The answer to this question is really both encouraging and frustrating. Public opinion research shows that somewhere around 70% of the American public does believe that climate change is happening, and that we should be doing something about it. The numbers in most other countries are even higher. So, yes, on some level, we care. But those same polls show that only 11% of Americans are very worried and only 6% think it’s an extremely important issue. If we accept the best science in the world – led by people with advanced degrees in climate and atmospheric sciences, physics, chemistry, geology – people who really have nothing to gain from this venture other than saving the planet – then the current level of public concern about climate change is not enough. We need to act. NOW.
My research doesn’t attempt to understand climate dynamics or even communicate them more clearly. Instead, I am interested in why Thanksgiving dinner turned into the most recent family nightmare when you mentioned the words “climate change”– because, let’s face it, it’s not really about understanding the science in the first place. Doubt and denial about climate change are deeply rooted in psychology, while skepticism about science and theories about geeky scientists trying to destroy the world are just there to cover up the roots. Our lack of concern about climate change comes from our strong ties to the social system in which we live, and our inability to see beyond it.
In the late 1970’s, a psychology graduate student at Arizona State University, who was interested in and concerned about environmental issues, visited the Petrified Forest National Park. After years of thefts, the park rangers had posted signs saying “Your heritage is being vandalized every day by theft losses of petrified wood of 14 tons a year, mostly a small piece at a time.” In other words, “people keep stealing the wood, please don’t do it.” How does this environmentally-conscious student react? “Oh no, I better steal some too, before it’s all gone!”
Of course she didn’t, and this experience led her to investigate how what other people are doing influences our own behavior. Specifically, even when it goes against our initial values, we tend to follow the crowd (in fact, the researchers found that the sign actually increased the amount of wood that was stolen!). Dozens of studies have followed up on this theme of normative influence in environmentally-related behavior – and found that we are less likely to recycle if we don’t see our neighbors recycle, more likely to waste resources like water and electricity when we see others doing it, but that we are also more likely to take action when we see our friends and family taking action. Ultimately, this means that we are more likely to reduce our environmental impact when we believe others are doing it, too.
As a graduate student trying to understand why people deny or lack concern about climate change, a common sentiment I heard was something along the lines of “they are going to take away my ____.” In other words, some people are afraid that to vote for pro-environmental policies, or even to admit that climate change is a problem, might result in resources they believe they deserve or need being taken away. This might range from anticipating that I am no longer allowed to use 100 gallons of water a week to keep my lawn looking green, or that the prices of gas might get so high that I cannot afford to drive my car as much. And yet, there are also plenty of people who don’t see cutting back on their use of resources as a deprivation, and instead willfully endorse policies that would encourage less consumption or require fewer greenhouse gas emissions.
So, why the difference? The answer is that our feelings of deprivation (and their link to pro-environmental behavior) are relative. The original research on this topic is quite interesting – psychologists were wanting to study job satisfaction in two different military groups: the Air Force and the Military Police. In the Air Force, which was better funded, people were getting raises and promotions on a fairly regular basis; in the Military Police, they were not. The researchers assumed those in the Air Force would have more job satisfaction, but what they found was the opposite. People in the Air Force, particularly those who hadn’t gotten a raise or promotion for a while, felt very deprived, because the people they compared themselves to were doing better than they were. In the Military Police, people were fairly content, since they tended to be doing just as well as most of their peers. In other words, people didn’t feel deprived based on whether or not they were getting promotions. They felt deprived based on whether other people were getting them.
Applying this logic to environmental issues, if everyone on the block is driving a Hummer, then we are probably more likely to believe we need a Hummer, and would be deprived without one. However, if we compare ourselves to those with less resources, we will be more likely to see ourselves as having more than enough, and to not anticipate feeling deprived when we consider being more sustainable. Therefore, my research began to examine how anticipated feelings of deprivation influence our environmental choices. If deprivation is relative, and a fear of being deprived is causing some to deny or downplay the serious issues of climate change, then perhaps changing who we consider to be relative (i.e., who we compare ourselves to) can change our beliefs about deprivation and ultimately our willingness to address environmental issues.
The field of Social Psychology has actually been doing this for years – in an attempt to understand and address other social issues, such as racism. We are often wary of people who are different – who don’t look, talk, act, or think like us. We don’t relate to them. We see them as abnormal. So we come up with ways to separate ourselves, often with social explanations and justifications for WHY they are different, and WHY they deserve this and we deserve that. However, the more time we spend around people who are “other”, the more we break down those walls of difference, and recognize that we actually do have similar interests and values, and that we can both contribute to accomplishing similar goals and making the world a better place.
Thus, I started to apply this idea – essentially using tools that help to reduce prejudice and discrimination – to the issue of climate change. In several studies across more than one thousand American adults, those who participated in activities to reduce prejudice and increase their sense of relatability with others around the globe who are currently suffering from the effects of climate change were less likely to feel deprived when thinking about acting in more pro-environmental ways. Further, the less deprived individuals felt, the more willing they were to give up extra resources and engage in more environmentally-sustainable behaviors. Although this was true of individuals who identified as politically liberal and moderate, it was particularly true of those who identified as conservative, which is even more important given the strong politicization of climate change in the United States.
There are a number of reasons human beings deny climate change or are resistant to taking action to address it, but a significant factor lies in our fear of living differently, and of losing a way of life that we have come to feel entitled to. But importantly, this reliance on doing things or living a certain way is highly reflective of the way we see others living life, and our own perception of what we need, and what we do not need, is largely based on who we chose to observe and compare ourselves to. Despite what the latest commercials are telling you, you can probably live a fulfilling and happy life without that new iphone 10.3. Oh, wait, you currently exist without an iphone 10.3? It might do us good to remember that.
Figure 1 (climate change protestor): from grist.com. Available at http://grist.org/article/2010-10-21-only-one-out-of-seven-tea-partiers-s....
Figure 2 (National Park): available online at https://outindewoods.wordpress.com/2012/05/07/petrified-forest-painted-d....
Figures 3-6 (environmental impact): From the video “Weathering Change”, produced by Population Action International (PAI). Available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hPy3pLBZvuE.