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Wednesday, August 20, 2008

APA psychologists rally to fight climate change fatalism

by Andy Coghlan, NewScientist Environment, 20 August 2008

FEELING blue about climate change? Don't despair. Psychologists say they can switch our mindset from fatalism to "can-do" optimism, making a unique and vital contribution to the fight against global warming.

On 15 August at the American Psychological Association meeting in Boston, Massachusetts, delegates vowed to expose, and help overcome, the psychological barriers individuals face. "It's so easy to feel overwhelmed and think: 'What can little me do?'," says David Uzzell of the University of Surrey, U.K.

Most people now accept that global warming is real and caused by human activity. Uzzell cites surveys carried out by the U.K. government this year showing that 80% of Brits are at least "fairly concerned" about climate change. A Stanford University poll conducted this August shows that 75% of Americans believe warming can only be reduced if individuals change their lifestyles. So why aren't we doing more?

A key deterrent, says Paul Stern of the U.S. National Research Council, is a lack of guidance on which actions would have the greatest positive impact. "Seeing a list of 50 things you can do to save the planet paralyses people," he says. "The usual behavioural reaction is to do nothing or pick a step you can do easily, such as switching out the lights when you leave a room. While alleviating people's anxiety, the actual effect of this is negligible."

To prompt people to take more effective steps, Stern has created a more manageable list of just 17 actions that have the biggest impact on energy use ( These include changes to car use, which accounts for about 40% of a U.S. household's energy consumption, and indoor heating and cooling, which together make up 25%.

Equally crucial is telling those who take the plunge how much they are saving. "Instant feedback is really important," says Uzzell. "People need to see that their actions have effects that are local, immediate and concrete." Stern advocates energy monitoring devices that make savings more visible.

An under-appreciated barrier to action is the status conferred by some energy-guzzling products, such as large cars. "They're often sold as part of an image of masculinity," says Uzzell. "You're selling something larger than the product itself."

Though not at the meeting, Susie Burke of the Australian Psychological Society (APS) agrees. "One of the most vital things psychology can do is to help change social norms, so it becomes fashionable to recycle, for example," she says. "It's not brainwashing, it's acknowledging that humans like to behave in a socially acceptable way.

It's not brainwashing, it's acknowledging that humans like to behave in socially acceptable ways.”

This week, Stern, Uzzell and others are drafting a global policy for applying psychology to climate change, building on a similar initiative last year from the APS.

From issue 2670 of New Scientist magazine, 20 August 2008, page 11.

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