On Being Green

Toward a sustainable future

What Does Climate Change Look Like?

The importance of visualizing change

In my last post, I mentioned how difficult it is to notice something that’s not there – the dog that doesn’t bark, as it were. Not only are we less likely to think about things that are not there; things that are difficult to envision are typically considered less likely to happen. This is the famous “availability heuristic” identified by psychologists Amos Tversky and (Nobel laureate) Daniel Kahneman. So: death by plane crash? Easy to envision. Death by lung cancer? Much harder, for most people -- one reason why fear of flying is greater than fear of smoking.

Even among people who accept that climate change is occurring, it hasn’t generated as much concern as it seems to deserve. (See my earlier post: “The buck stops here”.) There are many reasons for this, but among them is probably the fact that it’s hard to envision what climate change will look like. Although we may recognize at some level that it’s worrying, it’s hard to really imagine what it will look like.

It’s getting less hard. Have you seen extreme weather this summer? Wildfires, intense storms, record-breaking heat? Some scientists are saying that this is what we can expect from climate change.

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That’s the bad news. The good news is that there’s plenty we can do to reduce our risk. And if climate change becomes more cognitively “available”, people may be more likely to take action. 

Imagination can be a powerful tool. Research shows that if we imagine ourselves doing something, we are more likely to then do it. Imagine yourself doing something to confront climate change – replacing incandescent lightbulbs with CFCs, or writing a letter to a congressman – and it becomes more probable. And if you’re already doing something, tell other people about it. That will make it seem more real, and more possible, to them.

Sometimes we need to think about what’s not happening and what we’re not doing. But it’s also important to focus on what is happening, what we are doing, and what we could be doing. Actions have power, and our thoughts have power too.

Susan Clayton, Ph.D., is the Whitmore-Williams Professor of Psychology at the College of Wooster.

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