The role of Psychology in climate change

By: Melissa Salcedo y Sachie Silva


In recent years, concern about the climate crisis has acquired great relevance for the population, above all, because its effects went from being a distant threat to a dramatic reality which, according to data from the International Conservation, directly affects about 800 million people.

The predictions of the planet are distressing. According to the United Nations reports, it is expected that by the year 2100, sea levels will rise half a meter, while NASA points out that in just 50 years carbon dioxide levels have doubled.

In Peru, the deterioration of the environmental and natural resource is of great concern due to the high contamination of water; watershed degradation; inadequate solid waste handling; disorganized cities with high air pollution and low quality of life; the loss of agricultural soils through erosion, salinization, and loss of fertility; the destruction of at least 10 million hectares of forests and illegal logging of fine woods; the 221 species of fauna in danger of extinction; the loss of native crops variety; and air pollution.

In the middle of all this alarming data, an individual wonders if the information learned is correct and based on science if actions or measures implemented are contributing or are demanding enough regulations to the responsible institutions. In the meantime, the individual encounters emotional as well as judgment and decision-making processes, impacting their mental health.

For the reasons mentioned, this article aims to explore how at an individual level, attitudes and perceptions influence people's behavior regarding climate change, as well as the impact that the climate crisis has generated on our mental health, and finally how psychology cooperates with other professions in the search for solutions to this great problem that afflicts the world.

Many believe that human behavior is one of the main causes of climate change. For this reason, perhaps the greatest act we can do to contribute to the fight against climate change is to understand our behavior. Understanding our beliefs, values, perceptions, thoughts, and behaviors is part of the solution to this crisis. In this topic, psychology provides explanations on how people form perceptions regarding this issue.

One of the main difficulties is the variability of perceptions and attitudes regarding climate change. We have different situations, some individuals struggle to locate the responsible for the contamination or maybe cannot determine what actions to take to mitigate the harm, there are even extreme cases in which we see individuals stating that climate change does not exist at all.

In the search for accountability, individuals question the entire context and system in which they live. This judgment can awaken a range of behaviors. As Susan Clayton (2019) mentions, the very idea that an irrevocable climate change could mean the end of our civilization is terrifying enough for people to raise emotional defenses such as denial. In this defensive response, people end up justifying the system without attributing these causes to their own bad behavior. It is easier to think that our system is good and works just fine than to think that the system we have created would be responsible for our perishing.

Thus, the information and how it is transmitted must be as clear as possible, so that people recognize their role in the problem and therefore in its solution. As a result, we could see people carrying out actions, generating habits, and influencing their peers, counteracting the damage caused.

Some research shows that people who perceive themselves as capable of positively affecting climate change and influencing others in their closest social environment have a higher probability of acknowledging climate change as a risk and, consequently, leading to corrective actions. In fact, in the study by Brody et al. (2008) self-efficacy appears as the most significant variable in the predictive model on risk perception, while other works (Savage, 1993; Bord et al., 1998; O'Connor et al., 1999; Heath and Gifford, 2006) point to it as a significant factor in the intention to act. Therefore, it is expected that self-efficacy is a prerequisite both for how climate change is perceived and for personal efforts to combat it.

The perception we have of risk has been associated with the willingness to carry out individual actions to mitigate the effects on the environment. Various studies have shown that risk perception is a good predictor of behavioral intention to confront climate change (O'Connor et al., 1999; O'Connor et al., 2002; Heath & Gifford, 2006).

O'Connor et al. (2002) demonstrate how those subjects who perceive climate change as a substantial risk situation tend to support the political initiatives that involve a transformation in the energy model as well as voluntary actions such as buying "green" products, driving less, or choosing those energy companies that are considered less polluting.

Climate change has undoubtedly impacted people's mental health. According to Hayes et al. (2018) as direct psychosocial consequences, cases of post-traumatic stress are seen after extreme climatic events. Indirectly, social disturbances (conflicts, migrations) and long-term emotional distress are observed due to the gained awareness of the potential threats to the well-being and future of the inhabitants on earth.

This emotional anguish or fear can influence, for instance, reproductive attitudes. Some individuals no longer have the desire to have children. Their main concerns could be the future well-being of their children and avoid contributing to overcrowding (Helm et al., 2021).

Climate anxiety, also being investigated, is what we understand of the psychological effects of the climate crisis. These effects are not only due to drastic events such as a fire or floods. Some effects influence us gradually and slowly. Obradovich et al. (2018) report that the increase in temperature intensifies the risk of suicide (28 °C to 30 °C) and an increase in psychiatric visits is shown.

However, not only people who have endured direct dreadful events shown to experience psychological distress, people who have not experienced events directly have been affected too. This exposure is most commonly given by the media such as television or social media. For example, when the fires occurred in Australia, many individuals, despite not having directly experienced the consequences of the climatic event, were emotionally affected. In our country, Peru, it causes us great discomfort to see oil spills in the Amazon without going very far.

Whether a climate event affects us directly or not, we must contribute as much as we can to provide solutions to this crisis, that is why it is so important that Psychology works together with other professions to provide research-based information (Clayton, 2019).

One of the best ways in which this science supports this cause is by investigating the beliefs, perceptions, and influences the individual has, to design strategies and implement accurate measures. If these variables are not investigated and controlled, changes will continue to badly affect us (Lorenzoni & Pidgeon, 2006).

The information found in these investigations and the precision in communicating the threats climate change represents will determine the level of attention and the importance that populations give to climate change. As Lorenzoni and Pidgeon (2006) mention: “Most people relate to climate change through personal experience, knowledge, the balance of benefits and costs, and trust in other social actors”.

Bibliography:

  • Clayton, S. (2019). Psicología y cambio climático. Papeles del psicólogo, 40(3), 167-173.

  • Clayton, S. (2020). Climate anxiety: Psychological responses to climate change. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 74, 102263.

  • Hayes, K., Blashki, G., Wiseman, J., Burke, S., & Reifels, L. (2018). Climate change and mental health: Risks, impacts and priority actions. International journal of mental health systems, 12(1), 1-12.

  • Helm, S., Kemper, J. A., & White, S. K. (2021). No future, no kids–no kids, no future?. Population and Environment, 1-22.

  • Lorenzoni, I., & Pidgeon, N. F. (2006). Public views on climate change: European and USA perspectives. Climatic change, 77(1), 73-95.

  • Hidalgo, M. C. & Pisano, I. (2010). Percepción de riesgo y comportamiento ante el cambio climático. Psyecology, 1(1), 39-46

  • Obradovich, N., Migliorini, R., Paulus, M. P., & Rahwan, I. (2018). Empirical evidence of mental health risks posed by climate change. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 115(43), 10953-10958