Conservation Psychology

The Climate Change Dysfunctional Family: Which Role Do You Play?

Throughout my professional psychotherapy experiences, I’ve often aided clients in becoming aware of the different roles they and their family members play in being part of a dysfunctional family. Dysfunctional families are actually quite common, with somewhere between 90-95% of all counseling clients describing the signs and symptoms (not counting people who are in dysfunctional families and have not sought counseling). This made me wonder about the implications in terms of humanity’s interactions as one big family, specifically when it pertains to certain existential threats like climate change.

Observing the various dynamics between people around the world and their attitudes on climate change seemed eerily familiar to the Wegschieder-Cruse Model (1981) in regards to the roles we take play in a dysfunctional family. If it is true and we have all been playing roles by perpetuating an endless cycle of dysfunction then perhaps by becoming aware of this cycle, we can begin to see more solutions, as Bowen (1978) describes;

The family is a system in that each member of the system, on cue, says their assigned lines, takes their assigned posture, and plays their assigned role in the family drama as it repeats hour by hour and day by day [...] Family members who can become adept at knowing their roles can bring about predictable change in the action-behavior patterns of others (p. 298)

Because the truth of the matter is, if we continue this cycle going on as we have been, it has the potential to throw us off the existential cliff.

So, which role do you play?



This role in a dysfunctional family is often the role who is a stand in for the parent(s) in the cases where the parents suffer from personality disorders, addiction, or are overall neglectful or abusive to their children. In the climate change dysfunctional family role, they are the ones looking after the best interests of generations to come, all the while protecting and caring for the animals, plants, oceans, air and soil. The caregivers are the ones who speak up against exploitation, abuse, pollution, excess and greed. They are often the “responsible” ones who seek to balance the narcissism in society. Usually, caretakers are forced to grow up fast and have therefore learned discipline and self-sacrifice for the greater good, potentially at the cost of other areas of their lives.

How Caretakers can take a teaching role in COLLABORATION with companies/governments in combatting climate change:

Instead of taking on the threat of climate change on their own, which can be detrimental to caretakers and those closest to them, caretakers can have a unique position in assisting corporations and governments in developing more sustainable solutions. With their passion and heightened responsibility for protecting the environment and humanity, caretakers have what it takes to seek out or develop processes or best practices when it comes to the fight against climate change. In general, sustainability positions and practices need to be put front and center of every business of every industry. Imagine what we could accomplish if caretakers were welcomed at the table and taken seriously in collaboration much more they they are now.



In the traditional dysfunctional family roles, the family hero is the one who excels in spite of the household chaos and makes the family look good. They bury their selves in busy schedules (avoidance) and never acknowledge let alone speak of the family secrets. In the broader sense of this role, they tend to placate and cover up/gloss over the world’s problem of climate change because it is not good for business and not good for their profit margins to have to acknowledge their practices are part of the problem. Perhaps the reasons for their denial are if they change from their “business as usual” mentality, it will cost them money, mental energy, and could rock the boat for them psychologically since changing things in their businesses has potential for failure. In essence, doing something about climate change in their businesses is a conflict of interest—-to agree it is happening and to commit to helping would mean that they would have to contribute more than what they are currently.

How successful business owners can become ACTUAL heroes in regards to climate change:

You’ve done well for yourself. You’ve done well for your family. The next step in your journey is to do well by your global family. How can you change your business practices to be more sustainable? How can your company greatly reduce its carbon footprint? This is a chance for you to take your accomplishments to the next level. By caring for what condition you leave the world and doing what you can to improve that picture, you can be a big piece of the puzzle when it comes to sustainability and Earth’s future. Caring for our planet and humanity as a whole is not only a virtue, people will respect you and your business more for it. Setting a good example for other business owners and for your consumers is what real heroes do. Several successful business owners have started this journey already, like Elon Musk releasing all of his patents in order to get others on board with fighting against climate change (Economic Times). IKEA, which happens to be the world’s biggest furniture retailer, has made a vow to make its products only from renewable or recycled materials by 2030 and currently, 60% of their products are made from renewable resources and 10% are made from recycled materials (Reuters). So if they can do it, will you?



The manipulators are very good at surviving in chaos. They will analyze the risks, benefits and weak points in the dysfunctional family and use these to their advantage. Quick to discover what is to be gained from the situation, Manipulators are good at identifying key players. On the world stage, Manipulators play other family members against each other for personal gain. Often times, their tactics are more covert than out in the open and they do not want to be exposed or else the others may figure out the game they are playing and they will not have an edge.

Psychologically speaking, Manipulators can show the signs and symptoms of psychopathy or sociopathy where their needs or desires puts everyone else in harms way. When it comes to Climate Change, it is obvious that the oil and gas industries have been supported for far too long and at the detriment of our own lives and generations to come. The world leaders who accept money from these industries to influence laws and suppress sustainable initiatives/alternatives are taking part of this same dysfunctional role.

How unsustainable industries can evolve and become LEADERS in battling climate change:

Instead of paying people off to keep unsustainable industries afloat, why not throw your support behind solar, wind, hydroelectric, tidal, etc. technologies and be leaders in the world? If I could ask you a serious and direct question, it would be, “Are you really that apathetic that you would demand your product before sustainable solutions, knowing very well that humanity will be harmed?” It has to be exhausting to keep your industries more and more profitable as the people start demanding more and more sustainable solutions. You still have time to recover——change now and you can maintain your power, but in a more positive and sustainable way.



