The Psychology of Climate Change
Friday, 22 March 2013
Regular readers of this blog are all too aware of the dangers that are starting to manifest regarding global warming. Given the reality of 2012 being the hottest year on record, and other climate change related disasters such as Superstorm Sandy, why isn’t more being done domestically and globally to avert this crisis? The answer is in our psychology as humans.
Anthony Leiserowitz, Director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication and a Research Scientist at the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies at Yale University, specializes in human behavior, in particular the psychology of risk perception and decision making as it relates to global warming. He is an expert on U.S. and international perception of climate change risks, support and opposition for climate policies, and willingness to make individual behavioral change. Leiserowitz points to humans’ needs to tangibly experience phenomena in order to connect with it on a deeper level. The first problem with the issue is that we cannot see carbon dioxide. Perhaps if we could see blue smoke, for example, billowing around us we would be more motivated to immediately tackle global warming.
The climate change problem is further complicated by its faceless nature. There isn’t one country or person we can point to as causing global warming. We are all responsible on a daily basis. Then add to that there’s the fact that climate change is not an immediate threat. It’s certainly becoming one, but it takes time for the planet to heat up and we are fast approaching the point of no return.
Many people do not understand how a few degrees one way or the other will make a difference to the planet. Leiserowitz likened it to a fever in an episode titled, “Encore: Ending the Silence on Climate Change” this month on Bill Moyer & Company. “People often will say, ‘Wow, you know, four, five degrees, that doesn’t sound like very much. I mean, I see the temperature change more from night to day.’ But it’s the wrong way to think about it. I mean, think about when you get sick and you get a fever, okay. Your body is usually at, you know, 98.7 degrees.”
He continued to say, “If your temperature rises by one degree you feel a little off, but you can still go to work. You’re fine. It rises by two degrees and you’re now feeling sick, in fact you’re probably going to take the day off because you definitely don’t feel good. And in fact, you’re getting everything from hot flashes to cold chills, okay. At three you’re starting to get really sick. And at four degrees and five degrees your brain is actually slipping into a coma, okay, you’re close to death. I think there’s an analogy here of that little difference in global average temperature just like that little difference in global body temperature can have huge implications as you keep going. And so unfortunately the world after two and especially after three degrees starts getting much more frightening, and that’s exactly what the scientists keep telling us. But will we pay attention to those warning signs?”
My next blog post will discuss how to effectively communicate about climate change to overcome some of the psychological challenges humans face outlined in this post. There are ways to get the public to pay attention to, and in fact, engage on the issue of global warming. However, there is an art to it.