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Why do we only allow a narrow sliver of psychological research to influence the discussion around climate change?

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With the climate talks in Paris at COP21 fast approaching, we’re seeing an unprecedented interest in what has been, for decades, a rather rogue yet burgeoning field: the psychology of climate change and environmental issues.

From Obama’s call to engage behavioral sciences to inform climate change engagement, to Bill Nye’s depiction of climate denial, it’s now become acceptable to acknowledge that climate change is, in fact, not only a scientific, political, economic, technical, and industrial issue, but also a deeply psychological one. To reckon with this “super-wicked problem” effectively, there is a growing awareness that we cannot ignore the underlying psychological dimensions that inform engagement, innovation, and political response.

There’s one question that appears to underlie virtually every report, book, and paper on the topic: Why are we not responding more actively and effectively to one of the greatest threats facing life on the planet today? Last week, a study was published in Perspectives on Psychological Science responding to this question, identifying “Five ‘Best Practice’ Insights From Psychological Sciences” for improving public engagement on climate change. The authors’ aim was to distill “five simple but important guidelines for improving public policy and decision making about climate change.” The paper reflects a growing movement to translate and bridge research findings with on-the-ground applications in policy, advocacy, and communities of practice. We need this kind of connection between research and practice, without question. However, we must ask: What about additional—and arguably critical—psychological insights that may be lost in translation?

Psychology is a very broad field, and there is no such thing as a “unified” psychological take on climate change.

The authors focus on five main points that many consider to be the most significant cognitive and communicative challenges to understanding climate change threats. Many of these findings have been reported and summarized by numerous climate change experts, most recently with George Marshall’s book, and are quite established in the growing field of climate change communications. Specific insights include the difficulty in grasping abstract data about climate, the importance of social norming (a current hot topic in climate change engagement), the myth of extrinsic motivations like incentives for sparking behavior change (a topic Daniel Pink addresses in his work on motivation), and the issue of loss-aversion (there is also the term “solution-aversion” circulating, directed to those who reject any “solution” on the table). While these are all sound insights, they reflect a particular way of approaching the problem of climate change engagement, and they fail to keep in mind two things: Psychology is a very broad field, and there is no such thing as a “unified” psychological take on climate change.

While climate change psychology research has been developing since at least the early 1980s, we tend to equate “psychological dimensions” with a focus on cognitive, behavioral, and social psychological research. These were, after all, the disciplines that informed the early pioneers in this field. The emphasis tends to be on attitudes, cognition, and risk assessment—branches recently popularized by behavioral economics and the work of people like Daniel Kahneman, Richard Thaler, and Cass Sunstein. While this work is all valuable, it doesn’t encompass the entire discipline of psychology. Mistaking these parts for the whole of psychology risks limiting our ability to recognize what the full field can offer in addressing our most immediate and urgent challenges, whether at government-level policymaking or community-level grassroots organizing.

There exist other rich traditions in psychological research, originally focused on clinical and psychotherapeutic contexts, and these traditions also inform research methods. For those working in these fields—that is, working experientially and directly with people in a therapeutic or counseling context—the primary focus tends to be on how people manage distressing, often threatening information or experiences. There’s a broad recognition in clinical psychology that humans engage—not only as individuals, but as social beings—in often less conscious or unconscious strategies to manage anxieties, losses, and trauma: denial, projection, splitting the world into good/bad, and so on. These are very human responses to confronting difficult news, including the unintended consequences of our industrial practices for life on the planet.

Perhaps particularly salient to climate change, clinical and psychotherapeutic psychology has a lot to say on the topic of anxiety, loss, grief, mourning, and despair. Understanding how humans relate to loss, even if it’s anticipatory (“What is going to happen to my house/children/land?”) may also help us appreciate why more people are not engaging at the levels required to truly turn the ship around. The response from a more clinical orientation is to practice compassionate “acknowledgement”—to demonstrate an understanding of what may be difficult, so that we can move quickly into solutions. (This was expressed recently by San Francisco-based psychotherapist Jared Michaels.) Such acknowledgement, as clinicians know, can help us soften our defenses and engage more creatively in problem solving. In the climate change field, we see that those working on the front lines of engagement, advocacy, and education tend to skip acknowledgement of people’s fears, and focus instead on “solutions.” From a psychotherapeutic perspective, this doesn’t make a lot of sense.


The various fields of psychology can also inform one another through collaboration across these disparate disciplines.

The tendency is to assume any insights from these less-discussed fields lack pragmatic application, or are difficult to measure. This is a simply wrong. On application, we only need to look at the examples of some of the most successful campaigns in shifting public perceptions, such as Dove’s 2004 “Real Beauty” campaign on body image and self esteem, to find influences by clinical practitioners. Innovations in research methodologies, particularly in psychosocial research and the design sciences, are enabling us to measure emotions and conflict through the use of more “human-centered” methodologies (also known as “human factors”), which has much in common with therapeutic techniques of in-depth conversation and attention to often unconscious desires, fears, and anxieties.

The various fields of psychology can also inform one another through collaboration across these disparate disciplines. For example, the authors of “Five Insights” include a section on how people relate with loss, stating: “Much of the media, scientific, and policy discourse around climate change has consistently invoked the idea of ‘losses.’ ... Yet, long-standing behavioral research has shown that people psychologically evaluate gains and losses in fundamentally different ways.” From a psychotherapeutic angle, however, this is problematic. As Paul Hoggett, a social policy professor at University of the West of England and chair of the Climate Psychologist Alliance, notes: “It’s a bit like saying ‘don’t confront people with the truth, because it will only arouse too much despair, rage, and so on.’ Or, put another way, it would be a bit like a therapist encouraging a bereaved individual not to think about their loss, but to focus on the positives.”

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One of the most important insights from those working in clinical contexts on behavior changes is the recognition that we often experience competing values and drives that can lead to inaction or paralysis, also referred to as ambivalence. Clinical practices such as Motivational Interviewing (developed by two public-health practitioners) are designed to help people “move through ambivalence,” mainly through a style of communication based on listening, empathy, and acknowledgement of where we may feel stuck. Such strategies include those infusing awareness-raising and engagement campaigns with empathy, reflected in initiatives as the Alliance for Climate Education, RepublicEn, Interfaith Power & Light, and ClearPath, which all seek to engage new communities in the climate conversation by acknowledging often unspoken, underlying concerns while offering a path toward action.

Perhaps one way to engage the “Five Insights” is to consider what may inform these particular challenges to facing climate change through the lens of anxiety, conflict, and what may feel like double-binds. Arguably, we are becoming aware of the damaging impacts of our practices while being stitched into a way of life that can be hard to shift, creating extremely challenging psychological and social tensions tricky to navigate. Knowing what we do about how humans manage distressing information and change, we may understand the resistances to engagement differently.

Perhaps we have trouble grasping the abstract nature of climate change because it’s too scary to contemplate, unless there’s a sense of a solution. Perhaps we need to not shy away from the potential losses relating to climate change, but to find skillful ways of acknowledging loss while turning our sights to the enormous opportunities we have for an even better life if we act accordingly. Perhaps, rather than focusing on only the cognitive challenges, we can come up with innovate ways of measuring the experience of climate change that include conflicts and dilemmas that can make it hard to respond, so we can capably support, facilitate, and enable collective forms of engagement. Then we’d really be on to something big.

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First published in Pacific Standard 24 November 2015

Catastrophic Consequences of Climate Change is Pacific Standard’s aggressive, year-long investigation into the devastating effects of climate change—and how scholars, legislators, and citizen-activists can help stave off its most dire consequences.