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Thursday, August 6, 2009

Andrew Revkin: Is the climate problem in our heads?

Is the Climate Problem in Our Heads?

green brainStephen Wilkes for The New York Times

A task force assembled by the American Psychological Association hopes to spur more research on the role of the human mind in shaping the behaviors resulting in rising greenhouse-gas emissions as well as on traits that can impede an effective response to global warming and similar slow-building environmental risks.

The task force has produced a 225-page report on psychology and climate that is being released to coincide with special sessions on climate at the association’s annual meeting in Toronto. (The link to the report has been balky; I’ll update if a better one is created.)

The group is hoping that the report can also inspire specialists in other fields to collaborate with psychologists. For instance, an effort to shape an initiative for curbing emissions would have a higher chance of success if it considered research showing which messages and incentives cause people to change, or resist change. “We must look at the reasons people are not acting in order to understand how to get people to act,” Janet Swim, a psychology professor at Penn State and the task force leader, said in a statement.

The report reviews research on the behavioral element in every part of the climate problem — from consumer habits to the human tendency to give outsize importance to immediate costs even when confronted with evidence of big long-term risks. In essence, as this report and many previous studies show, the human mind appears to be set up in the worst possible way to grasp and act on global warming, which is one of those problems where the most damaging outcomes are somewhere and someday, not here and now. (My guess is that these tendencies are one reason we need to approach climate change and the energy gap more in the way we treat Medicare insolvency than the traditional environmental problems we grew up with back in the 20th century — sewage in rivers, smog in air — which were literally in your face.)

Just to give you an indication of how many mental barriers there are to an effective response on issues of this sort, here’s an excerpt from the table of contents that reads like one of those biblical lists of deadly sins or plagues:

Which Psychological Barriers Limit Climate Change Action? General sequence of psychological barriers

Mistrust and reactance
Judgmental discounting
Place attachment
Perceived behavioral control
Perceived risks from behavioral change
Tokenism and the rebound effect
Social comparison, norms, conformity and perceived equity
Conflicting goals and aspirations
Belief in solutions outside of human control

What’s on your list of reasons we have trouble with climate and other issues related to our species’ ongoing spike in numbers and appetite?

I have a feeling this report could be of use to the America’s Climate Choices project of the National Academy of Sciences and the scientists developing the outlines of the next report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change

More on the psychological and sociological underpinnings of modern environmental problems can be found in the recent green issue of the Times Magazine. I’ve written on it in print and repeatedly on Dot Earth — remember “ Blah, Blah, Blah, Bang“?

Link to Dot Earth blog at the New York Times:

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