By Dr Susie Burke MAPS, Senior Researcher, Psychology in the Public Interest, National Office 

Last year, the Saving the Planet column profiled different fields of psychology and how they contribute to important work in the area of climate change and other environmental problems. Although Saving the Planet will not appear as a regular column this year, the APS will continue to focus on environmental issues through articles in InPsych, government submissions and other projects. Indeed, the work of saving the planet and psychology's contribution to this becomes ever more urgent with each passing month of rising global emissions, insufficient action from world leaders, increasing hopelessness and ever-worsening scientific predictions.

In this article, we look particularly at the many climates of change that we are encountering environmentally, psychologically, socially and emotionally, as we respond to and cope with changes in the natural environment. Whilst climate change predictions are uncertain as to the speed and extent of change in the natural environment and the scale and magnitude of their impacts on the human environment, what we do know for sure is that we will face tremendous changes in every aspect of our lives over the coming years. Anticipating this change, preparing for it, adapting to it, and leading the change, are all important tasks to which psychologists can contribute.

One challenge for people working in the climate change field comes from the variable meanings that people from different disciplines have for the same terms. It can be confusing and complicated! As Reser (2009) points out, many recent discussions of the meaning and use of terms like mitigation, adaptation, resilience and vulnerability in the general climate change literature, blithely ignore the use and meaning of these terms within psychology. The APS is currently preparing a literature review on this issue - defining, differentiating and operationalising key terms and concepts in the field of disaster response. Climate change, increasingly described as a long-term and ongoing natural disaster, uses many of the same terms.

Mitigation and adaptation - two key strategies for responding to climate change threats

Climate change mitigation is typically defined as reducing the sources and augmenting the sinks (areas that absorb carbon dioxide, such as forests and oceans) of greenhouse gases (McCarthy et al., 2001). Mitigation efforts include activities like decommissioning coal fired power stations, carbon taxes, reforestation etc. But mitigation has a psychosocial side to it as well, and also refers to any individual, community, corporate and government behaviour, practice and policy changes that we can make in an effort to stave off or prevent the disaster caused by dangerous climate change. So, it also includes voluntary efforts to change to more sustainable, low energy, low-carbon lifestyles, as well as preventive actions, in particular, public health prevention. In, short, mitigation often gets described as being about ‘avoiding the unmanageable'.

Adaptation, by contrast, could be seen as being about ‘managing the unavoidable'. As used by social and behavioural scientists in the climate change context (Reser, 2009), adaptation becomes synonymous with changes in behaviour and lifestyle, and in human technology and infrastructure, that individuals and communities need to make in order to adjust and adapt to inevitable changes coming about as a result of a changing climate.

As psychologists, we are particularly interested in psychological adaptation in the context of the psychosocial impacts of climate change threat. According to Reser (2009), these impacts are more than just demographic changes, livelihood and lifestyle impacts, global political instability or health impacts; they are also psychological and social impacts relating to multiple stressors. Therefore an important aspect of adaptation to dramatic environmental threats and changes includes intra-individual processes as well as inter-individual processes: how we deal with anxiety and stress, how we understand and make sense of climate change, our levels of concern, how we appraise risks, how we develop a sense of self-efficacy and responsibility, how we prepare ourselves for change, threats or disasters, and how we motivate ourselves to achieve safety, security and subjective wellbeing. In other words, models of problem-focused and emotion-focused coping become very relevant to successful adaptation.

Increasingly, also, the concept of resilience (both in individuals and communities) is being used in discourse about adaptation to climate change impacts. Resilience typically refers to individuals' inner strengths and coping resources, and to the social strengths of a community (e.g., pooled resources, knowledge, social supports, social capital - Bonanno, 2004).

There is indeed a climate of change in the world, and psychology has an important role to play at many levels. We will explore these changes from many angles: from changing behaviour to changing the conditions in which behaviour occurs; from preparing ourselves for, and anticipating change, for developing inner resources, for developing different values and attitudes. Many anticipated changes brought about by environmental threats are frightening and devastating, but there is also the potential for many of these changes to be transformational, and to provide opportunities for new and better ways of living together.


McCarthy, J.J., Canziani, O.F., Leary, N.A., Dokken, D.J., & White, K.S. (2001). Climate change 2001: Impacts, adaptation, and vulnerability. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Bonanno, G. A. (2004). Loss, trauma, and human resilience: have we underestimated the human capacity to thrive after extremely aversive events? American Journal of Psychology, 59, 20-28.

Reser, J. (2009). What does ‘adaptation' mean in the context of global climate change: Language and meaning challenges for the natural and social sciences. Manuscript in preparation.