In a dysfunctional family, the Scapegoat is the family member in which all the families’ problems are projected onto. They are the direct opposite of the family Hero in that they acknowledge what is happening in the family. In the greater world family, the Scapegoats are the general population around the world who are doing the best they can with the systems they are in to recycle, not waste water, bring their reusable bags to the grocery to avoid plastic, etc. The reason I say the Scapegoats are the general population is because the world’s populations are governed by various systems that may or may not make it the most affordable or accessible to choose sustainability. Furthermore, they consume what is resented to them and what is presented comes from a monopoly of some very large corporations that are not thinking sustainably. So, it is much easier to tell the world’s general population that they are at fault for consuming what is being presented to them and for not taking 2 minute showers when in reality it is the corporations and governance that need to change.

Disclaimer: Don’t get me wrong, we all have a responsibility to do the best we can to take care of our planet. However, we must place the blame where it belongs and that is on the faucet of unsustainable products being offered by companies fixated on their bottomline and governments not adopting responsible conservation measures or sustainable practices for their citizens.

How the average person can become EMPOWERED in the fight against climate change:

So, average people out there, how can we become empowered to do something more about climate change? Look into switching to renewable energy to power your home or demand renewable energy options in your town. Vote with your shopping carts by buying local products and support those companies who are doing their best to be leaders in sustainability. Demand better from your favorite products you can’t live without but can’t bring yourself to purchase because of the amount of plastic or waste they generate. Address your local government leaders and get sustainable solutions in place for your communities; mass public transportation, more trees, recycling programs, renewable energies, etc. Get creative by shooting for the stars and in the process of negotiating with your governments, you will land on the moon which will be a step in the right direction.



In the dysfunctional family. the clown is the family member who utilizes humor as a distraction from the tension in the room. Their motives are usually to; 1)Seek attention/validation or 2)Distract from the uncomfortable feelings. On the global stage, the clowns are the climate change deniers and media (talk shows, news channels, “reality” shows, etc) who refuse to report on the seriousness of climate change. On one hand I can empathize with this role on some level. Thinking about the challenge we have and the risks if we fail are not fun to think or talk about. But what is the cost if we continue to deny and distract from it?

How the clowns/distractors can become COLLABORATORS in the fight against climate change:

Instead of looking for the spotlight for your own personal gain (controversial or not), perhaps seeking the spotlight to highlight an actual existential threat and in doing something about it would bring you the validation you’ve been seeking. Look at the scientific data, speak with climate scientists and ask them to explain the points you have problems believing. This alone could help you be present with this actual threat, rather than sweeping it under the proverbial rug and ignoring it or denying it. If you are a news channel, you are greatly responsible for the awareness of the general population. Collaborate with the scientists and environmentalists and come up with relevant news pieces that can build a more knowledgable populous. Shout out to the late night talk show hosts who have made climate change part of their talking points; Stephen Colbert, Seth Meyers, Trevor Noah, Jimmy Fallon and Jimmy Kimmel.



This role I intentionally left for last because I wanted to stress how much the world’s family forgets about them. The lost children, in a dysfunctional family, are the ones who the others forget about. They don’t speak out or rebel, they are just trying to survive. In the world’s dysfunctional family, these Lost Children are the most vulnerable of our people. They are the ones in poverty, worrying about their next meal or a roof over their heads. Yes, it is possible for people in these circumstances to care a great deal about climate change and perhaps they even do what they can to help, but how can anyone earnestly expect those in dire situations to do anything other than care for themselves and their basic needs?

How the Lost Children can GUIDE the world’s people in battling climate change:

So how can the people with the very least amongst us become guides for the rest of us? First off, it starts with all of us providing them with or demanding from our local governments proper care, food and shelter as every person in the world deserves. Human beings cannot be reach their full potential without having their most basic of needs met (food, water, shelter, safety). If the world’s people were to come together and demand action for those living in poverty, that many more people would be able to contribute to taking action against climate change. Those living with the bare minimum can also teach the rest of us what is really necessary, and what is excess. The form of consumerism the majority of the western world have become accustomed to is not sustainable and it will be important to not only look at how the system can change (corporations being sustainable in producing products) but also how many “things” do we really need to acquire in a lifetime.


According to the most recent UN report produced by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), we have to act today in order to avoid the certain devastation of our planet that would come with a 1.5-2 degrees Celsius temperature change. We are already at 1.1 degrees Celsius change, so it is not only important, but necessary for all of us to snap out of whatever dysfunctional family roles we have been playing and start to work together on solutions for our existence and for our planet’s biodiversity. We are currently experiencing the 6th wave of mass extinctions in Earth’s history. According to the Center for Biological Diversity, the rate of species dying off naturally is between 1-5 species per year. However, our current rate is thousands of times that rate with multiple species going extinct every day. What we are experiencing is real and has already had and will continue to have consequences the longer we take to say ENOUGH IS ENOUGH. In a dysfunctional family, there is a time to step out and do things differently, or you will be consumed by the dysfunction itself and that time is now.


Bowen, M. (1978). Family therapy in clinical practice. New York: Jason Aronson.

Wegscheider-Cruse, S. (1981). Another chance: Hope and health for the alcoholic family. Palo Alto, CA: Science and Behavior Books.