Climate Change: How To Really Make A Difference

Many people are working to make a more hopeful future

Posted Jan 12, 2015

In my last post, I reviewed some of the social and cultural reasons for the “blanket of denial” that can come over our awareness of the reality of human made climate change. Denial is rooted in the attempt to ward off intolerable feelings, often hopelessness, despair, helplessness.

So, what can individuals do to address this urgent threat to all our well-being? What will really make a difference? To answer these questions, I turned to several organizations and individuals. I started with the Chair of the APA’s report on Psychology and Global Climate Change: Dr. Janet Swim.

Creating pro-environment engagement

Dr. Swim is a Professor of Psychology at Penn State University. “We tend to overestimate the amount of denial in people,” Dr. Swim said to me in a phone conversation. She said she is feeling more optimistic about efforts to deal with global warming. “People are concerned. People need to be empowered to do something, rather than persuaded. So many people want to do something but don’t know what or how.”

We discussed three different areas in which Dr. Swim and her associates are working: to increase the sense of efficacy and competence among science educators (who often tend to suppress information about manmade climate change) and among college students (who often are concerned but feel helpless to do anything), as well as looking at gender differences in receptivity to messages about the environment. Some of this research is still in its early stages, but provides tantalizing hints of paths to important progress.

Teaching The Science Educators to Talk

When we talked about the suppression of discussion of climate change among science educators, I was reminded of a story a friend of mine told me recently about a visit to the Grand Canyon. He’d asked a park ranger about the geological history and evolution of the Canyon. The ranger replied, “Evolution? We don’t like to use that word here,” indicating that some tourists objected.

When I relayed this story to Dr. Swim she said that sometimes science educators are explicitly told not to talk about climate change as a human- made phenomenon and sometimes they implicitly pick up the message that people don’t want to talk about such a controversial topic. 

To break through this suppression of discussion and information, Dr. Swim and her associates have developed a training program for science educators. The goal is to increase educators sense of competence and confidence in talking about climate change. They are working with science educators at about 70 Zoos and Aquariums and have found that people who go to their training are more likely to talk with visitors about the need to address climate change and its impact on the natural world, more confident in doing so, and the institutions in which they work show similar changes as a whole. There is also suggestive evidence that the visitors themselves become more efficacious in talking with others in their communities about climate change.

“Most people think of climate change as either big disasters or in terms of a contentious political debate. We try to develop a new view: to think about it in terms of protecting the environment we value or in terms of responsibly valuing natural resources, responsible management. And in re-messaging the climate change narrative, we try to get away from the person alone trying to solve the problem and to start talking about community- level solutions.”

The Kids Are All Right

You might think of college students as highly opinionated, but when it comes to climate change many of them share the same confusion and uncertainty as the rest of us. So, how to encourage a sense of hopefulness and competence about global warming activity in college students? Dr. Swim’s team has found that if you tell a group of college students that other people are concerned about climate change they become more willing to themselves talk about it. A reason for this increased willingness to talk is that they are more confident and hopeful about their ability to talk with fellow students.  Currently her graduate student, Nathan Geiger, is using videos that incorporate science communication methods being taught in the science education training program as an alternative way of increasing their confidence and hope.

Talking with Dr. Swim about what is happening on college campuses, I was reminded of the extraordinary energy that college students can bring to social movements. So, I was heartened to learn recently that seven Harvard students are suing Harvard University to force it to divest from any investments in gas, coal, or oil companies. ‘Climate change is now causing harm through mortality, economic damage and political instability,’’ one of the students said, arguing that Harvard University “has a moral and legal duty to avoid investing in activities that cause such grave harms to its students and the public.”[i]

Fleeing From Femininity?

Are there gender differences in concern for the environment, or in how those shared concerns might be expressed? Some preliminary research indicates that certain personal behaviors related to climate change may indeed be seen in gendered ways. Do men see things like re-cycling or bringing reusable shopping bags to grocery stores as more consistent with traditional women’s roles? Are some activities (eg, insulating your home) seen as more masculine? Data collected by Dr. Swim, Dr. Vescio, and their students suggest that these associations impede men’s, but not women’s, willingness to engage in pro-environmental behaviors. This is consistent with contemporary gender theory, which sees an expansion of women’s gender roles while men are still relatively constrained (For example, we see more women becoming doctors than men becoming nurses.) 

What is the solution to this, in terms of encouraging pro-environmental activity? Are there masculine-arguments for the environment as opposed to female ones? Does the emotional tone of the message have different effects on men and women? Do we encourage men to buy motorcycles rather than cars, because motorcycles are more energy efficient? Things can get silly quickly. “So far,” Dr. Swim says, “it looks as if men may not want to be seen as looking feminine in their concerns but they are indeed moved by pro-environment messages.”

