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Psychologists Delve Into the Paradox of U.S. Concern but Inaction on Climate Change

By Renee Cho

Aug 23, 2009

Ask Americans if something should be done to stop global warming and close to three-quarters will say yes. Getting them to act on that belief is something else.

Only 8 percent say they’ve taken the step to contact their political representatives, according to a by Yale and George Mason University’s Center for Climate Change Communication.

That paradoxical state of America’s consciousness has drawn the interest of social scientists and psychologists who are captivated by the challenge of how to engage the public and policymakers on climate change.

Earlier this month, the American Psychological Association issued a based on an examination of decades of psychological research on climate, conservation and environmental beliefs and actions. Its conclusion: Psychologists should take a greater role in helping communicate and break down the psychological barriers that are keeping people from accepting the science behind climate change and taking action to stop it.

"What is unique about current global climate change is the role of human behavior," said task force chair Janet Swim of Pennsylvania State University. "We must look at the reasons people are not acting in order to understand how to get people to act."

The Challenge

Part of the difficulty in getting people to accept the reality of climate change has been the success of communications strategies employed by the opposition to sow confusion and doubt about the science. Naysayers have taken advantage of the media’s ethic of balanced reporting and succeeded in inserting the skeptical opinions of a fringe into the mainstream.

Scientists, meanwhile, have proved no match for the denialist campaign generously funded by fossil fuel interest. Most have little skill as spokespeople, unable to effectively communicate and hobbled by their penchant for jargon and cautiousness as well as their training to emphasize the unknown over the known.

The facts about climate change are often scary and can induce such as denial, numbness and the feeling of being overwhelmed, says Dr. Susanne Moser of Santa Cruz, Calif., who studies adaptation to climate change and effective climate change communication to bring about social change. People often don’t fully understand the information. And because individuals are entrenched in their social niches, if action on climate change represents a social norm that’s not consistent with that niche, they will likely not take it.

Yale and GMU researchers found that the U.S. public tends to respond to climate change issues with one of six unique types of behavior, set out in the report .

The six are the Alarmed (18%), who are already active and changing their behavior; the Concerned (33%), who recognize global warming as a serious problem but are not as involved; the Cautious, (19%) who believe global warming is happening but do not feel a sense of urgency; the Disengaged (12%), who haven’t given it much thought; the Doubtful (11%), who are not sure if global warming is happening; and the Dismissive (7%), who do not believe global warming is happening and are actively engaged in downplaying it.

It would appear that the Dismissive have had a far greater influence than their numbers would warrant.

What Works?

The APA task force found several ways that groups have been successful in getting people to act on climate change. For example, people are more likely to use energy-efficient appliances if they can see immediately—rather than waiting for a utility bill—how much energy they are saving. Smart meters and software currently being developed will give more people that instant feedback.

A NEW FRAMEWORK for economic & environmental sustainability

As the first foreign psychologist to live and work in CHINA, I have spent 16 years here applying management tools and frameworks to business, with a focus on STRATEGY EXECUTION. I have begun conceptually applying these tools to the critical challenge of how to balance economic development and sustainability. A two part article series was published in COST MANAGEMENT, titled: "Economic and Environmental Sustainability: A Modest Proposal". These articles give a brief summary of the leading indicators for what's coming [with business-as-usual] and propose a new framework at five levels for how to cope with the challenge: 1 global, 2 regional/national, 3 organizational, 4 cities/communities, 5 individuals/families. The two primary enabling objectives at the bottom of the STRATEGY MAP for global sustainability are FINANCIAL and POLICY. I am very interested in contributing to helping others understand how to use this methodology [briefly described in the articles], pro bono, or otherwise. Send an EMAIL REQUEST for the articles to with REQUEST ARTICLES in the subject heading. Feel free to direct questions, suggestions and comments to the same email addres. Irv Beiman, Ph.D. Univ of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 1973.

great analysis Ms. Cho.

This article sums up the roadblocks to motivating people on an emotional level. may I quote you?

Tap into the consciousness of their children!

As with most products, directly advertising to the person you're selling it to can be difficult due to people's innate distaste for being sold to. Children are on the other hand, easy to sell ideas to, they are open to new ideas and can be easily influenced.

My parents would have never dreamed of recycling all of their household waste until I pressured them into it as a child. They still do it religiously now, years after I have moved out. Why? Well as a child I was a big fan of Captain Planet, I even had the video game for the Amiga 500. The pro-environmental messages in this children's product made me put pressure on my parents to do their bit. This is called the nag factor in marketing, it is incredibly powerful when it's children doing the nagging. That is why before Christmas all of the toy makers advertise directly to children so that they, in turn, inform their parents of what they want in the manner befitting a child: incessant nagging!

In summary, it is the children of this generation that will inherit the problem so make them part of the solution. Bring back Captain Planet, or some other child friendly alternative to spread the message amongst kids. Alternatively make climate change part of children's education, and let kids know what their parents are doing to this planet!

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