Lessons from the literature: Psychology, wellbeing and the environment

A contribution by the social issues team

Finding the space between denial and despair (Al Gore, in An Inconvenient Truth) is the psychological challenge facing us as we become more aware of the magnitude of climate change threat. Inevitably, this knowledge stimulates fear. Whilst appeals to fear make intuitive sense and are frequently used, social psychological research clearly demonstrates the complications involved in using fear as a strategy for behaviour change (Oskamp, 2000). People tend to repress or deny scary information, or become overwhelmed and immobilised. Some researchers even argue that appeals to fear risk backfiring, making the problem behaviour even more resistant to change (DeJong & Winsten, 1998).

Informing people about the negative implications of their behaviour on the environment, therefore, is only the first step towards change and needs to be followed by other means of influencing their behaviour, such as modelling appropriate skills, demonstrating the benefits of alternative behaviours, or promoting participation in community-based programs. Research by Leventhal, Meyer & Nerenz (1980) showed that appeals to fear are most likely to change people's behaviour under two conditions: 1) if people are aware of clear steps they can take to protect themselves; and 2) if these steps are conveniently available.

In the coming months, the APS will incorporate this knowledge into a tip sheet designed to help people to manage the strong feelings that accompany increasing awareness of environmental crises, choose appropriate ways of behaving, and find effective ways of communicating with others about environmental problems.


DeJong, W., & Winsten, J.A. (1998). The Media and the Message: Lessons Learned from Past Public Service Campaigns. Washington, DC: The National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy.

Leventhal, H., Meyer, D., & Nerenz. (1980). The common sense representation of illness danger. Medical Psychology, 2, 7-30.

Oskamp, S. (2000). Psychological contributions to achieving an ecologically sustainable future for humanity. Journal of Social Issues, 56, 373-390.

December's tip for a sustainable future

Reduce or offset emissions from your air and car travel

In the last edition we looked at ways of reducing greenhouse emissions by purchasing green energy in homes. Travel, of course, is the other great polluter.

Transport is now the greatest growing source of CO2 emissions worldwide. Compared to cars, air travel is an even greater greenhouse polluter because of the great distances travelled (one return flight to Europe, for example, produces greenhouse emissions to the equivalent of a year's worth of standard car travel) and the particular mix of greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere during each flight (which create a warming effect 2.7 times that of carbon dioxide alone). Furthermore, no practical alternatives to kerosene-based fuels for commercial jet aircraft are likely to emerge for several decades yet. There is, in other words, no 'technofix'.

Clearly, reducing emissions for both forms of transport is the most important strategy, mainly through reducing their use. It is also possible, for unavoidable travel, to reduce your environmental impact by participating in carbon offsetting schemes, which aim to absorb, reduce or avoid an equivalent amount of greenhouse gases elsewhere. Planting trees is a typical project. The trees planted help to create a forest, and as they grow, absorb the greenhouse gases that are produced by your car or by airplanes every time you use them. There are an increasing numbers of carbon trust schemes to give people who fly and use cars a way of offsetting their pollution through reforestation, renewable energy, and energy efficiency projects.

The emphasis should always be on reducing emissions in the first place; the remaining emissions are then best offset using high quality renewable energy, local tree planting or local carbon abatement projects.

Car travel

Air travel

  • Consider holidaying in the many beautiful local holiday destinations, rather than overseas
  • Fly less, stay longer
  • Ask your workplace to try to offset emissions from your work-related travel, such as by donating to carbon offsetting schemes
  • Decide whether you really need to attend meetings in person, or whether you could use the internet or video conferencing for business meetings
  • For holiday travel, calculate your total emissions, and donate to carbon offsetting schemes, as above.