Psychology and Global Climate Change: Draft Report

25 August 2009 | News story

Addressing climate change is arguably one of the most pressing issues facing our planet and its inhabitants. The American Psychological Association (APA) task force report describes the contributions of psychological research to an understanding of psychological dimensions of global climate change, provides research recommendations, and proposes policies for APA to assist psychologists’ engagement with this issue.

Psychology and Global Climate Change: Addressing a Multi-faceted Phenomenon and Set of Challenges

A Report by the American Psychological Association’s Task Force on the Interface Between Psychology and Global Climate Change

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Executive Summary

Addressing climate change is arguably one of the most pressing issues facing our planet and its inhabitants. In bio and geophysical terms, climate change is defined as changes over time in the averages and variability of surface temperature, precipitation, and wind as well as associated changes in Earth’s atmosphere, oceans and natural water supplies, snow and ice, land surface, ecosystems, and living organisms (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [IPCC], 2007b). What is unique about current global climate change, relative to historical changes, is the causal role of human activity (also called anthropogenic forcing) and the current and projected dramatic changes in climate across the globe.

Our primary aim in our report is to engage members of the psychology community (teachers, researchers, those in practice, and students) in the issue of climate change. To this end, this American Psychological Association (APA) task force report describes the contributions of psychological research to an understanding of psychological dimensions of global climate change, provides research recommendations, and proposes policies for APA to assist psychologists’ engagement with this issue.

Research review and recommendations

This APA Climate Change Task Force Report considers psychology’s contribution to climate change by addressing the following six questions:

Section 1: How do people understand the risks imposed by climate change?

Long term climate is a phenomenon not easily detected by personal experience, yet one that invites personal observation and evaluation. Concern about adverse consequences of climate change (e.g., extreme weather events like droughts or floods) is low on average in places such as the United States, in part because small probability events tend to be underestimated in decisions based on personal experience, unless they have recently occurred, in which case they are vastly overestimated. Many think of climate change risks (and thus of the benefits of mitigating them) as both considerably uncertain and also as being mostly in the future and geographically distant, all factors that lead people to discount them. The costs of mitigation, on the other hand, will be incurred with certainty in the present or near future. Emotional reactions to climate change are likely to influence perceptions of risk. Yet, emotional reactions to climate change risks are likely to be conflicted and muted because climate change can be seen as a natural process and global environmental systems perceived as beyond the control of individuals, communities, and quite possibly, science and technology. There is, however, significant variability in people’s reactions to climate risks, much of which is mediated by cultural values and beliefs.

Section 2: What are the human behavioral contributions to climate change and the psychological and contextual drivers of these contributions?

Human actions that influence climate change include pressures due to population growth and region-specific types and patterns of consumption. Psychologists can help conceptualize and better understand psycho-social predictors of these driving forces. Psychologists can provide behavioral analyses of consumption by focusing on behaviors that contribute the most to climate. Individual predictors of consumption include ability (e.g., income, skills) and motivation (e.g., connection to nature, perceptions of needs versus a luxuries, core psychological needs) to engage in consumption. Contextual predictors of consumption, often mediated by individual level predictors, include the opportunities and constraints afforded by contexts (e.g., physical infrastructure, climate driving characteristics of where one lives) and motivators of consumption primed by contexts (e.g., social and cultural norms, consumerism, cultural and societal orientation toward time and nature).

Section 3: What are the psychosocial impacts of climate change?

Although they cannot be described with certainty given current research, the cumulative and interacting psychosocial effects of climate change are likely to be profound. Heat, extreme weather events, and increased competition for scarce environmental resources, compounded by preexisting inequalities and disproportionate impacts among groups and nations, will affect interpersonal and intergroup behavior and may result in increasing stress and anxiety. Even in the absence of direct impacts, the perception and fear of climate change may threaten mental health. However, there is reason to believe that positive consequences are also possible, as people take collective responsibility for a shared problem.

Section 4: How do people adapt to and cope with the perceived threat and unfolding impacts of climate change?

