4 Lessons Psychology Teaches Us About Inspiring Climate Action
Changing the behavior of one person is hard enough—let alone millions of citizens around the world. Find out what lessons psychology can teach us about inspiring climate action.
There's the old line that the first step to solving a problem is understanding it. But when it comes to climate change, what happens when understanding alone isn't enough?
We know it's important to educate the public so people understand why climate change is happening, what regions are most at risk, and how impacts like sea level rise, extreme weather and ocean acidification continue to harm our health and economy.
But education is the easy part. It's getting people to take action that can be a challenge—and that's because changing people's attitudes and behaviors is a daunting task.
Have you ever made a New Year's resolution, say, to eat healthier—and you find yourself saying "yes" to that second piece of chocolate cake on Jan. 15? You may know eating too many sugary treats isn't good for your health (attitude), but you may find it difficult to stick to eating healthier (behavior).
Social scientists of all kinds have studied the question of how to change human behavior in many different contexts from public health to public policy to environmental psychology and more. In the climate context, environmental psychologists have begun exploring this larger question by trying to understand why, for example, more Americans aren't taking action with their votes and voices. Especially when the majority agree that humans are causing climate change.
There's no simple answer here. The reality is that changing the behavior of one person is hard enough—let alone millions of citizens around the world. But psychology can give us some insight into better ways to motivate people to change their behavior and stand up for the planet we share.
That's why we've compiled four lessons from the field that any activist can take and use to help inspire their friends, colleagues, family members and more to act.
1. Connect the climate crisis to what's happening in real communities to reduce psychological distance.
Climate change is a unique issue because although millions of people in the U.S. and around the world feel the drastic effects of it in their daily lives, many people don't (yet).
Why does this matter? Because of a construct known as psychological distance. Psychological distance refers to things that are not in our immediate reality or felt in the present moment. For example, you might think about your first year of marriage if you're still single (temporal distance), what neighborhood or city you might buy a home in one day (spatial distance), how your best friend or family member perceives you (social distance) or how your career would be different if you had studied a different major in college (hypothetical distance).
Why is psychological distance relevant to the climate crisis? Studies have found that people who believe the effects of climate change are unlikely to happen to them or are more likely to affect other people and regions of the world are less likely to be concerned about solving it. In other words, if climate change feels psychologically distant, you worry less about it in your daily life and feel less urgency to take action.
To bridge this gap, research suggests that we should discuss how climate change affects communities and families on the local level. That means calling attention to real-life examples of how the climate crisis is affecting real people, especially in regions experiencing extreme weather. From wildfires destroying homes in the western U.S. to hurricanes damaging homes and businesses along the Gulf Coast and southern U.S. to droughts affecting farms in dozens of countries, it's clear that extreme weather is devastating the livelihoods of many communities around the world.
Humans are pack animals. In 1943, American psychologist Abraham Maslow created his Hierarchy of Needs, which proposed that humans have certain needs that begin with the most basic needs (food, sleep, safety) and end with ego-centered needs (self-esteem, creativity).
The hierarchy also proposed that once humans have their physical and safety needs satisfied, the next need in the hierarchy is belongingness. Put simply, humans are social beings that respond to group norms, and for our ancestors, group acceptance meant access to shared resources and feeling protected from predators.
Today, humans are just as keenly aware of social dynamics and psychology tells us that we fear feeling socially rejected. That's why the more we can make climate action the norm in our social and family circles, the more likely others will join in.
3. Talk about what we're gaining, not what we're losing, to avoid loss aversion.
The psychological concept of loss aversion is nothing new, but behavioral scientists have started thinking about it more as it relates to the climate movement. One study examined how framing climate change impacts can affect attitudes and perceptions. In the experiment, researchers presented different climate change impacts to participants (sourced from the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report), who then answered questions about what they saw.
The results showed that framing climate change impacts in a way that highlights possible gains rather than losses increased positive attitudes toward mitigation responses. Participants also perceived climate change impacts as more severe when they were framed as gains.
