Saturday, September 24, 2011

Psychology of Climate Change: An Uncertain Future

Though the fact of climate change has not been under scientific debate for decades, the uncertainty of climate change remains.  How can this be?  How can fact exist so easily with uncertainty?  “It simply can’t” is the answer given by politicians, political pundits, and others who seek to cast doubt on climate sciences.  Especially after the so-called “Climategate” in which climate scientists’ emails were leaked to the public and then distorted to show wrong-doing where none existed, the public may be more confused than ever about how fact and uncertainty can coexist.
In scientific circles, “uncertainty” means something different than it does to the rest of us.  If I say I am uncertain if I’ll go to the store today, it means I may or may not go.  When a climate scientist says the sea will rise 0.5 to 1.0 meters in the next 50 to 100 years, it means the sea level is going to rise.  The uncertainty is how much it will rise, when exactly it will reach which levels, and where exactly it will rise most (remember the sea is not rising evenly around the world).  Scientists are sure about climate change; the questions of uncertainty are the specifics of climate change – how bad will it be in which year, in which place, given a vast array of possible circumstances?
The computer models that calculate climate projections are getting better every year, though each has different strengths and weaknesses, and all of them take a very long time and a lot of processor power to generate.  Reports like the IPCC compile multiple models to generate a range of projections – somewhere between the best-case and worst-case scenarios.  What are some factors they just can’t predict even with these computer models?  Most important are the human factors – what are we as a species going to do to address climate change?  Will we cut all emissions?  Will we do nothing?  Will we increase our CO2 pollution?
Scientists are used to dealing with uncertainty.  No single study ever “proves” anything; it only points to an answer.  When hundreds or thousands of studies point to the same answer, scientists can feel pretty comfortable saying “this is probably the case.”  They keep that word “probably” because new theories, new technology, or new scientists may discover something that changes everything.  Science is never “proof.”  At best, it is “our best understanding of the way things are.”  Scientists are rarely comfortable giving a definitive answer.  They are comfortable with “best understandings” because there is always uncertainty.
But people are often not so good with uncertainty.  Even scientists in their daily non-work-related lives will crave stability.  Part of human psychology is that we expect our lives to be today more or less like they were yesterday.  We expect the people we know to have stable personalities.  We feel great stress when our lives change abruptlyConservation of Resources theory explains that people work hard to obtain and maintain those things we value most.  When the stability of our resources is threatened (much less interrupted), people experience stress that can even become severe enough to affect our health.
             It is no wonder that people want to have exact answers about what is going to happen with climate change.  And it is no wonder that those who have an anti-climate-sciences agenda are able to exploit our very real need for answers when they claim scientists don’t really know anything or are just making it all up.  But with nearly 7 billion people on the planet, almost 200 countries, and certainly more than one opinion on what to do about climate change, it is no wonder that there is so much uncertainty about what the future holds.

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

Friday, September 16, 2011

First Round of Grant Winners Announced!

The SCRA Community Mini-Grant, sponsored for this first time this year, is a time-sensitive grant designed to be responsive to community needs.  

Our first two awardees were announced this year.  You can read about their projects below - we are very excited to sponsor them, and look forward to hearing about their work as it progresses.  

SCRA plans to offer ten grants, with an average award of $1,200.  All current SCRA members and their community collaborators are welcome to apply. For more information on this grant, please see or email SCRACommunityGrants [at] 

"Sense of Place and Sense of Community in Tuvalu, a Country Being Threatened by Sea Level Rise"
SCRA Member/Applicant: Laura Kati Corlew
This study seeks to understand the cultural impacts of climate change in Tuvalu, a low-lying island nation in the South Pacific.  Tuvalu is projected to become uninhabitable in the next 50-100 years if sweeping climate change mitigation and adaptation efforts are not put into place.  As a developing nation, Tuvalu is not responsible for climate change, and yet her indigenous population is facing grave consequences.  Using Photovoice methodology, this study will delve into the connections between land, community, culture, and well-being within the context of the climate change threat.  Participants will lead the research with their photographs; results will combine images with spoken words.  The SCRA Community Mini Grant will fund research equipment (cameras, printer, etc.), food for the focus groups, and the dissemination of research outcomes in Tuvalu.  Multiple Tuvalu leaders have noted to me that all too often researchers come to Tuvalu and take knowledge but leave nothing behind.  This grant will fund the development, printing, and shipping of results books to Tuvalu for cost-free dissemination to participants and key stakeholder agencies that work with climate change and/or community well-being.

