sExperts and activists have used many tactics to help fight climate change: expanding technologies like wind and solar power, building better batteries to store that renewable energy, and protecting forests, all while striving to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
On August 4, during the American Psychological Association conference in Minneapolis, nearly a dozen experts highlighted another, more surprising tool: psychology.
“I used to start my presentations by talking about temperature data and the gases that trap heat, but now I start most of my presentations the same way: by asking people, ‘How do you feel about climate change?'” said Kathryn Hayhoe. Chief Scientist at the Nature Conservancy, an environmental nonprofit, during a panel discussion. “I get the same words everywhere: anxious, anxious, frustrated, anxious, devastated, overwhelmed, angry, hopeless, terrified, afraid, heartbroken, and afraid.”
Simply boiling in those negative feelings won’t do much: “If we don’t know what to do with them, it may cause us to withdraw, freeze, or give up instead of taking action,” Hayhoe says.
Psychology can play a role in helping to combat climate change by deriving the most effective ways to change human behavior and encouraging individuals to take action. Extreme weather events also affect people’s mental health and well-being, so psychologists need to be prepared.
Here’s a look at how psychology is being used in the climate crisis.
Confronting the mental health harms of climate change
Climate change presents a growing threat to mental health. Extreme weather events such as wildfires and hurricanes can lead to depression, anxiety, and PTSD in people of all ages, sometimes by causing displacement and food insecurity. Research suggests that higher temperatures are associated with an increased risk of suicide and hospital admissions for mental health reasons.
Many people also suffer from climate anxiety, or existential dread about the future of the planet. According to a study published in Lancet In 2021, 84% of 16-25-year-olds from 10 countries — including the United States — have at least moderate concern about climate change, while 59% have high or high anxiety.
During the show, Susan Clayton, a professor of psychology at the College of Wooster in Ohio, said it was not unusual to have “very strong emotional reactions” to this crisis. Those with intense emotions may benefit from counseling or other mental health therapies — plus some stress that they don’t have to have all the answers. Clayton said psychologists and others in leadership positions should remind people that “this is a systemic issue.” People with climate anxiety may feel a personal responsibility to save the world. No individual should bear this burden on his shoulders.”
In addition to anxiety, many people, especially younger ones, experience anger because of inheriting a problem they did not create. This is a justified response, Clayton stressed, and can be harnessed: “Anger can be really powerful in motivating people to participate,” and for some people, it may be more beneficial than the negativity that can result from anxiety. “There is a real place for anger.” The important thing, she added, is to know how to translate it into acceptable social action.
Children also suffer from climate anxiety, and many parents struggle with how to navigate these complex conversations. “As a parent, I would say two things: One, don’t lie to a child, because they will find out, and that undermines their confidence,” Clayton said. “And remember their emotional needs. Please don’t tell them the world is going to end.”
As a society, she said, we need to provide emotional coping skills to children who are directly or indirectly receiving messages about climate change. Children need outlets, and it is important for parents and community leaders, including psychologists, to identify ways to promote advocacy from an early age. For example, UNICEF suggests talking about steps the whole family can take together, such as recycling, reducing food waste, saving water, and planting trees.
Read more: What does extreme heat do to the human body?
How to fight climate change denial
There is strong scientific evidence that the human-caused climate crisis is real. However, some people refuse to acknowledge its existence.
It manifests itself in many ways, said Gail M. Sinatra, professor of psychology and education at the University of Southern California and co-author of the book Climate denial. Denial of science: why it happens and what to do about it. Some people insist that hurricanes, droughts and scorching heat waves are not signs of a climate crisis. Others, she said, are expressing doubt or showing “resistance to doing something about it” or even talking about it. “A lot of people kind of understand that something is happening but are reluctant to act, and in this delay it is a denial of this crisis upon us.”
Sinatra said there are a variety of cognitive and emotional reasons that a person might unconsciously use to justify climate denial. It may be about “motivating reasoning,” or the desire to believe in a favorable outcome rather than face a harsh reality. Or, someone’s social identity might be tangled up in driving a big truck, say, they don’t want to replace it with an electric car – so it’s easier to pretend there are no problems. “Sometimes people don’t want to put these things together because they don’t want to change their lifestyle,” she said.
So what can be done about climate denial? One strategy is to tailor the message to what the person you are speaking with is interested in. It can also help to be aware of the anti-us mentality and aim to make the conversations inclusive.
For example, in denial of scienceSinatra recommends listening to those who resist science and try to understand their own fears and fears. She advises seeking common ground, such as a shared desire to improve the air that asthmatics breathe. It may also be helpful to ask someone why they do not value scientific knowledge, and demonstrate that you are open minded and willing to consider their point of view. This increases the chances of having a meaningful dialogue.
To make sure you don’t fall into the trap of misinformation about climate change, Sinatra suggests that you become adept at researching and evaluating scientific claims, and being aware that content is shown to people based on algorithms, which can help “counter any biases you might develop through Just follow your Google or your social media feeds.”
Read more: Are you terrified of climate change? You may have an environmental concern
How to empower people to fight climate change
Kristi Manning, director of sustainability and faculty member in the Department of Environmental Studies at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, said the climate crisis can sometimes seem like a remote threat — something we can deal with tomorrow. But we know that’s not the case, as recent heat waves have shown.
Manning described three psychology-based tactics that can help empower people to take action to mitigate climate change:
Connect with young people. Manning has been thinking about climate change for decades. But in 2018, after a landmark United Nations report was released, she remembers returning home with her then 13-year-old daughter. “She turned towards me and said, Mom, I learned this climate report from a friend at school today, and I want you to tell me what this means for my life. What does that mean for my future? It was one of those moments my heart fell in my stomach, because I know what this means.” For all young people’s lives if we don’t combine our work and do something about the climate crisis.”
That conversation raised the stakes for Manning — and she believes that people who have a connection to a young man are more likely to care and be willing to take action on the climate crisis. “Let’s encourage everyone we know to have a conversation with a young man, and to listen to young people and their concerns,” she said. “Because if we listen to them, I think it will spur more action and raise the stakes for all of us.”
Ask yourself: What fuels your positive feelings? If we don’t find some way to feel hope, or sense that we’re working on solutions, we’re likely to feel paralyzed and anxious, Manning said. Many people find this meaning when they become part of a community, so it is important to look out for others. “If I’m worried about the climate crisis and spend time with people who don’t share that concern, I start to feel lonely,” she said. “But if I join a community that feels the same fear as I do, and we take action together, I feel socially supported, and I feel validated.”
Joining a community, such as a local advocacy group, can help you feel like you’re actually affecting an issue, which is the kind of incentive many people need to keep blocking that issue.
Take actions outside your comfort zone. As human beings, we all have an untapped power to change the world around us, Manning said. Too often, people fall behind on pledging to eat less meat, or drive less—the Admiral’s goals, “but we know those individual actions are not what it takes to solve this crisis.”
She suggests motivating yourself — or encouraging others — to “take bold steps,” such as contacting elected officials or forming a club to build a community solar park. “These are the kinds of procedures that have big multiplier effects and can bring about systemic change,” Manning said. And individuals have the ability to take these steps. We need to encourage them and help them overcome their discomfort.”
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