Last summer we drove from Yosemite to Santa Monica through acres and acres of smouldering forest, the smell of charcoal and smoke filling the air, the landscape black and barren. This week fires have raged through Northern and Southern California, killing 44 as I write, with an expectation of the death toll rising. But sadly, California is not alone – Somalia, Kenya, and other East African countries have experienced below average rainfall since the late 1990s, contributing to a 30% reduction in crop yields and famines. We’re also seeing an increase in the number of hurricanes and destructive weather events across the world. Even the UK is having longer hotter summers. The UN recently issued a report warning that we only have 12 years to stop the ‘irreversible damage to the Earth.’ We should surely be harnessing any means possible to prevent this furious catastrophe from happening, yet psychology is often overlooked.
What’s psychology got to do with it?
Dr Gifford at the University of Victoria B.C. is among psychologists beginning to shout louder about the potential of the field when it comes to mitigating these issues saying:
“Climate change is a human problem. It’s the result of 7.6 billion people making decisions every single day.” But we don’t fully realise that “makes it a psychological problem.”
It really is that straight forward. This month’s Monitor on Psychology published by the APA (American Psychological Association) talks about the part psychology should be playing and how it has to date been applied in a patchy and ad hoc manner. The cynic in me would say that our use of ‘applied psychology’ is focussed more heavily on how to get consumers to buy things and engage with tech. Ironically the job of psychologists is made harder from the intensity of the technology in our environment and the human disconnect with the natural world. Put most simply – when we have our head stuck in answering e-mails, we’re unlikely to remember to turn the light off.
Here are just a few of the ways in which psychology can be used:
- Help organisations to help employees. Organisations are a direct route to making hugely impactful changes, in part because of the number of people in employment. Making strategic use of knowledge when it comes to human drivers e.g. competition and peer pressure, can help us to foster sustainable behaviour even beyond the office. For example, one U.S. non-profit (Cool Choices) created a contest where teams of employees competed for points by engaging in sustainable behaviours at home. Simple activities such as installing low-flow showers and swapping bulbs for low energy LEDs. The results were analysed to find that employees reduced their household electricity use even 6 months after the ‘game’ had ended. This one small example shows the impacts of understanding psychology on sustainability both during and after the study took place (due to habituation).
- Work with cities. Cities are another hub through which large and effective interventions can be introduced. Work with local policy makers and city councils can help leaders to understand how to reduce carbon footprint through using psychology. This may for example take on the form of educating people and then making it clear who else in communities understand the issues. What does this do? Engages peoples’ need to adhere to social norms – they then use what they’ve learnt and it becomes part of their everyday behaviour and a societal norm.
- Carry out more research into when and why people engage in sustainable behaviour. Psychologist Dr. Suzanne Holt Ballard is co-founder of Future Cities Lab which collaborates with cities worldwide on issues relating to sustainability, citizen health and well-being. They are analysing data relating to air pollution, climate and human activity patterns in cities such as New York and Paris. They will then map the connections between urban design, human mobility and health research to allow future ‘smart cities’ to not only reduce the output of fossil fules but also encourage citizens to make healthy personal choices.
- When and why they don’t –take for example the role of ‘fast fashion’. The BBC recently aired a documentary featuring presenter Stacey Dooley which highlighted the impact on the environment of, most surprisingly to me, cotton production. The huge volumes of water used to process cotton dry up local water sources and the pesticides damage ecosystems. Yet, when my daughter wants to get that t-shirt from H&M I will be as guilty as the next person of saying ‘OK’ rather than suggesting a more expensive and sustainable product. Why? Well that’s complicated and for another blog….
- Use tech and AI –while on the one hand tech is part of the problem, leveraging psychological knowledge in the development of tech and AI could enable hugely impactful solutions. At the individual end of the scale simple there’s home tech like the ‘smart’ thermometers which can reduce energy usage. At the other end of the scale using ‘big data’ should allow psychologists to analyse far richer sets of information, collecting data at a scale and volume that without technology would just not be feasible. The outputs of this will help to generate more insightful and accurate answers on what works, for whom, where and why in order to focus on behaviour change interventions that really work.
The UN are beginning to understand the role of psychologists play enlisting their help writing the next report for 2021 (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change). But we tend to forget how central the role of psychology and in this area which is in such dramatic need of attention it can only be a good thing. Psychology seems to simple, so common sense but the subtleties involved really require people who are trained to understand in order to optimise their use. Psychology really can and should have a lot to do with addressing climate change.
My book Defining You is available at Waterstones, WHSmiths and Foyles in the UK as well as amazon.co.uk. Elsewhere it’s available on amazon.com, amazon.com.au, amazon.ca and in various bookstores in Canada (e.g. Indigo) and the USA.
References and links:
BBC 3 – Stacey Dooley’s ‘Fashion’s Dirty Secrets’ https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0bn6034
Henderson, R. M., Reinert, S. A., Dekhtyar, P., & Migdal, A. (2015). Climate Change in 2018: Implications for Business. risk, 1.
Ro, M., Brauer, M., Kuntz, K., Shukla, R., & Bensch, I. (2017). Making Cool Choices for sustainability: Testing the effectiveness of a game-based approach to promoting pro-environmental behaviors. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 53, 20-30.
Weir, K. (2018) Building a Sustainable Future, 49 (5) 48.
Weir, K (2018) Climate Change is Our Call to Acton, 49 (10) 43.
Photo taken in Mariposa, California