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The Neglect of Psychology in Climate Change Science

By March 14, 2022No Comments

Another year filled with climate change related catastrophes has passed. Recent analyses show that 2021 joins the top seven hottest years on record. Global warming seems unstoppable – unless science ‘saves the day’, and all the days that follow. How can psychology help to decrease environmentally harmful behaviors?

Another year filled with climate change related catastrophes has passed. Recent analyses show that 2021 joins the top seven hottest years on record. Global warming seems unstoppable – unless science ‘saves the day’, and all the days that follow. How can psychology help to decrease environmentally harmful behaviors?

Illustration by Arianna Cavalli

Research is crucial to find solutions to global warming. At last year’s UN Climate Change Conference (COP26), many countries have declared to invest in technologies such as clean energy. Because generic deployments like these alone will probably not mitigate global warming sufficiently, research in novel geoengineering technologies will also receive funding. ‘Bioenergy with carbon capture and storage’ (BECCS), for example, aims to pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and store it underground. While these innovations promise success, their outcomes are factually unknown. They could, for example, potentially interfere with the ecosystem, which is a very sensitive equilibrium. 

Most certainly, the resolutions of the COP26 reveal a certain attitude shared in climate change politics, namely, trying to mitigate the consequences of human destructive behaviors, instead of changing them at their root. This seems like a dubious approach considering the causal role of human activity in climate change. Despite the growing body of research in the interface between climate change and individual behavior, psychology is falling short of its potential when it comes to climate change mitigation. Is there no point in incentivizing individual action towards climate change mitigation? It was estimated that behavioral interventions to curtail individuals’ direct energy consumption could lead to about 10% reduction in household energy use (Nielsen et al., 2021). According to Green et al. (2015) “up to 40% cuts in greenhouse gas emissions from Western diets are reasonably achievable through individual action, primarily by substituting meat and dairy with plant-based foods”. Ironically, COP26 served meat. It seems like there is a lot we can do, as individuals and as psychologists. 

“Despite the growing body of research in the interface between climate change and individual behavior, psychology is falling short of itspotential when it comes to climate change mitigation.”

A recent review by Nielsen et al. (2021) emphasizes that the most significant and climate-relevant psychological insights come from research that examines the human behaviors that harm the climate most pivotally. This begs the question of how we are contributing to global warming exactly. Known to many people, one driving force is our growing consumerism (APA, 2010). Consumerism is a broad umbrella term which includes the consumption of both physical goods as well as services purchased from the market. To examine ‘individual consumption’, the happiness produced by purchasing certain products has been studied in Psychology. Other factors that drive consumption are individual goals, ideals, beliefs, or financial incentives, which are often tied to social and cultural contexts. Shedding light on which factors specifically increase motivation to engage in consumption can help targeting these incentives in behavioral interventions or green marketing. 

Because behaviors performed on a daily basis cumulate to great impacts over time, fundamental life changes are one the most effective behaviors to study. These include changing to a vegan or vegetarian diet, switching to renewable energies, replacing household appliances such as motor vehicles and home insulation, or changing modes of transportation (Nielsen et al., 2021). Another factor contributing to global warming is worldwide population growth. Increasing population is especially harmful when growth occurs in countries with high per-capita emissions such as in the Netherlands. Unfortunately, a common dilemma in modern societies is the belief that a stagnating or decreasing population is undesirable due to, for example, the elderly outnumbering the young people, even though there are also costs to an increasing population. Collecting information about national, social, and individual belief systems can help come up with solutions to regulate population growth (APA, 2010). 

While the problem of population growth can be left to deal with by higher authorities, reducing individual consumption is something we can think about alongside other psychologists. Let’s be honest – many of us have ideas about how to reduce our consumerism. Yet, how many are actually taking the necessary steps? Not enough. For now, I will cut us some slack because it has been proven difficult to be motivated to act on climate change (Harvard Business Review, 2019). But because many people struggle to change their daily behaviors, psychology is needed to foster action and change. 

It is very useful to think about which psychological barriers limit climate change action. Van Lange, Joireman and Milinski (2018) suggest that climate change can be described as a social dilemma involving borders of thought, time, and space which inhibit people from changing their environmentally harmful behaviors. Borders of thought describes the abstractness climate change brings as a problem which the planet has not faced before. Because we are inexperienced with fixing global warming, we rely on our own theories and heuristics. For example, it was shown that people believe in the ‘myth of self-interest’, which is the tendency to overestimate selfish behaviors of other people. As a result, we become pessimistic about the willingness of others to engage in mitigation efforts. Next, borders of time describes how people prefer acting on their short-term interests over future interests. Due to the “here and now” phenomenon rooted in evolutionary needs of survival reproduction, humans tend to operate in the short term. Tying in with this ‘border’, a review by Maiella et al. (2020) identifies perceived psychological distance as one common barrier to act across a wide range of studies. Borders of space emphasizes the nature of climate change being an intergroup problem. It has been found difficult to prioritize this global challenge, instead of prioritizing our local group interests. As a country of high per-capita emission, this makes it hard for the Netherlands to acknowledge climate change as a threat and act on it, while it is partly responsible for it and has the means to implement change.