Adapting to and coping with climate change is an ongoing and ever changing process that involves many intrapsychic processes that influence reactions to and preparations for adverse impacts of climate change, including chronic events and disasters. Psychological processes include sense making, causal and responsibility attributions for adverse climate change impacts, appraisals of impacts, resources, and possible coping responses, affective responses, and motivational processes related to needs for security, stability, coherence, and control. These processes are influenced by media representations of climate change, formal and informal social discourse that involving social construction, representation, amplification and attenuation of climate change risk and its impacts. These processes reflect and motivate intrapsychic responses (e.g., denial, emotion management, problem solving) and individual and community behavioral responses. Individual and cultural variation influences all aspects of the process, providing context, world views, values, concerns, resilience, and vulnerability.

Section 5: Which psychological barriers limit climate change action?

Many structural and psychological barriers stand in the way of behavioral changes that would help limit climate change. Many people are taking action in response to the risks of climate change, but many others are unaware of the problem, unsure of the facts or what to do, do not trust experts or believe their conclusions, think the problem is elsewhere, are fixed in their ways, believe that others should act, or believe that their actions will make no difference or are unimportant compared to those of others. They may be engaged in token actions or actions they believe are helpful but objectively are not. They have other worthy goals and aspirations that draw their time, effort, and resources, or they believe that solutions outside of human control will address the problem. Some or all of the structural barriers must be removed but this is not likely to be sufficient. Psychologists and other social scientists need to work on psychological barriers.

Section 6: How can psychologists assist in limiting climate change?

Psychology can improve understanding of the behaviors that drive climate change by building better behavioral models based on empirical analysis, providing deeper understanding of individual and household behavior, and applying evaluation research methods to efforts to develop and improve interventions. One of psychology’s unique contributions is to understanding behavior at the individual level. It has already broadened understanding of the interactive roles of various personal and contextual factors in shaping environmentally significant behavior and in understanding why people do and do not respond to the variety of intervention types, including the use of persuasive messages, information, economic incentives, and new technologies. It can contribute more in this area by helping to design more effective interventions. Psychology can also help by illuminating the psychological factors affecting behavioral change in organizations, as well as cultural and policy change.

Topic specific research recommendations follow from our illustrations of how psychologists can help address these questions. These recommendations come at the end of each section. In many cases, research recommendations involve testing the generalizability of information derived from related areas to the context of global climate change. In other cases, the research recommendations highlight places where more research is needed to fully understand particular topics highlighted within each section.

Policy recommendations

A second aim of our report was to make policy recommendations for APA. We formulated recommendations to assist and encourage psychologists’ engagement with climate change issues as researchers, academics, practitioners, and students, and to foster the development of national and international collaborations with other individuals and associations inside and outside of psychology. We also make recommendations to encourage APA to “walk the talk” by addressing our professional organization’s contribution to greenhouse gas emissions and to be a role model for divisions within psychology.

Discussion

We conclude by summarizing the value of a psychological approach to studying climate change and research contributions. We discuss the importance of being attuned to diversity of human experiences in climate change analyses because various understandings of and responses to climate change will be influenced by one’s worldview, culture, and social identities. We also discuss how APA ethical standard provide motivation for psychologists’ engagement in climate change issues and challenges. Finally, we recommend that psychologists adopt the following principles to maximize the value and use of psychological concepts and research for understanding and informing effective responses to climate change thereby maximizing their contribution to the science of climate change:

1. Use the shared language and concepts of the climate research community where possible and explain differences in use of language between psychology and this community;
2. Make connections to research and concepts from other social, engineering, and natural science fields;
3. Present psychological insights in terms of missing pieces in climate change analyses;
4. Present the contributions of psychology in relation important challenges to climate change and climate response;
5. Prioritize issues and behaviors recognized as important climate change causes, consequences, or responses. Be cognizant of the possibility that psychological phenomena are context dependent;
6. Be explicit about whether psychological principles and best practices have been established in climate-relevant contexts;
7. Be explicit about whether psychological principles and best practices have been established in climate-relevant contexts;
8. Be mindful of social disparities, ethical and justice issues that interface with climate change.


* A final version of this report, including images and formatted as a booklet, will be
available in the fall of 2009 on the APA website http://www.apa.org/science/climate-change.