Adaptation and coping

Psychologists and other social scientists have contributed to a crucial body of work on psychological adaptation.

Alongside physical and structural adjustment to environmental changes, adaptation also includes a range of coping actions that individuals and communities may take in response to environmental threats, as well as psychological processes that both precede and follow behavioural responses.

Considerable psychological adaptation to climate change takes place within individuals. It includes people’s psychological responses, changes, and adjustments to the threat and implications of climate change, as well as to the psychological consequences of unfolding physical environmental impacts of climate change. These psychological processes mediate behavioural adaptations and adjustments.

Psychological adaptation includes: how people perceive and understand the problems, how they react emotionally, how they decide what to do, and how they behave in response to the problems.

  • Reser, J.P., Swim, J.K. (2011). Adapting to and coping with the threat and impacts of climate change. American Psychologist, 66, 4, 277-289.
  • Building resilience in rural communities toolkit. This toolkit provides ideas and information that can in new or existing social programs or workshops to enhance people's resilience.
  • Reser, J.P., Bradley, G.L. & Ellul, M.C. (2012) Coping with climate change: Bringing psychology in from the cold. In B. Molinelli & V. Grimaldo (Eds) Handbook of the psychology of coping (pp 1-34). New York: Nova Science Publishers.

Barriers to behaviour change

If so many people are concerned about climate change, the environment and sustainability, why are more  not taking action? Changing behaviour is more difficult than people usually imagine.

Psychologists working on environmental issues have identified many different barriers that get in the way, ranging from structural barriers like lack of money (e.g., to purchase solar hot water) or infrastructure (e.g., access to public transport), to psychological and social barriers (e.g., perceived status in having large homes/cars; conflicting goals and aspirations).

  • Gifford, R. (2011). The dragons of inaction: Psychological barriers that limit climate change mitigation and adaptation. American Psychologist, 66, 4, 290-302.


Worldwide we know that children are among the most vulnerable people in any population to the negative impact of environmental degradation, poverty, natural disasters and violent conflict. What are the impacts of climate change on children, how are children thinking about climate change and environmental threats, and how do we instil environmental values in children?

Climate change risk perception

Psychological research on risk perception explores how people perceive, appraise and understand environmental problems and how concerned people are (or not), and how motivated they are to take action (or not).

  • APA Society’s Grand Challenges: Insights from Psychological Science - Global Climate Change – Booklet written by Etienne Benson, Available at
  • The Cultural Cognition Project at Yale Law School. Available at:
  • Fischhoff, B. (2007). Nonpersuasive communication about matters of greatest urgency: Climate change. Environmental Science & Technology, 41, 7204-7208.
  • Leiserowitz, A., Maibach, E., Roser-Renouf, C., Smith, N., & Hmielowski, J. D. (2012). Extreme weather, climate preparedness in the American mind. Yale University and George Mason University. New Haven, CT: Yale Project on Climate Change Communication. Retrieved from
  • Leiserowitz, A. (2005). American risk perceptions: Is climate change dangerous? Risk Analysis, 25, 1433–1442.
  • Leiserowitz, A. (2006). Climate change risk perception and policy preferences: The role of affect, imagery, and values. Climatic Change, 77, 1–2, 45–72.
  • Moser, S. (2014). Communicating adaptation to climate change: the art and science of public engagement when climate change comes home. WIREs Climate Change, 5, 337–358.
  • Pidgeon, N. & Fischhoff, B. (2011). The role of social and decision sciences in communicating uncertain climate risks. Nature Climate Change 1, 35–41
  • Reser, J. P., Bradley, G. L., Glendon, A. I., Ellul, M. C., & Callaghan, R. (2012). Public Risk Perceptions, Understandings, and Responses to Climate Change and Natural Disasters in Australia and Great Britain, Gold Coast, Australia: National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility.
  • Reser, J.P., Bradley, G.L., Gendon, A.I., Ellul, M.C. & Callaghan, R. (2012) Public risk perceptions, understandings, and responses to climate change and natural disasters, 2010 and 2011. Gold Coast, Qld: National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility.
  • Slovic, P. (2000). The Perception of Risk. Earthscan, London.
  • Weber, E. U. & Stern, P.C. (2011). Public understanding of climate change in the United States. American Psychologist, 66, 4, 315-328
  • Wolf, J. & Moser, S. (2011) Individual understandings, perceptions, and engagement with climate change: Insights from in-depth studies across the world. WIREs Climate Change, 2, 547-569.
  • Yale Project: The Cultural Cognition Project at Yale Law School.


