How Psychology Can Save The World From Climate Change
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:
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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