The 2008 APS Annual Conference had a strong environmental theme, reflecting the Society's concern about climate change and other environmental threats and challenges. The presentations left no doubt as to the seriousness of climate change, but also provided many ideas on how psychologists from diverse fields can contribute valuable knowledge. This article reviews the key messages from the various Conference presentations.

Keynote address: The challenge of climate change; the challenge for psychology - Professor David Uzzell, University of Surrey, UK

Professor Uzzell outlined the many ways in which psychology can make an important contribution to tackling the challenges of climate change. Amongst the psychological effects of climate change dilemmas is the sense of living on and looking over a precipice - resulting in high awareness but low action. Psychological researchers could meet the needs of policy makers and influence their responses by providing advice with respect to both mitigation and adaptation strategies and policies. Most research to date has focused on mitigation (behaviour change), but there are many other areas in which psychology can contribute.

Professor Uzzell made an important distinction between focusing on changing behaviour, and changing the conditions in which behaviour occurs. Currently we have a consumption-dominated way of life. We need to tackle cultural and societal assumptions, values and structures that embed particular forms of consumer behaviour. Production drives consumption, not vice-versa. On turning science into policy, Professor Uzzell's talk reminded us that all communications must be brief and digestible. They must be timely, realistic, and deliver a politically acceptable message. He warned that governments are not particularly interested in individual change, so messages need to address strategic community and societal change strategies and contexts.

Professor Uzzell finished his presentation by outlining the many important opportunities for intra-psychological research in diverse fields (e.g., PTSD and memory, heat stress and cognitive performance, relationship between temperature, aggression, and conflict, impact of trauma on children's development, adapting to lower levels of Maslow's hierarchy of needs, transition towns).

Public Forum: Urgency and agency: How crucial is psychology in addressing the challenges of climate change?

Panel members - Professor David Uzzell; Professor Beverley Raphael, Chair of the National Mental Health Disaster Advisory Committee; Associate Professor Joseph Reser, environmental psychologist; Dr Stuart Godfrey, climate scientist from CSIRO

More than 100 people attended the much anticipated climate change forum in the Federation Concert Hall. Again, the seriousness of climate change was reiterated by each panel member. We urgently need to focus on the important aspects of climate change, such as how are people understanding climate change emotionally? How are they addressing these perceived threats? Just asking the question ‘What can people do?' can help people's sense of agency in coping with distress. The capacity in human communities to change is enormous. If we tap into communities, we will find that they've got lots of ways forward. We need pessimism of intellect and optimism of practice - especially collective practices that lead to small, achievable goals.

Rural and Remote Interest Group Forum: Of droughts and flooding rains ... - Special guest Senator Christine Milne, Australian Greens

Senator Milne used the example of Martin Luther King's unforgettable ‘I have a dream...' speech in talking about the need to move from doomsday forecasts to how people would really like to live. We need a new dream speech, she said, that helps ordinary people to feel they can influence small and large scale change, and makes policy makers less fearful of the consequences of visionary action.

One-day workshop: Environmental Attitudes and Actions in Context - Professor David Uzzell and Dr Nora Räthzel, Umeå University, Sweden

Professor David Uzzell led a small group workshop that reviewed some innovative research methodologies and findings on environmental behaviour change. The emphasis was on methods to help people become more self-reflexive - "we mostly don't know the ‘right' thing to do, but we co-evolve systems that let us do the right thing!". Participants examined the views that they have of other parties in environmental disputes, and learnt that they often assume they know what others think, but get it wrong. We need to spend more time testing our assumptions about other people on environmental issues, and we'll probably find that we've got more in common with them than we think.

Individual paper: Critical Psychology - a possible approach to change environmental behaviour change policies? - Dr Nora Rathzel

Dr Rathzel's presentation offered three ‘rules' that seemed to sum up the wisdom of all presenters at the Conference who addressed psychology's potential contributions to the environment.

  1. If you want to change behaviour, enable people to change the conditions that sustain environmentally damaging behaviour and thereby change themselves (their behaviour) as well. 
  2. Instead of telling people how to solve the environmental crisis, psychology should devise concepts that enable people to find and realise their own solutions. 
  3. Instead of devising behaviour change strategies from above, look at already existing changing behaviours and aim to support, broaden and generalise them.