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Psychology is the Missing Link in the Climate Change Debate

By Adam Corner

Without a deeper insight into people's behaviour and motivations, a low-carbon world will remain out of reach.

1221761_reflect.jpg From 10:10 to the government's Act On CO2 campaign, it is now widely accepted that tackling climate change will require tackling behaviour change too. But until now, a key piece has been missing from the puzzle – psychology. The study of human behaviour has been conspicuous by its absence from the climate change debate.

The assessment reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have provided the scientific evidence of human impact on the climate, and a glimpse of what the future may hold if we don't act fast. But while the consensus may be growing on the need for changes in behaviour, we're no closer to understanding how we're going to do it. Attempting an unprecedented shift in human behaviour without the input of psychologists is like setting sail for a faraway land without the aid of nautical maps.

Psychological research shows that most people in the UK don't feel personally threatened by climate change because it is vague, abstract and difficult to visualise. This means that doomsday scenarios and apocalyptic language are unlikely to work – although fear can motivate behaviour change, it only works when people feel personally vulnerable. Clearly, exaggerating the threat of climate change is not an option. So how can climate change be made more relevant to people's lives?

In the dusty journals and leather-bound books of university libraries lie decades of psychological research on human behaviour. Why are habits so difficult to change? Do people make decisions based on rational criteria, or impulse and intuition? Why do people tend to unnecessarily fear some risks, yet inadvisably discount others? These are all questions that will become increasingly pertinent as the transition to a low-carbon future progresses.

Fortunately, climate change is starting to be acknowledged by social scientists on both sides of the Atlantic. Earlier this year, the American Psychological Association published an extensive review of psychology's contribution to tackling climate change. And on 27 October, the British Psychological Society will hold its inaugural meeting on the psychology of climate change. From the language used to describe climate change, to the ways in which habits are made and broken, the signs are that psychology holds the key to driving the shift to sustainability.

An American study played people recordings of actors delivering speeches about climate change. The version that people responded to the best talked about "air pollution" rather than "climate change" – because pollution is something visible that they could relate to, with strong connotations of dirtiness and poor health. Climate change is about much more than just dirty air, but finding ways of making climate change more visible is critical. People simply don't worry about things they can't see (or even imagine).

One approach that has been used to increase the amount that people use public transport breaks down habits into simple "if… then" plans. To change a habitual behaviour, a person has to identify a goal (drive less, for example), a behaviour they want to perform in pursuit of that goal (get the bus to work on Fridays) and a situation that will trigger the behaviour (having enough time to catch the bus). In this example, if it's Thursday evening, then the alarm needs to be set for a different time, and if it's Friday morning, then have a quick shower instead of a long bath. Thinking about behaviour in these terms is unfamiliar – but even the most well-intentioned goals are doomed to fail without a strategy for achieving them.

Of course, some people are wary of committing themselves to changes in their personal behaviour. They argue that political agreements and technological advances will do more to reduce greenhouse gases than anything an individual could achieve. But while it is comforting to draw sharp distinctions between politics, technology and individuals, the reality is that human behaviour underpins it all. Political parties will not pass legislation that is patently unpopular among the electorate. Technology can provide low-carbon alternatives like electric buses. But a zero-emissions bus will have zero passengers unless people decide to use it.

Household insulation has been rightly prioritised by policymakers as a key area where individual-level changes can play a significant role in reducing carbon emissions. But as Alexa Spence and Nick Pidgeon from Cardiff University argue in a forthcoming paper in the journal Environment, changes in household insulation depend on some key behavioural assumptions. In particular, the overheating of residential buildings has to become socially unacceptable, and people will have to be motivated to make changes to their home heating routines. Spence and Pidgeon suggest that periods of transition, where routines are already in flux, provide useful opportunities to develop new, more sustainable habits. In the context of home insulation, some building work already scheduled for the house might provide not only the practical opportunity for some low-carbon upgrades, but also the perfect psychological context for making some long-intended changes to habits and routines.

If the thought of psychologically informed lifestyle change campaigns sounds a bit too Big Brother for your liking, then consider the alternative: millions of pounds spent on technology that is never taken up, and a market-based system of economic coercion that penalises the poor while the rich keep polluting. Without an understanding of what drives people's environmental behaviour, the dream of a low-carbon society will remain forever out of reach.

This article originally appeared in The Guardian.

Image Credit: Fabio Bertini, Creative Commons License.

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Comments

This is a good point: people won't respond to something that doesn't seem real to them. But I think climate change is just the lid on the can of interrelated problems we're facing today. It's a looming danger and very real, but we can't see that. We can, though, see that 40% of our nation is obese (so we should be walking more) and that our economy is failing (so we should reconfigure it) and that our cities look ugly and unfriendly. There are so many problems that are real and present to us with solutions that would also help decrease GHGs.

We need to be more holistic. Waving a climate change stick over everyone only simplifies a complex problem and polarizes our nation even more.


Posted by: Kimberly Jongsma on 2 Nov 09

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