And Your Advice Is?

Dr. Swim was quite generous with her time and thoughts on our phone call, and when I asked what advice she’d give to someone looking to do something about climate change, she responded:” Join a group of people also concerned about the environment. There are lots around. Pursue whatever group you belong to that can begin to think about personally meaningful actions to address about climate change.”

There is a lot of wisdom in this advice: individual solutions and resolutions (e.g., turning down the heat in your home), while important, can only take us so far. The larger question is how can we approach this large-scale problem as part of a community. So in addition to conserving your own fossil fuel use by driving less, the question becomes whether there might be more bike paths in town that can assist many people to drive less, or can we all write a letter to our local paper and sign it together to express the desire for community based efforts, or meet together with our elected officials to discuss climate concerns.

Speaking of elected officials: concerned citizens can write their representatives in Congress urging them to support a carbon tax. This is a tax on the burning of carbon, and there is increasing agreement that such a tax is the most efficient way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to spur the development of alternative energies.[ii] There is increasing political support for this idea, and citizen demand can influence legislators, particularly if individuals form advocacy groups to work on this.

There Are Many Worthy Groups: Here Are Two

The idea of moving from a frustrated individualism to shared group action led me to take a look at two national organizations that are working on pro-environment engagement: Interfaith Power and Light and Psychologists for Social Responsibility. Both offer a range of local and national groups welcoming involvement.

Interfaith Power and Light works to engage religious institutions and local communities in climate change action. One example: doing work in low income houses to help people upgrade and weatherize their homes. Another example: meeting with EPA administrator McCarthy to deliver a petition with over 10,000 names calling for stronger rules to address pollution from coal-fired power plants. Or: developing a “Carbon Covenant” to support reforestation among developing communities globally. Interfaith Power and Light can be reached at

Then there is Psychologists for Social Responsibility (PsySR), a group formed back in the 1980s to foster the use of psychological knowledge in social change. PsySR’s first focus was nuclear disarmament back when the Cold War and the treat of Mutual Assured Destruction was very real. [iii]

Now, I put in a call to the President of PsySR, Dr. Yosef Brody, and talked with him about what concerned individuals can do about climate change. His reaction echoed Dr. Swim: “Perhaps we can best start at the local level, where you live, both physically and emotionally.” Dr. Brody noted that, “We need to feel like there are other, familiar people who share our concerns.”  After all, climate change is still an abstraction, despite all the evidence of unpredictable weather (e.g. Buffalo).

PsySR offers an array of action groups, including ones focused on climate change. In these groups, members sign up and make a shared short-term commitment to do something that all agree on. For example, join a political demonstration or sponsor a meeting to get people involved. The action groups serve to exchange and share ideas. PsySR is open to anyone and is an all-volunteer organization.

“A key question of social change is how to get involved in a way that doesn’t seem futile and a waste of time,” Dr. Brody noted. He went on to say that “Over the course of history when people are active and work together in nonviolent way, and really push leaders and representatives, then things can change and do change. Small actions have a cumulative effect and are vitally important to building a movement. It comes down to being active. If we hope things will change, we have to take some action. Whatever you are moved to do—what that is is a personal decision for each person. If we hope things will change, we have a responsibility to take some action. Whatever you are moved to do—what that is is a personal decision for each person. The other choice we have is to either ignore the problem or stay passive, but if you do that you can’t expect anything to change. Climate change falls into a similar category as past social problems, problems which led to the civil rights movement and the labor movement and other successful mass movements. But there is real urgency now. And there are glimmers of hope: pressure from poor countries, from indigenous peoples, even the recent climate march. These need to be sustained. Over time, things do begin to change.”

The Bottom Line?

So, there we have it. If you are concerned, explore the most meaningful, personally-relevant action you can take. Don’t get stuck in a bubble of solitary initiatives. Find a group. It might be a group already in your life (e.g., if you’re on the town library committee, could you work to sponsor a display of books on the climate change threat?) or it may be an entirely new group that you find or put together. Talk about ideas and strategies and decide on a single first short-term project.

And, together and by yourself, stare down the demons of apathy, denial, and powerlessness.

Dr. Sam Osherson is the author of The Stethoscope Cure, a novel about psychotherapy in a time of war. He is a Professor of Psychology at Fielding Graduate University.



[iii] Of course, as long as nuclear warheads are kept armed and on alert, nuclear war/destruction is still a very serious threat for humanity in the present day.

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