Environmental scientists, teachers, advocates and
others are turning to psychologists’ research to help
them educate the public about climate change.
BY LEA WINERMAN • Monitor staff
Climate change is already melting ice caps, stressing world water supplies and intensifying the weather, according to the latest report of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, released in March. The report leaves little doubt about the scientific
consensus on climate change: It’s happening, it’s extremely likely that humans are the main cause
and it will only escalate if we don’t take quick and significant action.
Despite this scientific consensus, annual greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise. In May
2013, a team of scientists from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
announced that the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere had reached a milestone record of
400 parts per million, likely higher than at any point in the last 3 million years.
So why have we — as individuals and as a society — generally failed to reduce our
greenhouse gas emissions in the face of such serious consequences?
According to Anthony Leiserowitz, PhD, the director of Yale University’s Project on Climate
Change Communication, it’s because “you really couldn’t design a worse fit for our underlying
psychology” than climate change.
The pain of paying more for gas at the pump, turning down the thermostat, or deciding to
forgo airplane trips is real and immediate. And yet those actions can feel minuscule compared
with what needs to be done to limit global warming. Meanwhile, the most serious consequences
of climate change seem remote — far away and far in the future.
“It’s kind of the perfect challenge,” says Columbia University psychologist Elke Weber, PhD,
who studies environmental decision-making. “The costs [of reducing carbon emissions] are
immediate and upfront. But the benefits come in dribbles and with great uncertainty. The public
doesn’t easily have the tools to think about that and weigh costs and benefits and outcomes.”
Now, behavioral scientists are helping to bridge that gap, by helping climate communicators
better understand their audiences and motivate people to make changes to reduce global
warming. Here are a few examples of how innovative researchers, educators and others are
putting those strategies into practice.