What People Really Need to Fight Climate Change: A Good Psychologist


Photo via Guardian

Reports have surfaced before on why it's so difficult for the human brain to get the human body to adjust its behavior for the betterment of the planet. But maybe none as pointed as the latest: the American Psychological Association has just completed a study on why people are so slow to action when it comes to combating climate change. Their conclusion? Simple. It's psychological.The report finds that there are a number of mental barriers that prevent people from acting, even if they believe wholeheartedly that climate change is a major threat. Topping the list is the fact that most often, climate change isn't considered an immediate danger, and thus, less urgent to act upon.

So this is where the APA decided to dig in--they analyzed the root of the inaction: (from the APA)

Scientific evidence shows the main influences of climate change are behavioral — population growth and energy consumption. "What is unique about current global climate change is the role of human behavior," said task force chair Janet Swim, PhD, of Pennsylvania State University. "We must look at the reasons people are not acting in order to understand how to get people to act."
The last Pew Research poll found that some 80% of people believed that climate change was a serious issue--but it consistently came in dead last when ranked against other issues like terrorism, the economy, even the ambiguously worded "decline of family values." So, to better understand why people feel no pressure on the issue, even though scientists continually warn that in order to avoid catastrophe action must be taken now, the APA compiled a list of the psychological barriers responsible for the disconnect. Here's a sampling:
  • Uncertainty — Research has shown that uncertainty over climate change reduces the frequency of "green" behavior.

  • Mistrust — Evidence shows that most people don't believe the risk messages of scientists or government officials.

  • Denial — A substantial minority of people believe climate change is not occurring or that human activity has little or nothing to do with it, according to various polls.

  • Undervaluing Risks — A study of more than 3,000 people in 18 countries showed that many people believe environmental conditions will worsen in 25 years. While this may be true, this thinking could lead people to believe that changes can be made later.

  • Lack of Control — People believe their actions would be too small to make a difference and choose to do nothing.

  • Habit — Ingrained behaviors are extremely resistant to permanent change while others change slowly. Habit is the most important obstacle to pro-environment behavior, according to the report.
While it's interesting to see it spelled out and backed up by research, none of this is particularly revelatory stuff. And the solutions it expounds are good ones--like employing clear, immediate financial incentives to get people to cut back on energy consumption--but not necessarily new ones. Nonetheless, this is a worthy, under-examined avenue--and one that could have huge benefits in motivating more people to act. As the APA says,
"Many of the shortcomings of policies based on only a single intervention type, such as technology, economic incentives or regulation, may be overcome if policy implementers make better use of psychological knowledge," the task force wrote in the report. The task force identified other areas where psychology can help limit the effects of climate change, such as developing environmental regulations, economic incentives, better energy-efficient technology and communication methods.
It would indeed be useful to have a wider body of study done on the subject--if more specific ways to appeal to the human brain to inspire action on an intangible threat, perhaps they can effectively be applied to policy.

More on Climate Science:
The Facts About Global Warming Denial
Be a Citizen Scientist for Climate Change

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