How do we communicate effectively about a topic like climate change that is complex, confusing, uncertain, sometimes overwhelming, and often emotionally and politically loaded?
In order for people to become motivated and empowered to adopt the needed changes to reduce environmental threats, they must be able to interpret and respond to information. The impact of communications on behaviour varies dramatically based on how the communication is developed and delivered.


The importance of raising awareness of the scientific consensus on climate change cannot be overstated. Typically, the general public think around 50% of climate scientists agree that humans are causing global warming. The reality is that 97% of scientists agree.
The Consensus Project

  • Cook, J., Nuccitelli, D., et al., (2013). Quantifying the consensus on anthropogenic global warming in the scientific literature. Environmental Research Letters, 8.  024024 doi:10.1088/1748-9326/8/2/024024
  • Lewandowsky S, Gilles G and Vaughan S 2012 The pivotal role of perceived scientific consensus in acceptance of science Nature Climate Change, 3, 399–404
  • Oreskes, N. (2004). Beyond the ivory tower. The scientific consensus on climate change. Science, 306,1686.
  • Oreskes, N. (2007).  The scientific consensus on climate change: how do we know we’re not wrong? Climate Change: What It Means for Us, Our Children, and Our Grandchildren. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  • Doran, P. & Zimmerman, M. (2009). Examining the scientific consensus on climate change. EOS Trans. Am. Geophys. Union, 90, 22–3.


Whilst the vast majority of people claim to be concerned about the climate, it is also the case that large numbers of people also avoid, minimise, switch off, or distance themselves from effectively engaging with the problems. A small but noisy minority actively deny that there even is a problem. How do we understand this, and how do we solve the “It’s Not My Problem” problem?

  • Lewandowsky, S., Oberauer, K. & Gignac, G. E. (2013). NASA faked the moon landing therefore (climate) science is a hoax: An anatomy of the motivated rejection of science. Psychological Science, 24, 5, 622-633
  • Lewandowsky, S., Gignac, G.E., Oberauer, K. (2013). The Role of Conspiracist Ideation and Worldviews in Predicting Rejection of Science. PLoS ONE, 8, 10.  e75637. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0075637
  • Marshall, G., (2012). How to talk to a climate change denier (dissenter). Created by George Marshall, founder of a climate change charity the Climate Outreach Information Network. This blog explores the topic of the psychology of climate change denial. 20 video at: Blog
  • Washington, H., & Cook, J. (2011).  Climate Change Denial: Heads in the Sand. Earthscan, UK

Environmental dispute resolution

As they have done in peace psychology and alternative dispute resolution at local and international levels, psychologists can make crucial contributions to organising fair and sustainable rules for sharing global resources, advocating for just and equitable solutions, and adding to the development of conditions and mechanisms for achieving national and international consensus, adherence and successful outcomes for climate change mitigation and adaptation strategies.

  • Clayton, S. & Opotow, S. (2003). Identity and the natural environment. Cambridge MA, MIT Press.
  • Winter, D. & Cava, M.M. (2006). The Psycho-Ecology of Armed Conflict. Journal of Social Issues, 62, 1, 19-40.

Health and mental health impacts of climate change

Climate change is recognised as the greatest health threat of the 21st century and has significant impacts on physical and mental health and psychosocial wellbeing.
There are likely to be some (modest) positive health consequences from climate change (for example, reduced extreme cold weather events in some locations); however, climate change is already and will predominantly have mostly negative, and in some circumstances devastating, impacts on human health, particularly on those with low adaptive capacity.

Climate change also has significant psychosocial and mental health impacts on individuals and communities. Rising sea levels, droughts and extreme weather events cause loss of habitat, water and food shortages, and threats to home and livelihood. The psychosocial and mental health impacts of these changes include displacement, dislocation from community, financial and relationship stress, multiple losses, increased risks of depression, anxiety-related disorders, grief and substance use disorders, and can lead to increased risks of national insecurity, violent conflict and increased mass migration. Indirect mental health consequences come in response to perceptions/fears of unprecedented scale of risks and observation of world-wide effects.

