Why Psychology Should Be A Part Of The Fight Against Climate Change

By understanding emotional barriers to action, we may be able to devise better guidelines for communication, advocacy and policy.

01/18/2016 11:40 am ET
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Up until now, psychology had been largely left out of the conversation about climate change, but researchers in the field of environmental psychology are seeking to change that.

Climate change isn't just a political, social and economic issue. It's also a deeply psychological one -- and now, behavioral scientists are using psychology to better understand the complex relationship between people and nature.

An increasing number of psychologists are arguing that in order to tackle the growing threat to our environment, we need to understand people's emotional and cognitive responses to this new reality, which can run the gamut from denial to indifference to outrage to anger to grief.

Scientists in the burgeoning field of environmental psychology are working hard to bring psychological insights into discussions about climate change. 

"Most people who acknowledge that climate change is occurring feel that the public response has been inadequate," said Dr. Susan Clayton, a conservation psychologist at the College of Wooster in Ohio. "Psychologists have been looking at how it is that people process this information about risk and come to their understandings -- so that’s useful to know in terms of thinking about how you can create messages that are more effective for people in terms of getting them on board."

What Is Environmental Psychology?

Research in environmental psychology can focus on a number of different areas of inquiry relevant to climate change, including the psychological and mental health impacts of ecological crises and disconnection from nature; the use of psychology to inform communication about climate change, advocacy and policy; and the psychological roots of climate change denial, apathy and inaction. 

While psychology has been largely been left out of the climate change conversation, the field is now slowly gaining steam. In 2009, the American Psychological Association created a task force to examine the role of psychology in understanding and addressing global climate change. And last September, President Barack Obama called for the use of behavioral sciences to inform policy, communication and engagement around pressing issues, including climate change.

It’s very innovative and it’s very emerging. But we have to get to the point where we really can be open to new and different ways of looking at things.”

“It’s a very new terrain we’re in," said Dr. Renee Lertzman, a San Francisco-based psychosocial researcher whose work focuses on promoting climate change action in organizational settings. "That’s the exciting part… It’s very innovative and it’s very emerging. But we have to get to the point where we really can be open to new and different ways of looking at things.” 

Explaining Our Failure To Act 

Lertzman's research seeks to explain why we fail to act on climate change, even when we're aware of the magnitude of the threat that lies before us. 

It's not just because people don't care, she argues. Rather, our emotional response to the issue, which for many people is a deep but unprocessed sense of anxiety and loss, can leave us feeling powerless and paralyzed.

This arrested state of unprocessed grief over the destruction of the natural world, which she refers to as "environmental melancholia," blocks us from taking action. 

“There’s this feeling of loss but it hasn’t been named, partly because we’re not used to talking about it in our culture ... It's a kind of loss that people are experiencing on both a personal and a social level," she said. "It’s a loss that comes with either seeing or experiencing changes in our environment, or hearing about those changes."

Lertzman conducted research in Green Bay, Wisconsin, in which she surveyed and interviewed people who weren't particularly engaged with the environment.

"What I heard was a sense of loss and longing and nostalgia," she said. "People would spend many hours telling me about how distressed and sad they are about the way things are changing, and also their sense of powerlessness. Then I would hear people move quickly to denying that they care at all."

While she doesn't deny that some people do show a lack of concern for the environment, Lertzman argues, “People already care and are already motivated, but are tied up in dilemmas and conflicts about how to actually respond.”

The implication is that experts and advocates need to think about how to communicate with people in a way that supports and enables them. By understanding emotional barriers to action, they may be able to devise better guidelines for communication, advocacy and policy. 

To that end, Lertzman is in the process of creating the Climate Psychology Lab, a new initiative being launched this year to unite researchers and clinicians with activists, members of the media and policymakers in an effort to apply psychological insights to the fight against climate change.

"People would spend many hours telling me about how distressed and sad they are about the way things are changing ... Then I would hear people move quickly to denying that they care at all." Dr. Renee Lertzman

Boosting Connection With Nature 

Psychology can also be a useful way to help people feel more connected to nature. 

That's where Clayton, a pioneer in the field of conservation psychology, comes in. She described the field as "aimed at understanding how people relate to the natural world, and how to improve that relationship.”

“We’re also teaching people how to be resilient in the face of [environmental] changes," she said.

It's safe to say that the pace and structure of our modern urban lives, which are increasingly indoor, onscreen and detached from nature, have taken a toll on our relationship with the natural world. While psychologists don't yet have enough data to yet say what the exact effects might be, Clayton warns, “We have enough information to worry."

However, Clayton's research has pointed to a remedy. Exposing people to nature in an accessible way -- at their local zoos and aquariums -- can help to mediate feelings of disconnection from nature. 

In her research, Clayton surveyed more than 7,000 zoo and aquarium visitors to see how they interacted with animals and whether these interactions promoted concern over climate change. She found that feelings of connection to animals at zoos or aquariums were associated with increased concern over climate change. The research also suggested that offering information about climate change at zoos helped overcome ideological barriers. 

The Path Forward 

Both Clayton and Lertzman emphasized the need for a greater understanding of people's deep and layered psychological responses to climate change. In other words, to tackle the problem, we can't just focus on giving people information about the issue.

“Information is not enough, largely because people are capable of huge levels of denial," Clayton said. "Thinking about effective means of communicating information is something that psychologists have a lot of experience with."

Going into the 2016 presidential election, we need all the insight we can get on effectively dealing with climate change and communicating about the realities we're facing.

"I would like to see Democratic presidential candidates practice a method of authentic, compassionate communication that's not afraid to go where people are feeling most vulnerable," Lertzman said. "That's a model of real leadership."

How can leaders do this? By integrating the two "parallel narratives" of climate change: "doom and gloom," on the one hand, and seemingly pie-in-the-sky solutions, on the other. 

Research has shown that each narrative, by itself, fails to empower people and prevents them from being able to locate themselves and their own actions in the story about climate change.

Acknowledging people's emotional responses to the crisis is a start, and offering a middle ground between facts and solutions can begin to quell anxiety and help spur action to address the problem. 

“It’s true, we’re in a really horrific situation -- and there’s something we can do about it," Lertzman told HuffPost. "We must recognize that all of us are facing extraordinary challenges that require us to access new capacities, including how we relate with change and risk."

Also on HuffPost: 

How Scientists Know Climate Change Is Happening

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