“We need to overcome the psychological distance of climate change. ”

Clearly, we need to overcome the psychological distance of climate change. The borders of thought, time, and space have to be broken. How can psychologists assist in making this happen across the world? The answer is near: bringing climate change closer. And the execution has been researched already in terms of the effectiveness of messaging, education on climate change or increasing empathy (Van Lange et al., 2018). Overcoming borders of space has been found to be particularly difficult. However, it has been suggested that inducing ‘competitive altruism’, the tendency to compete for prosocial or altruistic reputations, in institutions and companies with power and high emissions could be a way to benefit from the competitive mindsets of many leaders (Van Lange et al., 2018). Other interventions to increase environmentally friendly behaviors include increasing attractiveness of environmentally friendly products in marketing or reducing costs of engaging in them.  Crucially, research should focus on marketing that induces fundamental life changes or other great impacts, rather than choosing experimental designs because they are easy to study (Nielsen et al., 2021).  

In sum, psychology has a lot to offer in changing environmentally harmful behaviors. In fact, this article could only touch upon a fraction of the vast amount of climate research. Psychology has clearly been neglected in the development of global climate change mitigation attempts. At the same time, there is still much more research needed to work out the exact mechanisms of action incentives and the efficacy of interventions. For example, psychologists need to focus on which interventions are most effective in which societies and individuals. (Nielsen et al., 2021). The next climate conference, COP27 in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, may be an opportunity to give researchers of all stripes the voice to offer up expertise, and I am hoping to see psychologists come to the rescue! 

References

-How researchers can help fight climate change in 2022 and beyond. (2022). Nature, 601(7891), 7. https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-021-03817-4
-Maiella, R., La Malva, P., Marchetti, D., Pomarico, E., di Crosta, A., Palumbo, R., Cetara, L., di Domenico, A., & Verrocchio, M. C. (2020). The Psychological Distance and Climate Change: A Systematic Review on the Mitigation and Adaptation Behaviors. Frontiers in Psychology, 11. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2020.568899
-Nielsen, K. S., Clayton, S., Stern, P. C., Dietz, T., Capstick, S., & Whitmarsh, L. (2021). How psychology can help limit climate change. American Psychologist, 76(1), 130–144. https://doi.org/10.1037/amp0000624
-Psychology and Global Climate Change: Addressing a Multi-faceted Phenomenon and Set of Challenges (2010), APA Psychology
-van Lange, P. A. M., Joireman, J., & Milinski, M. (2018). Climate Change: What Psychology Can Offer in Terms of Insights and Solutions. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 27(4), 269–274. https://doi.org/10.1177/0963721417753945
-Why People Aren’t Motivated to Address Climate Change. (2021, September 9). Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2018/10/why-people-arent-motivated-to-address-climate-change

Research is crucial to find solutions to global warming. At last year’s UN Climate Change Conference (COP26), many countries have declared to invest in technologies such as clean energy. Because generic deployments like these alone will probably not mitigate global warming sufficiently, research in novel geoengineering technologies will also receive funding. ‘Bioenergy with carbon capture and storage’ (BECCS), for example, aims to pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and store it underground. While these innovations promise success, their outcomes are factually unknown. They could, for example, potentially interfere with the ecosystem, which is a very sensitive equilibrium.

Most certainly, the resolutions of the COP26 reveal a certain attitude shared in climate change politics, namely, trying to mitigate the consequences of human destructive behaviors, instead of changing them at their root. This seems like a dubious approach considering the causal role of human activity in climate change. Despite the growing body of research in the interface between climate change and individual behavior, psychology is falling short of its potential when it comes to climate change mitigation. Is there no point in incentivizing individual action towards climate change mitigation? It was estimated that behavioral interventions to curtail individuals’ direct energy consumption could lead to about 10% reduction in household energy use (Nielsen et al., 2021). According to Green et al. (2015) “up to 40% cuts in greenhouse gas emissions from Western diets are reasonably achievable through individual action, primarily by substituting meat and dairy with plant-based foods”. Ironically, COP26 served meat. It seems like there is a lot we can do, as individuals and as psychologists. 

“Despite the growing body of research in the interface between climate change and individual behavior, psychology is falling short of itspotential when it comes to climate change mitigation.”

A recent review by Nielsen et al. (2021) emphasizes that the most significant and climate-relevant psychological insights come from research that examines the human behaviors that harm the climate most pivotally. This begs the question of how we are contributing to global warming exactly. Known to many people, one driving force is our growing consumerism (APA, 2010). Consumerism is a broad umbrella term which includes the consumption of both physical goods as well as services purchased from the market. To examine ‘individual consumption’, the happiness produced by purchasing certain products has been studied in Psychology. Other factors that drive consumption are individual goals, ideals, beliefs, or financial incentives, which are often tied to social and cultural contexts. Shedding light on which factors specifically increase motivation to engage in consumption can help targeting these incentives in behavioral interventions or green marketing. 

