Psychology and Climate Change

by Gina Simmons, Ph.D.

As we watch the devastating effects of the recent tornadoes through America, still reeling from the effects of hurricane Katrina, it can stretch the boundaries of our compassion.  We send money for relief efforts, offer shelter to homeless victims and struggle to find meaning in the catastrophe. Global Climate Change scientists have been predicting fierce storms like these for decades.  I remember reading about Global Warming in the 1970’s.

Corps of Engineers contractors remove debris from Hackleburg Township

Psychologists help survivors cope with trauma and provide advice to organizations to reduce conflict and encourage collaboration.  Scientists predict stronger, more frequent and brutal storms, as ocean temperatures rise.  The term, Global Warming does not adequately describe the changes facing our planet.  Climate Change, the latest label, comprises a number of changes accelerated by human impact on the environment.  Some feel Global Disaster is a more accurate label to describe what we face as a species.  By burning fossil fuels, cutting and burning forests and destroying natural habitats, humans have increased the average global temperature significantly beyond the range of 10,000 years of human history.  The ripple effect of this average temperature increase causes a loss of polar ice, melting of glaciers, rise in sea level, acidification of the oceans, and destruction of species habitats and ecosystems.
The last Polar Bear

Big storms can wipe out crops, destroy communities, threaten the availability of water and increase the threat of disease.  Groups of scientists from many disciplines including oceanography, biology, environmental science and technology, continue to submit research on the current effects of climate change, and create models to reduce the devastation to our planet.  The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 for it’s efforts to educate and collaborate to help humans adapt to the massive changes we face.  Check out their website, read some of the research, and look at maps of the world and scientific projections.

Psychologists know a lot about how hard it is to get people to change.  We recognize denial in the alcoholic and resistance in the obese patient.  Unhappy couples won’t give each other more love and parents refuse to discipline their unruly children.  Dr. Robert Gifford of the University of Victoria published an article in the latest issue of American Psychologist (entirely dedicated to Global Climate Change). In this article he describes the psychological barriers that keep us from acting in the interests of our own survival.  I’ll share a few of these “dragons of inaction” with you.

  • Limited Cognition:  We’re ignorant in two ways:  we don’t know the problem exists, and we don’t know what to do once we’re aware of it.
  • Ideologies:  Religious and political ideologies create a “you-can’t-tell-me-what-I-don’t-want-to-believe” kind of problem.  Capitalists want to drive the free market, even if it means destroying forests, fisheries and habitats around the world.  Others find solace in religious beliefs that discount any science that conflicts with their views.  Technosalvationists imagine a world where we can cover buildings with algae and create artificial trees to save us from doom.
  • Comparisons with other people:  Many of us think, “Why should I change if they won’t change?”  If China and India won’t sign the Global Climate Change Accord, then why should we?  I get this a lot in marital therapy.  “Why should I behave lovingly if he/she isn’t?”  The obvious answer, “Because it will make your marriage better” seems to escape them.
  • Discredence:  When we dislike the views of others we’re unlikely to take advice or direction from them.  People who make their living from the oil and gas industry don’t want to hear from environmental scientists.  When we don’t trust the source of information we can’t be persuaded by that source.  Then of course we have denial.  Many outspoken individuals deny Global Climate Change or deny that humans play any role in that change.
  • Perceived risk:  Financial risks certainly prevent many of us from changing our behavior to help the planet.  Though I’d love to put solar panels on the roof of my house, the cost makes it less of a priority than funding my child’s college education.  Security risks prevent many of us from buying tiny fuel efficient cars that crunch more severely than that hefty SUV.  Social risks prevent many men and women from buying hybrids.  Will my buddies think I’m a wimp?  Will my friends at the Republican fundraiser think I’ve turned Democrat?

I’m an optimist.  I know my obese patients can and do lose weight, and those unhappy couples can and do learn to love again.  We’ve reduced car accident deaths by getting people to wear seat belts.  Cigarette smokers quit smoking and reduce their cancer risk.  Behavior change, while difficult, is still a normal part of our human experience.  In my lifetime I’ve had to learn to use a seat belt, computer, cell phone and the bane of my existence, automated ATM machines.  I’ve learned to recycle and bicycle.  Change starts with information.  The Nature Conservancy provides a free carbon-footprint calculator.  It can help you reduce the negative mark you make on the planet.  Or you can do what Comedian Jimmy Kimmel suggests and just switch from Fahrenheit to Celsius.

Photos courtesy of Gerard Van Der Leun and USACE public affairs photo stream.