3 Ways Psychology Can Help to Reduce Climate Change
A UN climate report warns the world may be on the brink of catastrophic warming.
Posted March 27, 2023 | Reviewed by Davia Sills
- A new UN report shows a dangerous climate threshold is near.
- Understanding what motivates people to act in pro-environmental ways will be critical to mitigate the impacts of climate change.
- There are specific mental health impacts caused or exacerbated by global heating and climate anxiety surrounding the future.
- Misinformation and climate change denial can also be understood from a psychological perspective.
Climate change is one of the most pressing issues of our time. The effects of climate change can be felt across the globe, and its impact is wide-ranging, from extreme weather events to rising sea levels. As we face this unprecedented challenge, it's important to consider the role psychology can play in addressing and mitigating its effects. By studying human behavior, researchers can identify ways to understand and ultimately change attitudes and behaviors surrounding the climate.
The role of motivation in pro-environmental behaviors
One way psychology can contribute to reducing climate change is by studying the factors that motivate individuals to engage in sustainable behaviors. By understanding what drives people to act in environmentally-friendly ways, researchers can design effective interventions to encourage sustainable practices and reduce emissions. For other major global challenges, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, motivating people to engage in behaviors that protected others was critical. Vaccines were one of the best routes out of the pandemic, but they still relied on sufficient uptake.
Research on motivation highlights how people are generally effort-averse. If they are faced with two courses of action where they could get the same benefit, they will choose the one that requires the least effort, a process known as "the law of least effort." Therefore, if we want to motivate people to engage in pro-environmental behaviors, it is critical that we make them as easy and low-effort as possible.
More generally, as with any type of human decision-making, keeping personal costs low and the perceived impact on the environment high is important. For example, a recent study looked at how frequently people would choose between receiving a monetary bonus themselves or choosing to reduce carbon emissions. They found people would choose to reduce carbon only if the alternative bonus to themselves was small and the amount of carbon they could reduce was high. People's self-reported pro-environmental attitudes were also much more predictive of their behavior in these instances, with low personal costs and high pro-environmental gains. The researchers also reported an important role in what they termed "self-control." Only in those people with high self-control were their attitudes predictive of their behavior. Therefore, boosting self-control and making personal costs seem low could be important routes to motivate people to engage in pro-environmental behaviors.
Climate change and mental health
Another way psychology can contribute to climate change is by studying the effects of climate change on mental health and applying knowledge of how to reduce mental health problems. While the physical effects of climate change are perhaps more readily apparent, with direct mortality consequences of extreme temperatures and natural disasters, the impact on mental health is an important and understudied research area. As the effects of climate change become clearer, individuals may experience more stress, anxiety, or depression. The World Health Organization has therefore highlighted that mental health is a priority for action on climate change. Troublingly, the mental health impacts of climate change may also fall disproportionately on individuals living in low and middle-income countries.
Research has documented how extreme weather events combine with pre-existing vulnerabilities to impact mental health. One study focusing on the mental health consequences of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico found that the suicide rate increased by 26 percent. Another study found that increased temperatures could be linked to higher rates of aggressive and criminal behaviors.
Another key pathway for long-lasting events to impact mental health relates to climate change anxiety. The American Psychological Association has highlighted how climate anxiety is already changing how people interact with their communities. Other reports have shown that children, in particular, are experiencing high levels of worry surrounding climate change.
The WHO recommends several approaches to reduce climate impacts on health. One of these is to ensure climate considerations are integrated into mental health programs. Research in psychology has made major contributions to understanding mental health, and this knowledge could therefore be incorporated into future mental health research.
Climate change denial and misinformation
Finally, psychology can also play a role in addressing climate change denial and the spread of misinformation. Despite the overwhelming scientific evidence supporting climate change, some individuals deny its existence or underestimate its severity.
Through research, psychologists can identify the factors contributing to climate change denial and understand what might effectively counter these beliefs. For example, studies have shown that individuals are more likely to accept the reality of climate change when the information is presented in a way that is personally relevant and relatable. Another crucial issue in the spread of misinformation is the role of political polarization. In the U.S., it has been reported that those who identify with liberal views support acknowledging and responding to climate change, while those holding more conservative views are less likely to believe in the reality of climate change or solutions to it. Psychology can contribute to finding evidence-based ways to communicate information accurately across political divides or changing how information is communicated to appeal to people with different ideological beliefs.
In conclusion, psychology has the potential to make a significant contribution to addressing climate change. By studying human behavior, mental health, and effective communication, psychologists can reveal what motivates people, how to reduce the effects of climate on heath, and ultimately promote sustainable practices and create a more resilient society.
As we face this unprecedented challenge, we need all the expertise and support we can get. The insights and perspectives provided by psychology can play a vital role in addressing climate change and moving towards a more sustainable future.
Kool, W., McGuire, J. T., Rosen, Z. B., & Botvinick, M. M. (2010). Decision making and the avoidance of cognitive demand. Journal of experimental psychology: general, 139(4), 665.
Wyss, A. M., Knoch, D., & Berger, S. (2022). When and how pro-environmental attitudes turn into behavior: The role of costs, benefits, and self-control. Journal of environmental psychology, 79, 101748.
Ramphal, L. (2018, July). Medical and psychosocial needs of the Puerto Rican people after Hurricane Maria. In Baylor University Medical Center Proceedings (Vol. 31, No. 3, pp. 294-296). Taylor & Francis.
Younan, D., Li, L., Tuvblad, C., Wu, J., Lurmann, F., Franklin, M., ... & Chen, J. C. (2018). Long-term ambient temperature and externalizing behaviors in adolescents. American journal of epidemiology, 187(9), 1931-1941.
Cooney, C. M. (2010). The perception factor: Climate change gets personal.
Wong-Parodi, G., & Feygina, I. (2020). Understanding and countering the motivated roots of climate change denial. Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability, 42, 60-64.