Support for Veterans in Chicago
SCRA Member/Applicant: Geraldine Palmer
North Side Housing and Supportive Services in partnership with VetNet provides Benefits Check-Up project. The project will target United States veterans, with a focus on combat veterans and provide them with three peer support specialists (veterans as well) who will spend a day meeting with veterans and filling out online benefits applications to help them gain access to the benefits they are entitled to and deserve. The peer support specialists will also provide referrals to housing, health and mental health services and other resources, as well as encouragement. The project is expected to help mitigate the veteran's stress of returning to community life and help expedite the process of readjustment. The project will take place on Veterans Day, November 11, 2011. The SCRA grant will support VetNet key staff on the project, rental costs for space, marketing and food supplies.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

No Future Without Forgiveness: Community Psychology and Restorative Justice

“Americans understand justice.” This was the response Gov. Rick Perry gave as to why the audience at last night’s GOP debate erupted in applause when it was pointed out that he’d order more executions than “any other governor in modern times.” Asked whether he ever had trouble sleeping at night wondering if he had been responsible for the death of an innocent person, he replied no, describing capital punishment as “ultimate justice” for horrendous crimes.

Does Rick Perry understand justice? If justice is to be described as state-enforced punishment for wrongdoing, then yes, he does, and so does his audience. However, this version of justice – retributive justice – is not the only definition that exists. When it comes to “heinous crimes” it’s natural to want to see the party responsible suffer for their wrongdoing. I would be lying if I claimed not to rejoice at news of the death of Osama bin Laden earlier this year. But on the day of the September 11th attacks, I cried not only for the deaths that occurred on that day, but also for the countless deaths that I knew would result from our attempts to seek out “justice” for this act.

Ten years later, over $3 trillion dollars has been spent and countless lives have been lost as we’ve seen ourselves mired in some of the longest wars in US history. Some claim that we are safer now, while others argue that we’ve played into the hands of our attackers. Regardless of where one stands, it’s difficult to find someone who believes that somehow through all of this war, we’ve achieved “justice.”

When it comes to some of the most horrid crimes - rape, murder, acts of systematic oppression– there is little solace to be gained from purely retributive approaches. An alternative to this form of justice exists. Restorative justice frames criminal acts not as offenses against the state that require punishment, but as offenses against individuals and communities that necessitate healing. Restorative justice is not just a feel-good concept - it has been applied to some of the most challenging crimes. Survivors of rape and domestic violence often find the criminal justice system frustrating and dissatisfying, and restorative justice approaches may be superior in addressing issues of gender-based violence. 

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, designed to uncover the truth about apartheid in South Africa, has been held up as a model of restorative justice. Archbishop Desmond Tutu has written a book about his experience chairing the commission, titled “No Future Without Forgiveness." While the commission came under heavy criticism for its policy of offering amnesty to those who participated, and even Tutu has said elsewhere that there must be greater economic equality in South Africa in order for it to achieve peace, the TRC was historic in its scope and its application of the restorative justice framework.

Restorative justice is not only applicable to acts of individual or systematic violence. It is also a powerful potential tool for conflict resolution and community healing. A pair of events centered on Restorative Circles to be held in Illinois in October is being sponsored by PsySR (Psychologists for Social Responsibility). As community psychology practitioners, we’re interested in helping to build healthier communities, and restorative justice provides a useful framework for addressing challenging problems in a manner that’s consistent with our values. I can’t help but think that beats cheering for death.

Gina Cardazone, M.A.
University of Hawai`i, Mānoa