really understand what the greenhouse gas effect is. In fact,
the metaphor may underplay the phenomenon’s seriousness
because people tend to think of greenhouses as gentle, pleasant
places where plants grow. Instead, the training program teaches
educators to use the stronger metaphor of a “heat-trapping
blanket” covering the earth.
On another level, the educators also learn to frame the
entire issue of climate change in a way that works with zoo and
“There are social norms in zoos and aquariums. People go
there for entertainment,” says Swim. “It’s their vacation. So we’re
not going to succeed by talking doom and gloom about difficult
subjects we can’t do anything about.”
Instead, she says, it’s more effective for the educators
to start the climate change conversation by emphasizing
“big ideas” that most Americans agree on — that we are
interconnected with the planet, and that Americans are
innovators and can solve problems. “The idea is to shift
people’s frames, so that when you talk about climate change,
people don’t think about disasters, but instead about these
Swim is evaluating the program as part of a five-year
National Science Foundation grant. In a study published in the
Journal of Museum Education in October, she found that the
training increased the educators’ belief in their ability to discuss
climate change, and that after completing it they were more
likely to talk about climate change with their co-workers and
wider social networks.
Across the Atlantic, meanwhile, Rosemary Randall is trying
to change individuals’ energy-consumption habits just six to
eight people at a time.
Randall spent 25 years as a psychotherapist in Cambridge,
England, and has also been active in the environmental
movement in the United Kingdom.
In the mid-2000s, she realized that she could combine her
two passions by using principles of group therapy to help
people reduce their carbon footprint. The facts of climate
change, she says, can cause people to feel anxiety, guilt, anger
and hopelessness. So, as with many things that cause those
emotions, people tend to turn away and ignore the cause rather
than figuring out how to address it.
“It’s not that we don’t know about climate change, it’s that
we hide it from ourselves,” she says.
Group therapy, Randall believes, provides people a safe space
to address many uncomfortable truths. So why not develop a
group-based intervention that would give people a safe space to
explore climate change and their own contributions to global
That was the genesis of her program “Carbon
Conversations,” in which groups of six to eight people meet
for six two-hour sessions with a trained leader, who shepherds
them through conversations and exercises on what climate
change means for themselves and their families. They talk about
their fears and anxieties, and learn practical tips for steps they
can take to reduce their own carbon footprint.
Randall and her colleagues have taken the program to
community groups, local governments and workplaces. So far,
more than 3,000 people have participated. A not-yet-published
2013 evaluation found that participants reduced their yearly
carbon output by an average of three tons (the U.K. average
yearly per-person carbon output is about 12 tons) through
such actions as carpooling, reducing their meat consumption,
foregoing vacations that required airplane trips and eco-refurbishing their homes.
“It is very time intensive, but it’s quite effective,” Randall
says. “Something about the deeper engagement seems to keep
people determined and willing to do more difficult things than
they would otherwise have done.”
The Bioregional Dashboard
In the modern world, it’s easy to consume energy and resources:
flip on a light switch, run a load of dishes, turn up your air
conditioner during a summer heat wave. What’s difficult,
though, is to picture where that energy comes from, how
it’s produced, and how your personal use contributes to the
community’s use overall.
To Oberlin College psychologist Cindy Frantz, PhD, that’s the
crux of the problem with asking people to reduce their resource
use. In the past, people had to cut their own firewood if they
For much more on how psychology can help
address climate change, read the 2009 report
from APA’s Task Force on the Interface between
Psychology and Global Climate Change, led
by Janet Swim, PhD, of Pennsylvania State
University. For a full copy of the report, go
Other resources include:
Center for Research on Environmental
Decisions (2009). The Psychology of Climate
Change Communication: A Guide for Scientists,
Journalists, Educators, Political Aides, and the
Interested Public. New York.
Leiserowitz, A., Maibach, E., Roser-Renouf,
C., Feinberg, G. & Howe, P. (2013) Global
Warming’s Six Americas, September 2012.
Yale University and George Mason University.
New Haven, CT: Yale Project on Climate
Change Communication. http://environment.