Like most Australians I am concerned about global warming and climate change. I have seen great strides made by other sciences, and it led me to wonder what psychology could contribute to the climate change debate. The rhetoric certainly suggests a role for psychology with the constant message that individual behaviour change does make a difference (a point often made by Al Gore). This article looks at the contribution of physical science and economics to climate change, and then articulates a role for psychology with the aim of inspiring or annoying enough psychologists to get involved in this pressing social issue.
Contribution of physical science
The scientific method has contributed a lot to the debate on global warming. Environmental scientists have been sounding the clarion call of climate change and global warming for some time. Despite the cause still being debated, there is an increasing convergence of scientific evidence that indicates human activity is contributing to the planet warming up; the direction is established and it is now a question of magnitude. Environmental science has also given us a clear picture of the dangers of doing nothing to arrest the average increases in temperature caused by human activity. Environmental science has done much to identify the problem and the stakes involved - reduce greenhouse pollution or risk catastrophic climate change that could drive humanity to the edge of extinction. Where environmental science has done its job by articulating the problem and stating an end goal (reduce greenhouse pollution), it is up to other sciences to come up with solutions that achieve the goal.
Physical science in general has responded to this particular problem with great innovation and imagination. Physics has identified a range of methods that hold some promise of harnessing the biggest local energy source - the Sun. This work is extended to ideas on biomass, geothermal energy, nuclear power, carbon sequestration and a range of other ideas. Chemistry has been hard at work exploring different ways of extracting energy using the known properties of readily available substances, such as hydrogen fuel cells. The practically minded engineers have been industriously creating technologies that curb the abuse of the environment; facile examples being energy efficient light globes and water efficient shower heads. Physical science has done a grand job finding the tools and methods that can be substituted to avert the potential catastrophe predicted by environmental scientists. The Australian Government has given robust support to the physical sciences, with large amounts of money being invested into technological solutions to global warming. However, it is one thing to have the tool and another to use it.
Economic responses to climate change
The contribution of social science to modifying climate change behaviour and getting people to use the tools developed by physical science has been most obvious in relation to the Stern Report on the economic consequences of global warming. This Report paints a rather bleak picture. The neo-classical economist (some might say neo-liberal) response to this problem is the creation of a market that puts some value on the environment, such as carbon trading schemes. The principle is that when economic agents are required to pay the cost of their environmental impacts they will (rationally) seek goods and services that have lesser environmental impact as they will be cheaper. These schemes are aimed at making changes at the macro level, and they are promising as a starting point for reducing greenhouse gas emissions relatively quickly. If analysed using variance partitioning techniques, carbon trading could be described as having a large effect size in relation to climate change behaviour.
Like the need for diversified investment portfolios and energy grids (e.g., making use of thermal, hydro, solar and wind), the neo-classical economics solution is unlikely to be the magic bullet from social science. Carbon trading schemes are vulnerable to the usual criticisms of economics. The first is that actors are rational. Other social sciences have demonstrated that this assumption works only some of the time. Many people (at least in Australia) now accept that global warming is a problem but the evidence of consequently rational changes in behaviour is scant (the gap between attitude/intention and behaviour). For example, major capital cities with water restrictions have largely failed to meet their water use targets; the ACT regularly exceeded the daily target by up to 60 mega-litres (almost 50 per cent above the 139 mega-litre target) through the long, hot summer of 2006-2007. The second is that the free market provides the most efficient and/or optimal outcome. There is significant evidence where it is agreed the market failed to yield the optimal outcome (e.g. VHS versus Beta and PC versus Macintosh). This consensus provides at least reasonable doubt as to whether the market is always the most efficient mechanism. These criticisms suggest that there is room for other social sciences to contribute to modifying climate change behaviour.
Role of psychology in climate change
Where carbon trading schemes seek to change behaviour at the macro level, psychology is eminently placed to respond to climate change at the level of individual behaviour change. The approach taken by most people is the rational fear appeal, similar to the appeals made to prevent adolescents from engaging in risky health behaviours (like smoking). Philosophically, rational fear appeals commit the sin of teleology by assuming that rational actors move to fulfil the optimal solution once it has been revealed to them. Empirically, there is evidence that fear appeals make no difference to at least adolescent smoking behaviour. At a personal level, I have always had doubts about the negative strategy of trying to scare people into a behaviour, as once the fear is gone they have no incentive to continue that behaviour. However, there is no evidence one way or the other to suggest whether rational fear appeals might work in the climate change context. This is an avenue for potential future research.
At the individual behavioural level, psychology could contribute to developing incentive schemes to modify climate change behaviour. It may be useful to examine whether feedback such as proportion of water or tonnes of carbon used or saved relative to the population influences behaviour. The beauty of this sort of idea is that it is low cost - redesigning the format of a billing notice.
The levers for attitude change and translating that attitude change to behaviour may prove effective tools in getting individuals to start using the climate friendly technologies developed by physical science. Marketing research to stimulate sales for the Toyota Prius (a mass-produced hybrid electricity/petrol powered engine) avoids global warming altogether by concentrating on pollution ('if the air were cleaner, would we live longer?'). Using popular psychology, this appeals to Maslow's 'safety' need by arguing against 'soiling one's nest' and reducing health threats by improving the quality of 'the air we breathe'. The outcome of reduced greenhouse gas emissions are achieved without ever having to resort to a rational fear appeal. Individuals are made to feel good about making the place they live less polluted.
What psychology can do
There is lots of scope to do things. For example, the Australian Conservation Foundation regularly telephones people to canvass for donations or gauge the response to their campaigns. A well designed computer-assisted telephone interview could lead to the collection of sensible data that could inform climate change initiatives. The Australian Greenhouse Office has data on hand that might benefit from secondary analysis by someone trained in psychological research techniques. Finally, it may be prudent to find innovative ways of funding this research beyond the ARC, perhaps by lobbying relevant bodies to fund research. We need to lobby the Australian Government to divert at least some of its climate change research budget towards psychological research. Insurance companies are significantly concerned by climate change and may be willing to contribute to psychological research on climate change. There may also be money available from fossil fuel companies (such as coal and oil producers and consumers) in the same way that tobacco companies contributed to research designed to prevent adolescents from taking up smoking.
Psychology has the capacity to make significant contributions to this pressing social problem, tackling the issue from any of the clinical, cognitive, developmental, health or organisational perspectives (or any other sub-discipline for that matter). We have the opportunity to develop new sub-disciplines of 'climate change behaviour' or the 'psychology of global warming'. It is time for psychology to take up the challenge of helping physical science and economics address climate change.
I hope that this article stimulates someone to engage in some sort of work. If anyone is interested in collaborating in such research, please contact me. If I have been irritating, then please dissent by conducting independent research. The goal is to get a vibrant debate on climate change happening in psychology to the same extent it currently exists in the physical sciences and popular media.
The author can be contacted on 02 6268 8071 or firstname.lastname@example.org.