So when talking about climate change with your friends and family, explain how action is an opportunity. For example, America's Clean Power Plan, which is now under threat by the Trump administration, could lead to public health and climate benefits worth an estimated $34 billion to $54 billion annually in 2030. Those are some serious gains! If you agree, we invite you to add your name to support the Clean Power Plan and stand up for clean energy.
4. Give your friends real ways to take action to prevent "environmental melancholia."
We know that the climate crisis isn't just an environmental issue. Not only do the people who experience extreme weather, warmer temperatures, drought, rising sea levels and other devastating impacts feel psychological effects, but many people are affected simply by hearing about the crisis or seeing unsettling images in the news.
Dr. Renee Lertzman, a researcher who promotes climate change activism inside the workplace, explains that people often experience "environmental melancholia." She explained that although we know the climate crisis is a threat, many people feel anxious and powerless about how they can make a difference, which can prevent them from doing something.
By understanding that people may feel powerless when thinking about the climate crisis, we should communicate and provide real ways to take action and support them throughout the process. If your friends or family members feel powerless or have anxiety about getting involved, one way to help is to share helpful content that gives them specific ways to take action. Our blog post, Four Ways Anyone Can Take Climate Action, is a great place to start.
How You Can Make a Difference
Humans are complicated and changing behavior is no easy task, but thinking about how to overcome empathy or powerlessness is the first step to getting others involved with the movement for solutions. If you're ready to make a difference in your community, download our Make It a Reality Action Kit now to get started. Our climate action kit will give you a thorough look at the climate crisis and ways you can participate in the fight for a bright, sustainable future.
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EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Mark Hertsgaard
What follows are not candidate endorsements. Rather, this nonpartisan guide aims to inform voters' choices, help journalists decide what races to follow, and explore what the 2020 elections could portend for climate action in the United States in 2021 and beyond.
Will the White House Turn Green?<p>Whether the White House changes hands is the most important climate question of the 2020 elections. President Donald Trump rejects climate science, is withdrawing the United States from the Paris Agreement, and has accelerated fossil fuel development. His climate policy seems to be, as he tweeted in January when rejecting a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers proposal to protect New York City from storm surges, "Get your mops and buckets ready."</p><p>Joe Biden, who started the 2020 campaign with a climate position so weak that activists gave it an "F," called Trump a "climate arsonist" during California's recent wildfires. Biden backs a $2 trillion plan to create millions of jobs while slashing emissions—a Green New Deal in all but name. Equally striking, his running mate, California Senator Kamala Harris, has endorsed phasing out fossil fuel production—a politically explosive scientific imperative.</p><p>The race will be decided in a handful of battleground states, five of which already face grave climate dangers: Florida (hurricanes and sea-level rise), North Carolina (ditto), Texas (storms and drought), Michigan (floods), and Arizona (heat waves and drought). <a href="https://climatecommunication.yale.edu/visualizations-data/ycom-us/" target="_blank">Public concern is rising</a> in these states, but will that concern translate into votes?</p>
Will Democrats Flip the Senate, and by Enough to Pass a Green New Deal?<p>With Democrats all but certain to maintain their majority in the U.S. House of Representatives, the Senate will determine whether a potential Biden administration can actually deliver climate progress. Democrats need to pick up three seats to flip the Senate if Biden wins, four if he doesn't. But since aggressive climate policy is shunned by some Democrats, notably Joe Manchin of coal-dependent West Virginia, Democrats probably need to gain five or six Senate seats to pass a Green New Deal.</p><p>Environmentalists, including the League of Conservation Voters, are targeting six Republicans who polls suggest are vulnerable.</p><ul><li>Steve Daines of Montana, who denies climate science</li><li>Martha McSally of Arizona</li><li>Thom Tillis of North Carolina</li><li>Susan Collins of Maine</li><li>Joni Ernst of Iowa (bankrolled by Charles Koch)</li><li>John James of Michigan (also a Koch beneficiary)</li></ul><p>Republican Senators are even at risk in conservative Kansas and Alaska. In both states, the Democratic candidates are physicians—not a bad credential amid a pandemic—who support climate action. In Kansas, Barbara Bollier faces an incumbent funded by Charles Koch. In Alaska, Al Gross urges a transition away from oil, though his openness to limited drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Preserve dims his appeal to green groups. He faces incumbent Republican Dan Sullivan, who receives an 8 percent lifetime voting record from the League of Conservation Voters.</p>
