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The Psychology of Climate Change

Updated: Dec 1, 2020

Nine years, ninety-six days, eight hours, and twenty-five minutes; this represents the time we have left before the effects of climate change become irreversible as of September 25th, 3:35 PM PST. So as you drive a gas-guzzling car that pumps greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, have you felt ashamed of what you have done to the starving polar bears floating on melting ice caps? How about the innocent turtles your plastic bags suffocated? Or even the cycle of fast fashion you fed into when you bought the shirt you are wearing?

In our current society, messaging around climate change falls somewhere around inhumanity and survival. Either “you are an inhuman person, and do not care about the future of our planet,” or, “time is running out, and we must act now because the future of human survival is at stake.” Despite how direct our messaging may seem, it has proved ineffective time and time again.

The practice of psychology reveals that fear and guilt are not conducive to engagement. Instead, they make people passive and lead them to withdraw from an issue rather than take action. Our current approach to educating the public about climate change tends to be precisely that: we encourage people to take action by creating a fear of what the future will be like if they do not. Despite the truth behind our messaging, it does not encourage us to take action, as it is much more comfortable to tune out negativity.

Anthony Leiserowitz, the Director of Climate Change Communication at Yale University, says, “Climate change is the policy problem from hell. You almost couldn’t design a worse problem to fit with our underlying psychology or the way our institutions decide.” To this day, the problem isn’t that most Americans don’t care about climate change; it’s that fact they consider it a distant problem, both in time and space. They assume climate change won’t happen for generations to come, and when it does, it will only affect developing countries and polar bears.

This misconception doesn’t stop climate change from being a less severe issue. The wrath of global warming will be felt in every corner of the globe, in varying intensities within the next decade. We need to change the way we approach discussing climate change before it becomes too late.

Psychology shows that humans are motivated by competition. It allows us to satisfy our demand to win while providing us with the opportunity to improve our performance by putting more significant efforts toward hopes of a better result. Instead of encouraging action to avoid the pain of a future that cannot sustain humanity, we should use mankind’s natural competitiveness to take climate action. UCLA’s Engage project did just that.

The Engage project figured out how to frame information about energy usage into a competition to conserve energy. The project set up meters in student housing that kept a record of each appliance’s energy usage. Students in the building received these records via a monthly report to see which appliances used the most energy. In addition to the monthly reports, they took the total amount of energy used by each student in the building, posted it in a communal area and identified the top energy savers and consumers. Top savers had a gold star, average consumers had a green dot, and the largest energy consumers had a red dot. Students did not want to see themselves with a red dot next to their name, and even receiving a green dot under the idea they were ‘average’ was not enough. As students competed for a gold star next to their names, the competitiveness and social pressure led to a 20% decrease in their respective building's total energy consumption.

Changing the way we approach thinking about climate change could create significant change. Turning fear and guilt into social reward could produce a substantial decrease in our annual greenhouse gas emissions, and more. The path to stopping climate change is complicated, but if we use what we know about the psychology of human behavior and motivation, it does not have to be. Rather than wondering why our current messaging around climate change is proving to be so ineffective, we need to change how we approach the subject altogether. We must work with human psychology instead and turn the stressful idea of saving our planet's future into something we can easily take action on.

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