Psychology and the environment
‘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.’
–Adam Corner, Guardian
The media is often accused of exaggerating the effects of climate change or of fear mongering, mostly by so-called ‘climate skeptics’, who refute the science of climate change, global warming or the role of humanity in the processes. These accusations are understandable as the skeptics hold a view that is different or contrary to most scientists, politicians and the general public. They tend to notice things that put a bee in their bonnet. Those who firmly believe in climate change and that it is caused – or greatly contributed to – by humans are conversely annoyed when the media presents the skeptics’ arguments in an equal light to their own. It’s basic psychology, right? But, let’s put the physical science aside right now and think about how ‘alarmed’ people actually are.
As far as I can tell they simply aren’t. Despite all the media coverage of climate change and environmental issues, significant numbers of people are not radically altering their lifestyle. Sure, hybrid cars are selling better and there is more recycling going on. Awareness is growing, but panic isn’t. September 11th caused panic. Average Americans (and not only Americans) stocked up on bottled water, guns and canned food. Gas mask sales went through the roof. Oh, and the U.S. invaded Afghanistan and Iraq as a consequence of 9/11. That was alarming.
But fear mongering doesn’t describe statements about 2° rises in temperature, a few centimeter rises in sea level or some rainforest disappearing from a far off, poor country that nobody ever goes to. I mean, like, polar bears are cute and all, but what about my needs?
We need something tangible to happen to get off our couches and do something. A real WWII-style call to arms. Like, I don’t know… a major U.S. city to be flooded resulting in hundreds – no, thousands – of deaths. But come on, when is that likely to happen?
OK, to be fair, I don’t know if Hurricane Katrina had anything to do with climate change. But that’s not exactly the point. Scientists are warning that instances of extreme weather can increase due to climate change and that we should attempt to mitigate its causes as well as prepare for such weather.
‘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.’
–Adam Corner, Guardian
Apparently the U.K. is starting to get wise to the role of psychology in climate change, a role that this article from October 26 issue of the Guardian points out. Recent reports about U.K. Foreign Secretary David Miliband’s frustration with the British public’s lack of concern about climate change should shine a light on the link between psychology and climate change. Another article in London’s Times newspaper from October 30th highlights what could be a psychological backlash against media exaggeration and inaccuracy concerning environmental issues. Such misinformation is canon fodder for climate skeptics, whose criticisms thereof contribute to an atmosphere of confusion and serve to undermine political and public environmental action.
This is a problem with democracy: it needs an informed public, because real political action relies on public support. China’s leaders, for example, can do a lot more a lot faster because they are less beholden to the citizens of their country. Wouldn’t it be the ultimate psych-out if what is often considered to be the West’s greatest contribution to the world ultimately tied its hands in its time of greatest need?
By Graham Land
The American Psychological Association – Psychology and Global Climate Change: Addressing a Multi-faceted Phenomenon and Set of Challenges
Guardian – Jeremy Clarkson and Michael O’Leary won’t listen to green cliches and complaints about polar bears