The psychology of climate change communication

by Stephanie Chasteen on December 3, 2012

I’ve been meaning to blog about this topic for a while, so am digging up some old notes to share some interesting findings.  I am particularly interested in science as it can inform better decision-making about our lives and the planet — I went into physics education and communication because I saw how suspicious many people were of science and scientific findings.  I realized I could have more impact by communicating about science than by doing it.  But I wasn’t always a sciencegeekgirl — my undergraduate degree is actually in social psychology.  I’m very interested in how people process information and relate to one another.

So when I started getting involved in climate change education (to a small degree), I was immediately drawn by the broad literature on the psychology of climate change — how people process the messages of climate change, and how these messages impact them, psychologically.

You can download a free booklet — the Psychology of Climate Change Communication — from the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions (CRED), which is very scholarly yet readable.  I highly recommend it.  You can also request a paper copy for free.  Many of the principles are the same as those of good communication in general, but with the twist that climate change communication requires action.  (Telling people about the latest neutrino research, on the other hand, is informative but there is generally no action required):

  • Know your audience
  • Get your audiences’ attention
  • Translate scientific data into concrete experience
  • Beware the overuse of emotional appeals
  • Address scientific and climate uncertainties
  • Tap into social identities and affiliations
  • Encourage group participation
  • Make behavior change easier

They discuss such factors as confirmation bias (where people look for information that is consistent with their current beliefs), and mental models (by which people come up with heuristics to interpret the world and people), and how some people have a promotion focus (maximizing gains) and others a prevention focus (minimize losses).  It’s a beautiful little guide, combining the best of cognitive and social psychology with communication excellence.

Additionally, the American Psychologist (official publication of the American Psychological Association) has a single issue entirely devoted to the theme of Psychology and Global Climate Change.  It is the May-June 2011 issue.  You can typically order print copies, but it’s out of stock right now.  But I’m pasting the abstracts below, because I think they give a nice overview of how the field addresses the issue:

Psychology’s contributions to understanding and addressing global climate change. Pages 241-250 Swim, Janet K.; Stern, Paul C.; Doherty, Thomas J.; Clayton, Susan; Reser, Joseph P.; Weber, Elke U.; Gifford, Robert; Howard, George S.

Global climate change poses one of the greatest challenges facing humanity in this century. This article, which introduces the American Psychologist special issue on global climate change, follows from the report of the American Psychological Association Task Force on the Interface Between Psychology and Global Climate Change. In this article, we place psychological dimensions of climate change within the broader context of human dimensions of climate change by addressing (a) human causes of, consequences of, and responses (adaptation and mitigation) to climate change and (b) the links between these aspects of climate change and cognitive, affective, motivational, interpersonal, and organizational responses and processes. Characteristics of psychology that cross content domains and that make the field well suited for providing an understanding of climate change and addressing its challenges are highlighted. We also consider ethical imperatives for psychologists’ involvement and provide suggestions for ways to increase psychologists’ contribution to the science of climate change. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2011 APA, all rights reserved)

Human behavioral contributions to climate change: Psychological and contextual drivers. Pages 251-264 ??Swim, Janet K.; Clayton, Susan; Howard, George S.

We are facing rapid changes in the global climate, and these changes are attributable to human behavior. Humans produce this global impact through our use of natural resources, multiplied by the vast increase in population seen in the past 50 to 100 years. Our goal in this article is to examine the underlying psychosocial causes of human impact, primarily through patterns of reproduction and consumption. We identify and distinguish individual, societal, and behavioral predictors of environmental impact. Relevant research in these areas (as well as areas that would be aided by greater attention by psychologists) are reviewed. We conclude by highlighting ethical issues that emerge when considering how to address human behavioral contributions to climate change. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2011 APA, all rights reserved)

The psychological impacts of global climate change. Pages 265-276  Doherty, Thomas J.; Clayton, Susan

