Sunday, March 27, 2011

Psychology of Climate Change: Introduction

‘Climate change’ is a phrase fraught with meaning. To scientists, it is the variation of weather patterns and ecological systems over a sustained and extended period of time due to anthropogenic activities. But that’s not all.

To Glenn Beck, climate change is a socialist conspiracy created for population control.

To President Mohammad Nasheed of the Maldives, climate change is a threat to the health, stability, human rights, and security of his country.

And therein lies the problem with the meaning of climate change—between Glenn Beck and President Nasheed there literally resides a world of difference in the way people understand the phrase.

Finucane (2009) argued that sound scientific understanding of climate change is at once essential and insufficient to implementing the responses necessary for human adaptation. We must advance the physical sciences of climate change, including climatology, meteorology, oceanography, and geology, but we must also advance the social sciences of climate change. Part of the reason for this comes from an urban planning perspective—as societies develop, they must develop in ways likely to sustain themselves into the next century; they must take climate changes into account. But another major reason for the involvement of social sciences is that climate change has no steadfast meaning to lay people around the world.

This is where Community Psychology comes in. If there is one thing we do well (and there are many things, actually), it’s getting at the importance of contextual factors. Climate change will affect people differently depending on which region they live in (physical topography), depending on which country they live in (political forces, global power, developed versus developing nation status), depending on which culture they belong to (decision hierarchies, relationship to land, religious beliefs, ascribed meaning to weather and climate changes), depending on their ethnicity (are they majority or minority in their country? Do they have status or power?), depending on their gender (status, power, freedom), and depending on their social class.

Furthermore, beyond the differential impacts of climate change, the ways in which people understand climate change is also different according to their context. Some people view climate change as a call to action to stop polluting, to develop green technologies. Some people view climate change as a serious (current) threat to their land, culture, and community. Some people do not believe that climate change is happening or will happen. Some people are willing to assist mitigation and adaptation efforts. Some people are willing to actively prevent mitigation and adaptation efforts.

Community Psychology has many opportunities to get involved in these and other social science facets of climate change. In my coming posts, I will discuss many of these issues in greater detail. Welcome to the Psychology of Climate Change.

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Kati Corlew,
University of Hawai`i, Manoa

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