level, while the governments and regulatory bodies are still confined to act on the national level. But climate change (like other global problems) doesn’t stop at the border of a nation state. It transcends it because it is a new kind of problem altogether that we don’t have the appropriate structures yet to deal with. Our formulation of the problem is off. Climate change is an adaptive challenge, not a technical challenge. In order to solve it, we need to solve ourselves. We as humanity need to question the very propositions our collective worldview rests upon. Competition is healthy and needed to some degree. But every now and then, for the overall system to stay healthy, it takes another leap in terms of cooperation.

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John Bunzl, the founder of the Simultaneous Policy Campaign (SIMPOL), puts an extra emphasis on the problem of “destructive international competition”. Each nation-state can regulate all it wants if it does so unilaterally. But it pays a high price for unilateral action — loss of competitiveness. The solution that SIMPOL proposes is to gather support for global simultaneous action — a multilateral approach. If every nation follows the same regulations simultaneously, no nation would have to lose out unduly, by being economically ‘punished’ for doing the right thing (decarbonization).

We need simultaneous global policies with actual teeth (i.e. immediate ‘skin-in-the-game’,). The SIMPOL approach is currently the only feasible proposal that I am aware of for transcending the global political deadlock that destructive international competition got us into. It has a concrete political campaign concept that ordinary citizens can use to create compelling incentives for their politicians to support global simultaneous action beyond their national political agenda.

Instead of a “vicious circle” in which nation after nation is incentivized to privilege its own national economic interest, the SIMPOL campaign has the potential to replace it with a “virtuous circle”, in which nation after nation is signaling its willingness to cooperate alongside others in a simultaneous policy agreement, until the necessary number of nations have signed up for a given issue, so that we’ve got enough of our ducks in a row to take decisive action.

The SIMPOL proposal is a perfect test for our column #4 assumptions. Let’s collect data and see if they stand the test of reality. My hypothesis is that we can overcome destructive international competition, reach a new level of cooperation and in the process find new meaning, purpose, and fulfillment.

Humanity’s Heros’ Journey

Coming up with a new, more helpful story about Climate Change

I recently re-watched the movie “Independence Day” (1996). On the surface, it is the story of a global alien invasion and humanity’s hopeless fight for the survival of the species. But there’s more to it. Consider this passage from President Thomas Whitmore’s Speech, delivered before the final battle:

“Good morning. In less than an hour, aircraft from here will join others from around the world. And you will be launching the largest aerial battle in the history of mankind. “Mankind.” That word should have new meaning for all of us today. We can’t be consumed by our petty differences anymore. We will be united in our common interests. Perhaps it’s fate that today is the Fourth of July, and you will once again be fighting for our freedom… Not from tyranny, oppression, or persecution… but from annihilation. We are fighting for our right to live. To exist. And should we win the day, the Fourth of July will no longer be known as an American holiday, but as the day the world declared in one voice: We will not go quietly into the night! We will not vanish without a fight! We’re going to live on! We’re going to survive! Today we celebrate our Independence Day!”

Ok, it’s a bit cheesy-hollywoody. But clearly, in the movie humanity is facing an adaptive challenge. It forces the individual nations to rethink their most fundamental assumptions about military competition, and ultimately move beyond them by cooperating under a new, super-ordinate goal, namely “survival of the human species”.

I looked up the speech on the internet. The person, who transcribed it left a comment: “I really wish there was a cause that the whole world could unite together on.” Well, maybe there IS…

The gift of Climate Change

If you can bear to follow the news about recent climate developments it is very hard not to fall into despair or cynicism. I force myself to face the heavy stuff, although at times it can feel exhausting and overwhelming and I'd rather look the other way.

An analogy on the individual level would be a heart patient that gets the news from his doctor that he is certainly going to die if he doesn’t change his behaviors dramatically. It’s drastic. Every part of ourselves wants to reject the news, turn away and not face reality. It is very understandable.

But you could apply a different view: A person facing a difficult diagnosis of a life-threatening illness could re-interpret that as just having received a precious gift: a Call to Adventure.

The Hero’s Journey

Writer, teacher, mythologist, storyteller, and scholar Joseph Campbell described a common archetypal pattern behind great stories and myths. It is called the Hero’s Journey.

