Climate Change Needs a Psychological Approach

As 2020 fades away in the rearview mirror of our collective consciousness by sheer force of wanting so desperately to forget a year that saw a global pandemic torpedo life as we knew it, we now face the smoldering wreck that has been 2021. Already we have seen waves of stock market volatility exposed by Reddit-meme-turned-short-squeeze Gamestock, rioters storming the U.S. Capitol, accusations of political censorship flying around with reckless abandonment and devastating weather events revealing the limits of Texas’s deregulated, privatized electric grid by way of state-wide power outages.

Then, like a bad hangover from last year, last month saw the USA pass 500,000 coronavirus deaths — a staggering number that matches the number of Americans killed in World War II, Korea and Vietnam combined.

Beyond the legitimate handwringing, the decarbonized economy shines as a beacon of hope. This decade, we have both the moral duty and opportunity to transition our current model of consumer capitalism into an economy free of carbon emissions. Rather than shoehorning sustainability into old systems, systemic change carries the potential for innovation, rapid job growth and improved quality of life for all. The physical sciences and engineering sectors have responded in spades to an increasingly urgent need for explanations and solutions. In Texas alone, renewables are the fastest-growing energy sector: the state’s topography, climate, and grid make it an attractive market for solar energy.

Rather than the expected technical limitations, the path to the decarbonized economy is blocked by cognitive, emotional and social barriers. Psychology — specifically perceptual psychology — plays a pivotal role in understanding and shaping human responses to climate change. Perception refers to the way sensory information is organized, interpreted and consciously experienced. The politicization of climate change is a clear indication that perceptions on the issue differ enormously; views held by the scientific community, that we are experiencing unprecedented temperature instabilities, may be perceived by other individuals as part of the normal fluctuations of temperature in the Earth’s core. What to one person may seem like the rapid deterioration of keystone ecosystems may to another appear as an opportunity for agricultural development. 

Very few understand the climate crisis in its entirety. The disconnect between political, technological and social perspectives lends insight into asynchronous and, at times, inconsistent solutions. A well-established field of research on risk perception has resulted in models and findings that can help to understand peoples’ perceptions of the risk presented by climate change. Three challenges impede impactful progress on the climate crisis.

Humans are cognitively ill-equipped to tackle the climate crisis — we are averse to uncertainty, routinely misperceive probabilities, respond to novelty not gradation and assign more weight to the present than future concerns. As described out by Robert Meyer and Howard Krunreuther in “The Ostrich Paradox: Why We Under Prepare for Disasters”: “our ability to foresee and protect against natural catastrophes has never been greater; yet, we consistently fail to heed the warnings and protect ourselves and our communities, with devastating consequences.” These traits are evolutionarily advantageous: they make us adept at responding to perceived immediate threats from predators, yet languid in our responses to decade-long predictions. The complex systems that connect human behavior to global waste almost surpass our capacities of understanding. Rather than struggling with the overwhelming volumes of jargon-stuffed scientific journals, we are more easily (and willingly) persuaded by first-hand experiences such as unusual weather. As the Weather Channel recently felt the need to remind us, cold weather doesn’t mean climate change isn’t happening. 

Cognitive barriers often work in conjunction with emotional inhibitors. We are overly influenced by things that are easy to visualize, rather than amorphous and abstract possibilities such as atmospheric heating. When prompted to visualize climate change, acres of cut-down trees and litter piled in waterways fail to evoke the same emotional response. While personifying so-called “charismatic megafauna” has proven to be a successful marketing strategy to draw people towards environmentalism, even Bambi’s begging eyes aren’t pitiful enough for us to respond with the same vigor as we do to the local Girl Scout asking you to buy her cookies. At the other end of the spectrum, there is no clear perpetrator in climate change (and no, the sinister shadow of a man in a business suit isn’t tangible enough). There is no cackling Disney villain, armed with a machete and an inflammatory social media campaign, cranking up the Earth’s thermometer. Surprisingly, this is a problem. 

The personification of large, attractive mammals with forward-facing eyes and symmetrical prints have enjoyed some success in pandering (or panda-ing) to our primal superficiality. Yet environmental advocates must be careful to avoid messages that are too frightening or upsetting at the risk of eliciting a defensive response, such as denial of the facts or mistrust of the messenger. People are often motivated to defend more comfortable beliefs for their own safety, as well as their way of life. While we may critique it, we are emotionally attached to the Western consumer capitalism. We are unwilling to accept its responsibility for ecological catastrophe. 

Lucky for the conscientious onlooker, averting responsibility for climate change is made simple! We have thus far failed to establish a global jurisdiction to judge relative accountability, and powerful agents are all too willing to feed our emotional resistance to climate change action. The largest polluting industries claim to be embedded in a system of supply and demand, pushing a dual strategy of lobbying and high-profile advertising of sins of consumer behavior such as ‘litter’. Consumers are told to reduce consumption so we make changes within the contexts of our own lives by attempting to recycle and reduce fast fashion. We then learn statistical accounts of 100 companies contributing 70% of CO2 emissions and, in our despair, embrace defeatist axioms arising from nihilist Twitter discourse like “there is no ethical consumption under capitalism.” We then cognitively and emotionally disengage from the climate crisis, become passive participants, and neglect to recognize that, to much of the Global South, we are the callous perpetrators. In the absence of jurisdiction, everyone is accountable and therefore no one is held accountable.

Group dynamics compound our cognitive and emotional barriers to an accurate perception of climate change. Collective ignorance is comforting: micro-societies look within themselves for social cues. As a result, political identification is a strong predictor of attitudes toward climate change. Surveys conducted by the Pew Research Center demonstrate that political fissures extend across every dimension of the climate debate, down to people’s basic trust in the motivations that drive climate scientists to conduct their research. Trust in climate scientists is low among Republicans, but considerably higher among liberal democrats: 70% of liberal Democrats trust climate scientists to give full and accurate information about the causes of climate change, compared with just 15% of conservative Republicans. Proclamations of climate change disbelief in conservative circles have a strong influence on those who are cognitively and emotionally receptive to crying hoax and are pushed to party frontlines ahead of the many conservatives who support green policies. Meanwhile, the Left is divided within itself and has failed to reframe the issue in a way that is more palatable to the conservative worldview. They are left reliant on congressional majorities as well as the cyclical trends of “corporate social responsibility” within the private sector.

In order to respond to climate change, the problem must first be communicated in ways that overcomes cognitive, emotional and social barriers to perception. The problem of cognitive limitations has been tackled creatively by transforming data into narratives and visuals. Among them, data journalist and illustrator Mona Chalabi garnered attention in 2020 for her artwork dedicated to broadening the accessibility of statistics relevant to socio-political contexts including climate change. Meanwhile, we must maintain the heightened popular environmental awareness generated by the pandemic and address group-based polarization through healthy discourse, reaching a balance of fear and hope.

Categories: Environment

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