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How Psychology Can Save The World From Climate Change

A man walks through hundreds of pairs of shoes displayed in Paris as part of a rally called "Paris sets off for climate" on Sunday, Nov. 29. More than 140 world leaders are gathering around Paris for high-stakes climate talks this week. i

A man walks through hundreds of pairs of shoes displayed in Paris as part of a rally called "Paris sets off for climate" on Sunday, Nov. 29. More than 140 world leaders are gathering around Paris for high-stakes climate talks this week. Laurent Cipriani/AP hide caption

toggle caption Laurent Cipriani/AP
A man walks through hundreds of pairs of shoes displayed in Paris as part of a rally called "Paris sets off for climate" on Sunday, Nov. 29. More than 140 world leaders are gathering around Paris for high-stakes climate talks this week.

A man walks through hundreds of pairs of shoes displayed in Paris as part of a rally called "Paris sets off for climate" on Sunday, Nov. 29. More than 140 world leaders are gathering around Paris for high-stakes climate talks this week.

Laurent Cipriani/AP

Representatives from nearly 200 countries are meeting in France today to discuss climate change — and for good reason.

To quote President Obama's State of the Union Address from earlier this year: "No challenge — no challenge — poses a greater threat to future generations than climate change."

Yet public sentiment lacks the sense of urgency these remarks ought to instill. A 2014 poll by the Pew Research Center, for example, found that only 29 percent of respondents rated dealing with global warming as a top priority for the president and Congress; well below the percentage that endorsed strengthening the economy (80 percent), improving the job situation (74 percent), or defending the country from terrorism (73 percent) as top priorities.

A new paper published in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science helps explain why. The paper's authors — Sander van der Linden, Edward Maibach, and Anthony Leiserowitz — review psychological research to identify key aspects of climate change and climate change communication that contribute to the mismatch between the urgency and severity of climate change, on the one hand, and widespread public disengagement, on the other. They highlight five features of human psychology that make climate change communication especially challenging, and they pair these with recommendations for how to make science communication and policy more effective.

In brief, here are their five insights and recommendations:

  • First, people are generally more responsive to personal experience than to abstract analysis. This can be a problem because climate change is typically described in very abstract, statistical terms — we see the numbers and figures, but we rarely recognize the effects of climate change it in our own, everyday experience. The authors suggest that "information about climate change risks needs to be translated into relatable and concrete personal experiences." Fortunately, this might not be that hard: Climate change is already occurring in ways that do affect our own, everyday experience.
  • Second, when faced with the enormity of climate change, it's easy to lose any sense of personal efficacy. But rather than despair, we can capitalize on the fact that we're social beings who respond to social norms. Motivating individuals to act can be a challenge, but establishing and rewarding community norms can help encourage pro-environmental behavior even when individual behavior seems like a drop in the bucket.
  • Third, we tend to treat the immediate and personal quite differently from the distant and uncertain. When climate change is presented as distant in space and time, it's easier to ignore. In making decisions, for example, immediate costs (like the inconvenience of reducing one's carbon footprint) tend to loom large, while uncertain future costs (like the catastrophic consequences of warming) are underweighted. Climate change communication might be more effective by focusing more on regional impacts of warming that are close in space and time — like the effects we can see now in our own communities.
  • Fourth, research has shown that people's attitude to risk can depend on whether they're thinking about potential losses or potential gains. In particular, people are more willing to tolerate risk when dealing with losses, so some probability of a loss in quality of life downstream is a gamble they're relatively willing to take. "These psychological insights," the authors write, "suggest that shifting the policy conversation from the potentially negative future consequences of not acting (losses) on climate change to the positive benefits (gains) of immediate action is likely to increase public support."
  • Finally, research suggests that motivating behavior with extrinsic rewards — such as monetary incentives for conserving energy — could be more effective when paired with appeals to people's intrinsic motivation to improve others' wellbeing and to care for the environment. Specifically: "Appealing to people's intrinsic motivational needs can be a more effective and long-lasting driver of pro-environmental behavior." When intrinsically motivated, pro-environmental behavior is more likely to be maintained after extrinsic incentives are removed, and extrinsic rewards can actually undermine people's intrinsic motivation to change.

In sum, climate change is often presented as an abstract, uncertain cost, distant in space and time, and requiring external incentives to motivate individual action. Psychological research suggests this is an especially dangerous combination, sure to make people underestimate the risk and unlikely to compel them to action. Instead, policy makers and science communicators might do well to focus on the concrete manifestations of climate change in our own experience, the consequences of warming that are affecting our communities here and now, and the ways our current actions can be tied to gains rather than losses, to social norms and to our own intrinsic motivations.

Effective climate change mitigation will undoubtedly involve insights from the natural sciences and engineering. But changing our own attitudes and behavior requires insights from psychology, as well. It's time to recognize the critical role for the social sciences in dealing with global warming, an issue that certainly ought to be a top priority for the president and Congress.


Tania Lombrozo is a psychology professor at the University of California, Berkeley. She writes about psychology, cognitive science and philosophy, with occasional forays into parenting and veganism. You can keep up with more of what she is thinking on Twitter: @TaniaLombrozo

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