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The Hero’s Journey Outline, image credit:

I don’t want to re-iterate the whole model. (You can find a pretty concise overview here.) Here’s the reader’s digest version:

The hero is introduced in his ORDINARY WORLD where he receives the CALL TO ADVENTURE. He is RELUCTANT at first to CROSS THE FIRST THRESHOLD where he eventually encounters TESTS, ALLIES and ENEMIES. He reaches the INNERMOST CAVE where he endures the SUPREME ORDEAL. He SEIZES THE SWORD or the treasure and is pursued on the ROAD BACK to his world. He is RESURRECTED and transformed by his experience. He RETURNS to his ordinary world with a treasure, boon, or ELIXIR to benefit his world. (Christopher Vogler, “A Practical Guide to Joseph Cambell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces”, 1985)

Climate Change as humanity’s call to adventure

In our case the “hero” of the story is humanity.

At first, we’re living happily and ignorantly in the Ordinary World, burning fossil fuels like crazy.

Suddenly our scientists diagnose us with a deadly, self-inflicted disease (“At+5 degrees Celsius entire ecosystems will collapse, we need to decarbonize the economy”, etc.). It’s the call into the great unknown, the Call to Adventure.

Of course, at first, we try to Refuse the Call (“Climate change is FAKE news, invented by the Chinese.”)

I am not sure what Meeting the Mentor could mean — maybe the set-up of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to validate the scientific facts and think about potential ways out of our dilemma.

We’ve collectively Crossed the Threshold into the Special World, by engaging the issue on an international level at UN climate change conferences.

The past and current international climate conferences certainly mean meeting Tests, Allies and Enemies (e.g. the USA pulling out of the Paris accord). That’s where the story arc currently ends, as far as I can see.

Joining Humanity’s Fellowship of the Earth

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Who wants to join Humanity’s Fellowship of the Earth?

Next steps would be to Approach the major challenge in the Special World, together with our mentor and allies.

The Ordeal, Death & Rebirth could mean that things will have to get much worse (hopefully not!) before humanity is willing to let go of old patterns of competitiveness and petty nationalism in the face of a global, adaptive challenge. Humanity will have to let its particularistic national identity die, let its narrow-minded and -heartedness die to be Reborn into a species capable of truly global cooperation (SIMPOL, or whichever form), aware of the limits of growth and willing to take the necessary (yet uncomfortable) actions to ensure the survival of our common habitat, planet earth.

Stories and movies — humanity’s collective subconscious dreams

I think that’s a better story than the current doom and gloom of zombie movies with dystopian futures. If movies are humanity’s collective subconscious, we’re currently having serious nightmares. Where are the positive stories of hope and global cooperation? Here’s my challenge to all the screenwriters, directors and actors out there: create hero stories about THAT, please!

But actually, reality is cooler than fiction:

Change is on its way.

Climate Change Courage

True courage is not the absence of fear. Courage is the willingness to not flinch in the face of fear, to tackle adversity head on and to take a risk, even though we cannot know for sure what the final outcome will be. But one thing is certain: if we don’t take on the challenge, we have already lost. Remember — it’s an adaptive one. You, we and all of humanity need to transform in order to survive. So don’t despair.


We have to inquire into our “immunity to change”, as Robert Kegan calls it, or rather our “immunity to taking action on climate change”. There is something we SAY we want to do (“reduce CO2 emissions”), the thing we do INSTEAD (keep raising CO2 emissions globally), the HIDDEN COMPETING COMMITMENTS (keeping our luxurious lifestyle, air travel, SUVs, meat-production, energy consumption, cheap electricity, etc….), the WORRY about what would happen, if we actually acted on what we SAY we want (“If we reduce CO2 emissions unilaterally, we will become uncompetitive and the economy will crash and we will all end up in poverty”), our BIG UNEXAMINED ASSUMPTIONS (“only material wealth brings happiness”, “economic growth entirely depends on fossil fuels”,” we cannot overcome the destructive cycle of international destructive competition — the nation that moves first, loses out economically”, etc.) We could TEST those BIG ASSUMPTIONS, document the results and feed them back into the system, so that we can start to drop our hidden commitments and actually start doing the thing we SAY we want to do (“reduce emissions”) without our competing commitments getting in the way as a sort of protective auto-immune reaction. We might find that in doing this, we catalyze a collective leap in meaning-making and growing up as humanity. Happy End.

How about THAT? :-)

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