Overpopulation and overconsumption

Overpopulation and overconsumption have long been recognised as the twin drivers of many environmental problems. The simple fact is that growth in population and consumption cannot continue unabated on a finite planet. Unchecked population growth means depletion of water and other resources, and increases in land degradation, famine, migration, conflict over scarce resources, violence and war. The worst population problems, however, are arguably in developed countries because of our extraordinarily high per capita resource consumption. How do we slow, regulate or even halt growth?

Psychology’s essential role in addressing climate change and environmental threats

Several key articles by eminent psychologists have been published in recent years stressing psychology’s essential role in addressing climate change and environmental threats.

  • American Psychological Association Task Force on the Interface Between Psychology and Global Climate Change. (2009). Psychology and global climate change: Addressing a multi-faceted phenomenon and set of challenges.
  • Gardner, G. T., & Stern, P. C. (2002). Environmental problems and human behavior (2nd ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson Custom.
  • Gifford, R. (2008). Psychology’s essential role in alleviating the impacts of climate change. Canadian Psychology, 49, 273–280. Abstract available at:
  • Kazdin, A. E. (2009). Psychological Science’s Contributions to a Sustainable Environment. American Psychologist, 64, 5, 339-356. Abstract available at:
  • Oskamp, S. (2000). A sustainable future for humanity? How can psychology help? American Psychologist, 55, 496–508.
  • Schmuck, P., & Schultz, W. P. (Eds.). (2002). Psychology of sustainable development. Norwell, MA: Kluwer.
  • Schmuck, P., & Vlek, C. (2003). Psychologists can do much to support sustainable development. European Psychologist, 8, 66–76.Stern, P.C. (2011). Contributions of psychology to limiting climate change. American Psychologist, 66, 4, 303-314. Article available at:
  • Stern, P. C. (2000a). Psychology and the science of human–environment interaction. American Psychologist, 55, 523–530.
  • Stern, P. C. (2000b). Toward a coherent theory of environmentally significant behavior. Journal of Social Issues, 56, 407–424.
  • Stern, P. C. (1992). Psychological dimensions of global environmental change. Annual Review of Psychology, 43, 269–302.
  • Stokols, D., Misra, S., Runnerstrom, M. G., & Hipp, A. (2009). Psychology in an age of ecological crisis. American Psychologist, 64, 181–193.
  • Stokols, D. Environmental Psychology - PPD151 / PSYBEH171S / PUBHLTH151.  Series of free itunes podcasts about environmental psychology.  
  • Swim, J.K., Stern, P. C., Doherty, T.J., Clayton, S., Reser, J.P., Weber, E.U., Gifford, R., Howard, G.S. (2011). Psychology's contributions to understanding and addressing global climate change. American Psychologist, 66, 4, 241-250. Abstract available at:
  • Swim, J.K., Clayton, S., Howard, G.S. (2011). Human behavioral contributions to climate change: Psychological and contextual drivers. American Psychologist, 66, 4, 251-264. Abstract available at:
  • Spence, A., Pidgeon, N., & Uzzell, D. (2009). Climate change: psychology’s contribution. The Psychologist, 22, 108-111.
  • Stern, P. C. (2000). Psychology and the science of human-environment interactions. American Psychologist, 55, 523-530.
  • Uzzell, D.L. (2000) The psycho-spatial dimension to global environmental problems. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 20, 307-318.
  • Vlek, C. (2000). Essential psychology for environmental policy making. International Journal of Psychology, 35, 153-167.

Promoting sustainable behaviour, motivating behaviour change

Research on behaviour modification teaches us much about how to motivate people and groups to behave in particular ways. The use of incentives, feedback, rewards, knowledge about stages of change, norms and modelling have all been researched in the context of promoting sustainable behaviours.

Social norms, modelling

Knowledge about effective communication comes from psychological research on diverse topics including social norms, conservation psychology, persuasion and (social) marketing.

  • Cialdini, R. B. (2003). Crafting normative messages to protect the environment. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 12, 105–109.
  • Goldstein, N. J., Cialdini, R. B., & Griskevicius, V. (2008). A room with a viewpoint: Using social norms to motivate environmental conservation in hotels. Journal of Consumer Research, 35, 472–482.