Sunday, August 28, 2011

Psychology of Climate Change: “Intention, Everyone!”

Despite what some conspiracy theorists may believe (or what some environmentalists may mutter to themselves when feeling frustrated), anthropogenic climate change is not happening by plan. There is no grand design or league of evil geniuses who have set in motion a nefarious plot to slowly raise the earth’s temperature over a few centuries. Climate change isn’t something we caused on purpose; it is something that started happening while we were busy focusing on other things.
The fact is, climate change was an easy thing to create once we kick-started the Industrial Revolution. At the beginning, it would have seemed impossible that a world so big could ever reach the limits of what shocks and pollution it could absorb. Our world is much smaller now in this age of the internet, cellphones, and ubiquitous airline travel. And our planet seems much smaller now in the age of garbage landslides , groundwater contamination, deforestation, and the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
We hit our limits while we were looking the other way.
This is one reason that stopping climate change poses such an enormous psychological challenge. It happened without our intent—a grand series of pollution coincidences on our road to development and modernization. How could something so inadvertent require such an extraordinary amount of money, effort, and international coordination to stop? It is something we cannot comfortably comprehend. But successfully addressing climate change requires sustained intent and huge changes to the way we have come to behave as a species.
Is everyone willing and able to commit?
Social scientists have recently been studying the increasing polarization and politicization of climate change in the US. In general, they have been finding that liberals and Democrats are more willing to believe in climate change sciences, and are more willing to support efforts to mitigate and adapt to climate change.
The question then becomes, why are conservatives and Republicans less willing to believe in climate change sciences and less willing to support mitigation and adaptation? The answer has a great deal to do with human psychology. People are much more willing to believe in ideas that fit easily into our current worldview. Certain values commonly associated with the Republican party (free market, deregulation of industry, and smaller government) are diametrically opposed to the expensive, restrictive, and highly coordinated efforts needed to address climate change.
It is difficult for people to accept changes that fundamentally go against what they believe, and it is difficult for people to make 180 degree changes in their behaviors (skeptical readers, I ask you to convert to another religion today, and to think about all of the New Year’s Resolutions you’ve made and broken). People have fair success with small, non-threatening changes, but sweeping and belief-challenging actions are difficult to sustain.
In Community Psychology, we assume that people do not exist in a bubble but that they influence, and are influenced by, their settings. We look at the many contextual issues that contribute to the status quo, and then look for “levers of change” – key points that, if changed, will change everything. For climate change, we must seek levers of change for our behaviors and our intentions. How do we change human civilization to mitigate and adapt to the changing climate? And how do we change ourselves so that our sustainability intentions are, well, sustained?
One thing is sure: no intergovernmental panels were convened to figure out how to cause climate change. But in order to address it, we need massive coordination of action and intent.

Kati Corlew, M.A.
University of Hawai`i, Mānoa 

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