Sunday, October 23, 2011

Psychology of Climate Change: The Question of Climate Change

On October 21st, 2011, an independent climate study called the Berkeley Earth Project reported new reliable evidence of climate change. In a press statement, Scientific Director Richard Muller is quoted as saying,

“Our biggest surprise was that the new results agreed so closely with the warming values published previously by other teams in the U.S. and the U.K. This confirms that these studies were done carefully and that potential biases identified by climate change skeptics did not seriously affect their conclusions.”

New evidence of climate change is powerful, especially to those who remain skeptical of the methods or outcomes of previous research on the topic. However there has existed a general consensus in the scientific community since the late 1980s that climate change is occurring. And scientific concern about climate change goes back even farther. The U.S. National Academy of Sciences published a booklet in 1958 that issued a warning about potential climate changes due to an increase in atmospheric CO2:

“Our industrial civilization has been pouring carbon dioxide into the atmosphere at a great rate. By the year 2000 we will have added 70 percent more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. If it remained, it would have a marked warming effect on the earth’s climate, but most of it would probably be absorbed by the oceans. Conceivably, however, it could cause significant melting of the great icecaps and raise sea levels in time.”

In the past year, record floods have wrought devastation in Pakistan, Australia, Columbia, Brazil, the Balkans, and the United States. The strongest winds ever recorded on land occurred when Typhoon Megi hit Southeast Asia. South Pacific countries including Tuvalu, Tokelau are experiencing record drought; Tuvalu declared a state of emergency because the country was only days away from running out of water. Record monsoons in Thailand are flooding the country, including the capitol city Bangkok. Global heat waves have led to record-breaking temperatures, including 128˚F in Pakistan (and other countries in the 120’s), and caused transit shutdowns in the United States. In 2011, we have seen ten weather-related disasters costing billions of dollars.

Environmental lawyer Maxine Burkett, who is working with the international community to define the legal rights of countries who may lose their land to climate change says,

“A common question that I often hear is, ‘Did climate change cause these extraordinary events to happen? Like, the Pakistan floods, are they the result of climate change?’ But it’s crucial to ask the question in a different way. As renowned climate scientist Jim Hansen has said, ‘We should be asking ourselves if all these extreme events would be happening without vast amounts of carbon pollution in the atmosphere. The answer,’ he says, ‘Is almost certainly not.’”

These questions that continue to be asked (Is climate change real and caused by humans? Did climate change cause this disaster? Could this disaster have happened without carbon pollution?) are all important questions and must be continually addressed. In the psychology of climate change, we add other questions to the mix:

How do human psychology and behaviors contribute to climate change?

What psychological barriers prevent climate change action?

What psychological motivators contribute to climate change action?

What are the psychological impacts of disaster? And of long-term ambient threat of future disaster?

How does culture influence human psychology and behaviors surrounding climate change?

What are the ways in which people understand climate change? And how do these ways of knowing influence their psychology and behavior?

In the psychology of climate change, we must look beyond the changes to the land, weather, and sea. We must consider the human impacts, contributions, actions, and understandings of climate change. We must consider the ways in which people work together, or fail to do so, to mitigate, adapt to, or respond to climate changes. We must understand that when the planet changes, so too must we change. We must understand our strengths, limitations, and capacities to handle these changes. And finally, whether or not we believe climate change is caused by humans, we must recognize and address that it is a very human problem for the humans living on this planet.

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

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