Mind Matters — Psychology Meets Climate Change

“Our nation has both an obligation and self-interest in facing head-on the serious environmental, economic, and natural security threats posed by climate change.” Words spoken by former Vice President Al Gore in An Inconvenient Truth? No! Words spoken by Republican senator John McCain.

McCain is quoted in The Psychology of Climate Change Communication, written by Debika Shome and Sabine Marx. (See cred.columbia.edu/guide.)

So psychologists question: “Why aren’t Americans more concerned about climate change?” Unless we feel an immediate threat to our lives and lifestyles, we can easily say that “this won’t affect me, “ “that happens to somebody else,” “that’s thousands of miles away,” or “it’s not real anyway, just the usual change of weather patterns.”

We all suffer what is known as “confirmation bias,” where we seek narratives that support what we already think. We form our mental models and stick to them. Fortunately, we also have the ability to change these mental formations and to correct misinformation. Often times, we hear a person say climate change is not unanimously held and there are questions. In science, however, there are always questions and there may even be a few scientist skeptics (and those few are dwindling: Dr. Richard Muller, a skeptic funded by the Koch Brothers has left that fold of few and gives convincing evidence himself of the role of fossil fuels in the astounding increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.)

Former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger uses this metaphor for climate change science: “If 98 doctors say my son is ill and needs medication and two say, ‘No, he’s fine,’ I will go with the 98. … the key thing now is that since we know this industrial age has created it, let’s get our act together and do everything we can to roll it back.”

Besides accepting the evidence from numerous studies that climate change is happening and that we are its cause, we also need to reframe our notion of what that means. Climate change is not “just” an environmental issue: its impact is interwoven with health, the economy, and national security. “National security concerns deriving from climate change include the reduction of global food supplies, leading to large migrations of populations, increased risks for infectious diseases, including pandemics that could destabilize economies and governments; and increased fighting over already limited resources like water and land.”

Ah, so considering that last quote, might get us to another psychological response—emotional numbing—the overwhelm at facing what we’ve denied.

An antidote to emotional overwhelm is taking action, moving to personal change and individual responsibility. However, we don’t want to fall prey to another psychological pitfall of “single action bias.” In other words, if your climate change action is to take re-usable bags to the grocery store, don’t stop there. Recycle too. However, “… although recycling is important, it should be but one activity in a series of behavior changes aimed at reducing climate changes. Switching to wind or other renewable energies, consuming less meat, conserving daily energy use, and eating locally grown food are other effective ways to mitigate climate change. …”

It’s sometimes hard to accept the fact of climate change as a steady arc of global warming when September nights are cool and the slant of the light bodes that winter is coming. And when it snows, some commentator bloviates, “What warming?” Well, melting at “glacier speed” is no longer a metaphor for slow. The ice caps are melting. The seas are rising. We can choose to remain in confirmation bias, move to emotional overwhelm, or go a step in the right direction of “simple action bias.” Better yet, let that single step build to a long walk to a better world.

Speaking of walks, there will be a rally/walk for climate change awareness in New York City, September 21, 2014—People’s Climate March

For further information, see