People fear climate change, psychologists say

Psychology has important contributions to make in understanding the causes and consequences of climate change, and how people respond by “going green” or ignoring the threat, says a task force report released Friday.

Psychology has important contributions to make in understanding the causes and consequences of climate change, and how people respond by “going green” or ignoring the threat, says a task force report released Friday.

The report, which took about a year to compile and was unveiled at a conference of the American Psychological Association, urges the profession to play a greater role in limiting the effects of climate change, or global changes in temperature and precipitation.

Janet Swim, a psychology professor at Pennsylvania State University and chair of the task force, said we need to look at the reasons people aren’t acting to understand how to get them to act.

“People are worried about this; they’re afraid of it. And how do people deal with fear? Some people deal with fear by denying it. Some people deal with fear by engaging, doing social activism — and so that’s a good way to do it,” she said in an interview before presenting the hefty 200-plus-page report.

“Some people deal with fear by being obsessed with it, and that’s not good.”

The lone member of the study group from Canada, Robert Gifford of the University of Victoria, rhymed off a number of reasons for inaction, including the fact that when there’s a little bit of uncertainty, people tend to hesitate or not act.

“The climate scientists who have any integrity always have a little bit of a confidence interval around the temperature rise or the time line, and so this uncertainty leads to sort of inaction by people saying, ‘Well, I guess I’m not sure if it’s really going to happen right now,”’ explained Gifford, a professor of psychology and environmental studies.

As well, those who deny that climate change is occurring exploit this little bit of uncertainty and say, “Well, they don’t even know what they’re talking about,” he noted.

Inaction is also due to people thinking that their individual efforts won’t make a difference, akin to the reasoning of those who don’t bother to vote, he said.

Still others might have conflicting goals and aspirations, and efforts to slow global warming get trumped by “other things that are more salient in their lives — their health, their children, their housing, their mortgage, their job.”

Some people, he explained, don’t want to do what they’re told by an authority. Others make a token effort, by recycling, for example, and think they’re already doing their part.

There’s also a sense of social comparison, he said.

“If I ride my bike to work and other people don’t, is it fair? It’s not equitable that I should make a sacrifice when my colleagues are not. Or why should I put solar panels on my house and spend money if nobody else is going to do it?”

Psychologists can collaborate with climate scientists in helping educators and decision-makers understand some of these perceptions and psychological barriers, Swim indicated.

“How do people respond to risk and assess risk? Maybe people think about it as a risk for somebody else, somewhere else, in the future — so other countries, perhaps, in 2050 or 2100,” she said.

“People are focused on the now, and not later. We need to be thinking about the later now … there’s a lot of information about risk perception and how people discount the future for the present.”

She suggested getting together with other people to make a difference, whether it’s by joining an activist group or your own friends.

“There are so many barriers to what we do … some structural barriers, some of them are social barriers, so you have to find like-minded individuals to help you,” Swim said.

Gifford said he believes that British Columbians, especially, are cognizant of climate change, due to the problem with pine beetles.

“Everybody who lives in the Interior clearly understands that this is related to warmer winters so that the pine beetles are not being killed so that vast swaths of the Interior of the province’s pine forests are being killed.”

Those who want to make a difference to climate change should learn as much as they can about behaviour changes that would have the most impact, for instance in areas such as diet, energy use and driving less to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

He suggested setting goals and sharing them with someone, like a spouse or significant other.

“Monitor each other, help each other along when your motivation flags.”

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