Will Local and State Races Advance Climate Progress?<h4>THE CLIMATE HAWKS</h4><p>Under Democratic and Republican leadership alike, Washington has long been a graveyard for strong climate action. But governors can boost or block renewable energy; the Vermont and New Hampshire races are worth watching. Attorneys general can sue fossil fuel companies for lying about climate change; climate hawks are running for the top law enforcement seats in Montana and North Carolina. State legislatures can accelerate or delay climate progress, as the new Democratic majorities in Virginia have shown. Here, races to watch include Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Colorado.</p><h4>THE CLIMATE POLICY MAKERS</h4><p>Perhaps the most powerful, and most overlooked, climate policy makers are public utility commissions. They control whether pipelines and other energy infrastructure gets built; they regulate whether electric utilities expand solar and energy efficiency or stick with the carbon-heavy status quo. Regulatory capture and outright corruption are not uncommon.</p><p>A prime example is Arizona, where a former two-term commissioner known as the godfather of solar in the state is seeking a comeback. Bill Mundell argues that since Arizona law permits utilities to contribute to commissioners' electoral campaigns, the companies can buy their own regulators. Which may explain why super-sunny Arizona has so little installed solar capacity.</p><p>In South Dakota, Remi Bald Eagle, a Native American U.S. Army veteran, seeks a seat on the South Dakota Public Utilities Commission, which rules on the Standing Rock oil pipeline. And in what <em>HuffPost</em> called "the most important environmental race in the country," Democrat Chrysta Castaneda, who favors phasing out oil production, is running for the Texas Railroad Commission, which despite its name decides what oil, gas, and electric companies in America's leading petro-state can build.</p>
Will the Influencers Usher in a Green New Era?<h4>THE UNCOUNTED</h4><p>The story that goes largely under-reported in every U.S. election is how few Americans vote. In 2016, some 90 million, <a href="https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2018/08/09/an-examination-of-the-2016-electorate-based-on-validated-voters/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">roughly four out of every 10 eligible voters</a>, did not cast a ballot. Attorney Nathaniel Stinnett claims that 10 million of these nonvoters nevertheless identify as environmentalists: They support green policies, even donate to activist groups; they just don't vote. Stinnett's <a href="https://www.environmentalvoter.org/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Environmental Voter Project</a> works to awaken this sleeping giant.</p><h4>THE SUNRISE MOVEMENT</h4><p>Meanwhile, the young climate activists of the <a href="http://www.sunrisemovement.org/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Sunrise Movement</a> are already winning elections with an unabashedly Green New Deal message. More than any other group, Sunrise pushed the Green New Deal into the national political conversation, helping Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey draft the eponymous congressional resolution. In 2020, Sunrise has helped Green New Deal champions defeat centrists in Democratic primaries, with Markey dealing Representative Joe Kennedy Jr. the first defeat a Kennedy has ever suffered in a Massachusetts election. But can Sunrise also be successful against Republicans in the general elections this fall?</p><h4>THE STARPOWER</h4><p>And an intriguing wild card: celebrity firepower, grassroots activism, and big-bucks marketing have converged behind a campaign to get Latina mothers to vote climate in 2020. Latinos have long been the U.S. demographic most concerned about climate change. Now, <a href="https://votelikeamadre.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Vote Like A Madre</a> aims to get 5 million Latina mothers in Florida, Texas, and Arizona to the polls. Jennifer Lopez, Salma Hayak, and Lin-Manuel Miranda are urging mothers to make a "pinky promise" to vote for their kids' climate future in November. Turning out even a quarter of those 5 million voters, though no easy task, could swing the results in three states Trump must win to remain president, which brings us back to the first category, "Will the White House Turn Green?"</p>
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By Tony Carnie
South Africa is home to around 1,300 of the world's roughly 7,100 remaining cheetahs. It's also the only country in the world with significant cheetah population growth, thanks largely to a nongovernmental conservation project that depends on careful and intensive human management of small, fenced-in cheetah populations. Because most of the reserves are privately funded and properly fenced, the animals benefit from higher levels of security than in the increasingly thinly funded state reserves.