Because behaviors performed on a daily basis cumulate to great impacts over time, fundamental life changes are one the most effective behaviors to study. These include changing to a vegan or vegetarian diet, switching to renewable energies, replacing household appliances such as motor vehicles and home insulation, or changing modes of transportation (Nielsen et al., 2021). Another factor contributing to global warming is worldwide population growth. Increasing population is especially harmful when growth occurs in countries with high per-capita emissions such as in the Netherlands. Unfortunately, a common dilemma in modern societies is the belief that a stagnating or decreasing population is undesirable due to, for example, the elderly outnumbering the young people, even though there are also costs to an increasing population. Collecting information about national, social, and individual belief systems can help come up with solutions to regulate population growth (APA, 2010). 

While the problem of population growth can be left to deal with by higher authorities, reducing individual consumption is something we can think about alongside other psychologists. Let’s be honest – many of us have ideas about how to reduce our consumerism. Yet, how many are actually taking the necessary steps? Not enough. For now, I will cut us some slack because it has been proven difficult to be motivated to act on climate change (Harvard Business Review, 2019). But because many people struggle to change their daily behaviors, psychology is needed to foster action and change. 

It is very useful to think about which psychological barriers limit climate change action. Van Lange, Joireman and Milinski (2018) suggest that climate change can be described as a social dilemma involving borders of thought, time, and space which inhibit people from changing their environmentally harmful behaviors. Borders of thought describes the abstractness climate change brings as a problem which the planet has not faced before. Because we are inexperienced with fixing global warming, we rely on our own theories and heuristics. For example, it was shown that people believe in the ‘myth of self-interest’, which is the tendency to overestimate selfish behaviors of other people. As a result, we become pessimistic about the willingness of others to engage in mitigation efforts. Next, borders of time describes how people prefer acting on their short-term interests over future interests. Due to the “here and now” phenomenon rooted in evolutionary needs of survival reproduction, humans tend to operate in the short term. Tying in with this ‘border’, a review by Maiella et al. (2020) identifies perceived psychological distance as one common barrier to act across a wide range of studies. Borders of space emphasizes the nature of climate change being an intergroup problem. It has been found difficult to prioritize this global challenge, instead of prioritizing our local group interests. As a country of high per-capita emission, this makes it hard for the Netherlands to acknowledge climate change as a threat and act on it, while it is partly responsible for it and has the means to implement change.

“We need to overcome the psychological distance of climate change. ”

Clearly, we need to overcome the psychological distance of climate change. The borders of thought, time, and space have to be broken. How can psychologists assist in making this happen across the world? The answer is near: bringing climate change closer. And the execution has been researched already in terms of the effectiveness of messaging, education on climate change or increasing empathy (Van Lange et al., 2018). Overcoming borders of space has been found to be particularly difficult. However, it has been suggested that inducing ‘competitive altruism’, the tendency to compete for prosocial or altruistic reputations, in institutions and companies with power and high emissions could be a way to benefit from the competitive mindsets of many leaders (Van Lange et al., 2018). Other interventions to increase environmentally friendly behaviors include increasing attractiveness of environmentally friendly products in marketing or reducing costs of engaging in them.  Crucially, research should focus on marketing that induces fundamental life changes or other great impacts, rather than choosing experimental designs because they are easy to study (Nielsen et al., 2021).  

In sum, psychology has a lot to offer in changing environmentally harmful behaviors. In fact, this article could only touch upon a fraction of the vast amount of climate research. Psychology has clearly been neglected in the development of global climate change mitigation attempts. At the same time, there is still much more research needed to work out the exact mechanisms of action incentives and the efficacy of interventions. For example, psychologists need to focus on which interventions are most effective in which societies and individuals. (Nielsen et al., 2021). The next climate conference, COP27 in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, may be an opportunity to give researchers of all stripes the voice to offer up expertise, and I am hoping to see psychologists come to the rescue! <<

References

-How researchers can help fight climate change in 2022 and beyond. (2022). Nature, 601(7891), 7. https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-021-03817-4
-Maiella, R., La Malva, P., Marchetti, D., Pomarico, E., di Crosta, A., Palumbo, R., Cetara, L., di Domenico, A., & Verrocchio, M. C. (2020). The Psychological Distance and Climate Change: A Systematic Review on the Mitigation and Adaptation Behaviors. Frontiers in Psychology, 11. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2020.568899
-Nielsen, K. S., Clayton, S., Stern, P. C., Dietz, T., Capstick, S., & Whitmarsh, L. (2021). How psychology can help limit climate change. American Psychologist, 76(1), 130–144. https://doi.org/10.1037/amp0000624
-Psychology and Global Climate Change: Addressing a Multi-faceted Phenomenon and Set of Challenges (2010), APA Psychology
-van Lange, P. A. M., Joireman, J., & Milinski, M. (2018). Climate Change: What Psychology Can Offer in Terms of Insights and Solutions. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 27(4), 269–274. https://doi.org/10.1177/0963721417753945
-Why People Aren’t Motivated to Address Climate Change. (2021, September 9). Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2018/10/why-people-arent-motivated-to-address-climate-change
Ella Teuscher

Author Ella Teuscher

Ella (1999) is a third-year psychology student who is interested in basic cognitive processes such as reasoning and decision making and how they are produced by the brain. She enjoys music, literary arts, and mythology.

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