An appreciation of the psychological impacts of global climate change entails recognizing the complexity and multiple meanings associated with climate change; situating impacts within other social, technological, and ecological transitions; and recognizing mediators and moderators of impacts. This article describes three classes of psychological impacts: direct (e.g., acute or traumatic effects of extreme weather events and a changed environment); indirect (e.g., threats to emotional well-being based on observation of impacts and concern or uncertainty about future risks); and psychosocial (e.g., chronic social and community effects of heat, drought, migrations, and climate-related conflicts, and postdisaster adjustment). Responses include providing psychological interventions in the wake of acute impacts and reducing the vulnerabilities contributing to their severity; promoting emotional resiliency and empowerment in the context of indirect impacts; and acting at systems and policy levels to address broad psychosocial impacts. The challenge of climate change calls for increased ecological literacy, a widened ethical responsibility, investigations into a range of psychological and social adaptations, and an allocation of resources and training to improve psychologists’ competency in addressing climate change–related impacts. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2011 APA, all rights reserved)

Adapting to and coping with the threat and impacts of climate change. Pages 277-289   Reser, Joseph P.; Swim, Janet K.

This article addresses the nature and challenge of adaptation in the context of global climate change. The complexity of “climate change” as threat, environmental stressor, risk domain, and impacting process with dramatic environmental and human consequences requires a synthesis of perspectives and models from diverse areas of psychology to adequately communicate and explain how a more psychological framing of the human dimensions of global environmental change can greatly inform and enhance effective and collaborative climate change adaptation and mitigation policies and research. An integrative framework is provided that identifies and considers important mediating and moderating parameters and processes relating to climate change adaptation, with particular emphasis given to environmental stress and stress and coping perspectives. This psychological perspective on climate change adaptation highlights crucial aspects of adaptation that have been neglected in the arena of climate change science. Of particular importance are intra-individual and social “psychological adaptation” processes that powerfully mediate public risk perceptions and understandings, effective coping responses and resilience, overt behavioral adjustment and change, and psychological and social impacts. This psychological window on climate change adaptation is arguably indispensable to genuinely multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary research and policy initiatives addressing the impacts of climate change. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2011 APA, all rights reserved)

The dragons of inaction: Psychological barriers that limit climate change mitigation and adaptation. Pages 290-302   Gifford, Robert

Most people think climate change and sustainability are important problems, but too few global citizens engaged in high-greenhouse-gas-emitting behavior are engaged in enough mitigating behavior to stem the increasing flow of greenhouse gases and other environmental problems. Why is that? Structural barriers such as a climate-averse infrastructure are part of the answer, but psychological barriers also impede behavioral choices that would facilitate mitigation, adaptation, and environmental sustainability. Although many individuals are engaged in some ameliorative action, most could do more, but they are hindered by seven categories of psychological barriers, or “dragons of inaction”: limited cognition about the problem, ideological worldviews that tend to preclude pro-environmental attitudes and behavior, comparisons with key other people, sunk costs and behavioral momentum, discredence toward experts and authorities, perceived risks of change, and positive but inadequate behavior change. Structural barriers must be removed wherever possible, but this is unlikely to be sufficient. Psychologists must work with other scientists, technical experts, and policymakers to help citizens overcome these psychological barriers. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2011 APA, all rights reserved)

Contributions of psychology to limiting climate change. Pages 303-314   Stern, Paul C.

Psychology can make a significant contribution to limiting the magnitude of climate change by improving understanding of human behaviors that drive climate change and human reactions to climate-related technologies and policies, and by turning that understanding into effective interventions. This article develops a framework for psychological contributions, summarizes what psychology has learned, and sets out an agenda for making additional contributions. It emphasizes that the greatest potential for contributions from psychology comes not from direct application of psychological concepts but from integrating psychological knowledge and methods with knowledge from other fields of science and technology. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2011 APA, all rights reserved)

Public understanding of climate change in the United States. Pages 315-328  Weber, Elke U.; Stern, Paul C.

This article considers scientific and public understandings of climate change and addresses the following question: Why is it that while scientific evidence has accumulated to document global climate change and scientific opinion has solidified about its existence and causes, U.S. public opinion has not and has instead become more polarized? Our review supports a constructivist account of human judgment. Public understanding is affected by the inherent difficulty of understanding climate change, the mismatch between people’s usual modes of understanding and the task, and, particularly in the United States, a continuing societal struggle to shape the frames and mental models people use to understand the phenomena. We conclude by discussing ways in which psychology can help to improve public understanding of climate change and link a better understanding to action. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2011 APA, all rights reserved)


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