Vincent van der Merwe at a cheetah translocation. Endangered Wildlife Trust
Under Pressure<p>Cheetah populations elsewhere in Southern Africa have not prospered over the past 50 years. In Zimbabwe, cheetah numbers have crashed from 1,500 in 1975, to just 170 today. Botswana's cheetah population has held steady at around 1,500 over the same period, but illegal capture for captive breeding and conflicts with farmers and the growing human population are increasing. In Namibia, there were an estimated 3,000 cheetah in in 1975; roughly 1,400 remain today.</p><p>In contrast, South Africa's cheetah numbers have grown from about 500 in 1975 to nearly 1,300 today. Van der Merwe, who is also a Ph.D. student at the University of Cape Town's Institute for Communities and Wildlife in Africa (iCWild), says he's confident that South Africa will soon overtake Namibia and Botswana, largely because the majority of South African cheetahs are protected and managed behind fences, whereas most of the animals in the neighboring countries remain more vulnerable on mainly unfenced lands.</p><p>Wildlife researchers Florian Weise and colleagues have reported that private stock owners in Namibia still trap cheetahs mainly for translocation, but there are few public or private reserves large enough to contain them. Weise says that conservation efforts need to focus on improving tolerance toward cheetahs in commercial livestock and game farming areas to reduce indiscriminate trapping.</p><p>Van der Merwe says fences can be both a blessing and a curse. While these barriers prevent cheetahs and other wild animals from migrating naturally to breed and feed, they also protect cheetahs from the growing tide of threats from humanity and agriculture.</p><p>To simulate natural dispersion patterns that guard against inbreeding, the trust helps landowners swap their animals with other cheetah reserves elsewhere in the country. The South African metapopulation project has been so successful in boosting numbers that the trust is having to look beyond national boundaries to secure new translocation areas in Malawi, Zambia and Mozambique.</p><p>Cheetah translocations have been going on in South Africa since the mid-1960s, when the first unsuccessful attempts were made to move scores of these animals from Namibia. These relocations were mostly unsuccessful.</p>
Charli de Vos uses a VHF antenna to locate cheetahs in Phinda Game Reserve. Tony Carnie for Mongabay
Swinging for the Fences<p>But other wildlife conservation leaders have a different perspective on cheetah conservation strategy.</p><p>Gus Mills, a senior carnivore researcher retired in 2006 from SANParks, the agency that manages South Africa's national parks, after a career of more than 30 years in Kalahari and Kruger national parks. He says the focus should be on quality of living spaces rather than the quantity of cheetahs.</p><p>Mills, who was the founder of the Endangered Wildlife Trust's Carnivore Conservation Group in 1995, and who also spent six years after retirement studying cheetahs in the Kalahari, says it's more important to properly protect and, where possible, expand the size of existing protected areas.</p><p>He also advocates a triage approach to cheetah conservation, in which scarce funds and resources are focused on protecting cheetahs in formally protected areas, rather than diluting scarce resources in an attempt to try and save every single remaining cheetah population.</p><p>"People have an obsession with numbers. But I believe that it is more important to protect large landscape and habitats properly," Mills said.</p><p>He suggests that cheetahs enclosed within small reserves live in artificial conditions: "It's almost like glorified farming."</p><p>"In the long run we have to focus on consolidating formally protected areas," he added. "Africa's human population will double by 2050, so cheetah populations in unfenced areas will become unsustainable if they are eating people's livestock."</p>
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