BY: CAROLINE ROLF
It has baffled climate specialists why despite the solid evidence about the dangers of global warming, much of the public remains unconvinced and the government unwilling to translate these warnings into major action. In order to understand this lack of foresight when it comes to climate change, it has taken a team of psychologists to determine that this is more than just a political, economic and social issue. It turns out that human psychology is inapt to deal with environmental change.
Research seeks to explain why we fail to act on climate change even though we’re fully aware of the great threat that lies in the near future. Outlined by economist Kenneth Arrow and biologist Paul Erhlich, are several problems with the relationship between climate change and psychology.
At the root of the problem is a matter of scale. When temperatures change drastically over the year or sometimes even daily, it is difficult to fathom how a two-degree increase in the global average temperature could lead to catastrophes like floods. Another factor lies with corporations and politicians whose focus is on short-term gains instead of long-term sustainability. For many, it’s a matter of convenience; people aren’t thinking about Earth’s future long after they’re gone when deciding between walking or driving to the grocery store.
Addressing climate change means taking a view far into the future. It’s also important to understand that averting a climate disaster can’t be done by one person alone. “People are all too aware that their own efforts, and those of their communities, will not really make a difference,” note the authors, “they are understandably unwilling to exert effort.”
In order to conserve energy, a number of “psych-wise” initiatives have been put into place across America. One powerful way to combat climate related problems is through social norms. In a 2007 experiment, psychologists found that distributing flyers with the message, “the majority of your neighbors are undertaking energy-saving actions every day” had a more positive outcome than flyers concentrating on environmental impact. In that respect, media platforms that address climate change could have a massive impact in promoting responsibility for the environment.
Although there is no single strategy that would alleviate climate change, and the initiatives currently in place fall short of the necessary requirements to conquer the environmental crisis, they do suggest ways that more substantial action can be achieved. The real implication is that scientists need to really consider how they communicate with the people that can influence action in a way that supports their thought process and enables them to carry out change. By understanding the emotional barriers linked to taking action, they may be able to develop a better set of guidelines for communication, activism and procedure. Although a task of this magnitude may seem overwhelming and involve many organizations and individuals to carry out effectively, it is nowhere near as frightening as the future of civilization if nothing is done.