A regular column, produced by the National Office Public Interest team, which investigates how psychology can contribute to addressing the growing environmental crisis facing our world.

Greenwashing, spin, and climate change porn

As the Federal election approaches, the environmental noise from the political parties increases, with each party trying to impress on the public how pro-environmental they are. But what does it mean, and how do we distinguish between genuinely useful long-term solutions and political spin?

The issue of environmental ‘noise’ is not just an election phenomenon. As more businesses promote themselves as environmentally sustainable, it starts getting difficult to differentiate between organisations genuinely committed to environmental sustainability, and those that are ’greenwashing’ (making a practice or product seem more environmentally sound than it actually is).

A year ago, it was the sceptics versus the believers. Now it’s one green business or one green solution over another. Everyone wants our vote, our patronage, our attention.

And then there’s the noise from the news media. What impact does the trend towards sensational climate change stories (‘climate change porn’) have on the public’s perception of the problems and the risks? Studies of media representations express a growing concern that the social construction of the issue of climate change and its amplification of risks may result in the general public distancing themselves from the problems, and feeling as though the problems are too big for them to do anything about (Lowe, 2006). Also, the sheer volume of climate change news stories currently in the media potentially results in people becoming habituated to the topic, desensitised to the problems, tired of the issues, and turning their attention elsewhere.

So, amidst the political hyperbole, climate change porn and greenwashing you might be excused for feeling a little confused, overwhelmed, cynical, or fed up. How do we sort out the substance from the spin, and how do we stay engaged?

Switching on to switching off. Lessons from psychology

Fortunately, psychologists have many ways of helping people to stay engaged and optimistic, and to keep on participating energetically in solutions to create sustainable ways of living on the planet.

Perhaps not surprisingly, staying engaged is one of the best ways of staying engaged! You can’t just rely on the mainstream media for your understanding of world events and social issues, so it’s important to seek alternative sources of environmental information and news from reliable organisations. Then, keep the pressure on yourself to stay involved, source information from multiple perspectives, and remember to take a break from being bombarded with slogans. Learning new things is a great antidote to green burnout.

Psychologists have also done a lot of work on teaching people how to be discerning media consumers. The APS Position Paper on Media Representations and Responsibilities (APS, 2000) reports on the media’s potential to shape and frame our perceptions of the world. Frequently we view television and other media without paying close attention to recurring patterns in the material presented. The APS paper recommends that we monitor and analyse media content, recognising how it portrays a constructed rather than a ‘real’ world.

The APS Position Paper further recommends that consumers actively try to influence the media diet they are offered by making their views known to the media, complaining about stories they disapprove of (e.g., stories that generate fear in people, without providing clear steps for actions that people can take to reduce risks), and praising those that they like (e.g., stories about ordinary individuals, families and communities finding ways to conserve energy, set up their own renewable energy utilities, etc).

Further advice to the media comes from the recent APS Position Statement on Psychology and the Natural Environment (APS, 2007):

“Notwithstanding the seriousness and urgency of current environmental problems, it is very important that risk communications, media coverage, and scientific statements be carefully framed and worded with respect to what can be done and what have been very substantial achievements in fostering more sustainable behaviours and practices. It is equally important that such communications and coverage are validating and empowering with respect to how local individual and community initiatives and efforts can contribute in a major way to addressing national and global problems and threats.”

Such messages are vital in helping people to move from knowledge to action. Whilst adults rely on the media for environmental knowledge, and this is a proven way of influencing levels of environmental knowledge (Brothers, 1990), it is not generally successful in influencing environmental action (Finger, 1993). Actively doing something about environmental problems is a vital step in staying engaged, yet unless people believe they can produce desired effects by their actions (i.e., have a sense of efficacy), they have little incentive to act or persevere (Bandura, 2000).

Sharing stories of ordinary people and local communities finding creative solutions to environmental problems shows us the possibilities for effective action that are available to us all. Bring on the good news!


APS (2000). Position Paper on Media Representations and Responsibilities. Australian Psychological Society.

APS (2007). Position Statement on Psychology and the Natural Environment. Australian Psychological Society.

Bandura, A. (2000). Exercise of human agency through collective efficacy. Western Psychologist, 14(1), 17-20.

Brothers, C.C. (1990). The impact of television knowledge on public environmental knowledge concerning the Great Lakes. Unpublished master’s thesis, Ohio State University, Colombus.

Finger, M. (1993). Does environmental learning translate into more responsible behaviour? Nature Herald, 4, 9-10.

Lowe, T. (2006). Is this climate porn? How does climate change communication affect our perceptions and behaviour. Working Paper 98. Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research.

Suzuki, D., & Dressel, H. (2003). Good News for a Change. Sydney: Allen & Unwin.

APS Psychology and the Environment Interest Group 

The APS Interest Group on Psychology and the Environment has recently been re-established, with an Interim Committee responsible for the administration of the Interest Group until the AGM at the APS Conference in September this year. The group will provide a forum for discussion about the environment, encourage research into environmental issues, consult and engage in debate about the environment, and create opportunities for Interest Group and APS members to experience and engage in outstanding and unusual environments, as well as assisting the improvement of debilitated and devastated environments and those living in them.

To join the Interest Group, download a member application form from the Interest Groups home page on the APS website, by going to APS Member Groups: Interest Groups. If you would like to join the Interest Group Interim Committee, please contact the Acting Convenor, Terry Bowles (t.bowles@patrick.acu.edu.au).