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Can psychology overcome a climate of resistance?

Clouds260.jpgPosted on behalf of Emma Marris.

People know about climate change. For years now, media stories and scientific reports have poured down on the public, telling them that climate change is real, dangerous and happening now. But for some reason the public has not risen up, en masse, and demanded policy solutions, stopped driving cars and started planting trees. Heck, many can’t bring themselves to believe it is real. Others believe it, but go on with their lives without confronting it, paralyzed by the enormity of the problem.

Okay, so just providing information is clearly not enough. In Miami today, at the annual meeting of the Society for Environmental Journalists, a panel of three social scientists tackled the question of how to get people to change behavior. Never mind whether they care or not. How can the culture be tweaked? How can policies be set to influence human behaviors to emit less greenhouse gas?

One – perhaps controversial – recommendation they all echoed was to avoid the phrase ‘climate change,’ which they say has become too politicized. Kenneth Broad, the director of the Leonard and Jane Abess Center for Ecosystem Science and Policy at the University of Miami suggested ‘environmental change.’ Shahzeen Attari, who studies human behavior and energy use at Indiana University likes “climate disruption.”

Michel Handgraaf, a psychologist who works among economists at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, emphasized that rewards for behavior have to be immediate to really work. People are less likely to buy an energy efficient fridge if it costs more money now, even if it will save them twice as much in energy bills over the long run. So incentive programs should figure out how to deliver those savings right away. Handgraaf says that we are simply not evolved to be long term thinkers. “We are meant to deal with predators jumping out of the bush, or for maybe a year ahead—we should store food for the winter,” he says.

Another approach is to emphasize the social benefits of action. In one study, people claimed that their energy efficient behavior was motivated by saving money. But those same subjects were willing to go the farthest if they were told that their neighbors were also taking aggressive action. “We think we are economic animals, but really we are social animals,” says Handgraaf.

Journalists and environmentalists in the audience raised the point that the kind of individual consumer behaviors the panel were focusing on were all well and good, but that bigger forces matter more in the end, from city planning to the decisions made by power companies to international agreements on carbon limits or taxes. Attari agreed that individual behavior can only go so far when it is “embedded in unsustainable structures.” But of course power company executives, politicians and car manufacturers are individuals too, people with the same kinds of imperfectly rational evolved brains. If we can “psych out” the man on the street and get him biking to work, we should be able to influence the major decisions that shape our global energy economy. Perhaps environmental organizations should start recruiting in psychology departments and in the intelligence community.

For more, see a new guide on “The Psychology of Climate Change Communication” by Columbia University’s Center for Research on Environmental Decisions.

Photo credit: Muhammad Mahdi Karim


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    peter malsin said:

    When every news outlet in the Western world jumps on a non-story as puny as “Climategate,” blowing it up into what appears to be a world-class scandal, how can we talk about the media “providing information” without talking about the media jamming, pre-empting information?

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    James S. Mellett said:

    Sadly, in the USA, we will need to experience more near-catastrophic climatic events to get people’s attention. Prolonged drought in the Southwest, wildfires followed by massive flooding may nudge the public into awareness of climate disruption.

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