Climate change is the biggest health threat of the 21st Century.
Below are eight strategies from psychological science to help people come to terms and cope with the profound implications of climate change, so that they can stay engaged with the problem, see where their own behaviour plays a part, and participate in speedy societal change to restore a safe climate.
The strategies are drawn from extensive research across a range of areas that psychologists work in, and are written up in the Climate Change Empowerment Handbook. This handbook is for the majority of Australians who are concerned about climate change and accept that it is a serious problem if nothing is done about it.
These eight strategies make the acronym A.C.T.I.V.A.T.E. and we hope they will ACTIVATE the public into more effectively engaging with the challenge of climate change!
Acknowledge feelings about climate change to yourself and others and learn ways of managing feelings so you can face and not avoid the reality of climate change.
It is common for people to have very strong feelings about climate change1. The reality is actually very frightening. It is not just the phenomenon and threat per se, but the implications of climate change for individuals, human society, all other species, and the planet that make this such a frightening, confronting and existential threat and concern. People can feel anxious, distressed, helpless, pessimistic, guilty, angry, stressed, and more.
How people respond to these feelings is very important. People can react in many unhelpful ways e.g., by trying to minimise the threat, distract themselves and blame others, or by becoming helpless and resigned to disaster. A more useful response is to anticipate, identify and manage these feelings so we can properly accept the reality of climate change and not avoid it. This emotional self-regulation is an important part of climate adaptation and coping2,3.
Acknowledge feelings about climate change to yourself and others
- Anticipate that you are likely to have strong feelings when you are thinking about or learning about climate change threats and impacts.
- Identify the actual feelings you have: name them, acknowledge them, talk about them4.
- Give others the space to be able to express their feelings about climate change too.
Manage your feelings about climate change
- Use expressive coping – e.g. cry if you need to.
- Seek social support – e.g. talk with others about how you feel.
- Use different ways of thinking about the problems to change how you feel (cognitive reappraisal). e.g. ‘We are all in this together. What matters most is the work we do now to transition to a low carbon world. We need to focus on that rather than beating ourselves up about what has happened or blaming others. There’s a lot we can do, starting today’.
- Adopt a problem-solving attitude: break a big task into smaller, manageable parts, and get started on one step at a time. e.g. if you want your school to switch to green power, working out who to talk to at the school and local council might be a first step.
- Maintain healthy routines and include things which also give you a break from being too focussed on the problem.
C-reate social norms
Social norms are group beliefs about how people should behave in a given situation. People are very sensitive to cues about what is normal behaviour, and like to follow suit. Generally, people want to be like everyone else.
Model the pro-environmental behaviours that you would like other people to take up
What we see people doing matters. Our brains are highly tuned to noticing others’ behaviours and copying them. This happens automatically and often unconsciously.
- Make your pro-environmental behaviour very visible so others can notice it.
- Leave behind as many ‘behavioural traces’ as you can. These are physical signs of your behaviour, like your bike helmet hanging from your bag showing you commute by bike, or your reusable coffee cup sitting on your desk.
- Explain the reason for your actions, thereby giving people another reason to copy you. People often like to know why other people do things that seem unusual to them.
Promote norms that ‘everybody’s doing it’ and ‘it’s normal to be green’
- Provide explicit statements about the green actions that people are doing. E.g., 93% of people who work here use public transport, walking or cycling to get to work.
- Show how ‘people like you and me’ are engaging with climate change.
- Show how well-known and respected leaders (political, spiritual, and popular) are also engaging with climate change. Popular ‘leaders’ are good at setting social norms.
T-alk about it
Surveys show that many people don’t talk about climate change with anyone at all. But a collective silence is dangerous. A problem as large and urgent as climate change needs to be talked about and acted on.
Break the collective silence about climate change
- Find relaxed, casual ways of dropping climate change into conversations with others. People look to others for a cue as to the urgency of the situation.
- Make links between climate and weird weather, refugees, or other issues they care about.
- Once talking, try to explore commonalities, differences, ideas & information about a common concern .
- Share your own personal journey of how you have come to your views on climate change.
- Also, talk about climate with leaders and decision makers. Politicians make policies based on what they think voters want and will support, so let them know you want serious climate change policies. Use petitions, email campaigns, phoning, writing letters, visits, rallies.
- Raise the need for pro-environmental change within your workplaces, schools, community groups. Start green teams; get your work place to develop an environmental policy.
- Use your expertise in your own area to lobby leaders for urgent action to protect people from the threat of climate change.
Challenge climate change denial when you hear it
‘Lead with the consensus’, by communicating the fact that 97% of climate scientists agree that humans are causing global warming .
Take care not to repeat myths about climate change when you are debunking them. This can often reinforce them! Instead, start with the facts, then introduce a related myth (preceded by an explicit warning that it is a myth), explain the technique the myth uses to distort the facts . When they see the technique used to create the myth, people are exposed to a “weakened form” of the misinformation.
I-nspire positive visions
Inspire positive visions of a low-energy, sustainable, zero carbon world so that people know what we are working towards and can identify steps to get there.
In order to transform our society into a low-energy, sustainable, zero carbon one, we need to have a vision of what that world would look like, and also that it is plausible. Then we know what we are working towards, and this makes it easier to identify the steps to get there.
Describe the plausibility and positives of a zero carbon world
- Let people know that we already have concrete, plausible solutions which can drastically reduce carbon emissions and counter feelings of helplessness10.
- Show how solutions to climate change have co-benefits. People listen better to optimistic messages. Doom messages can backfire because people switch off. Co-benefits are:
- A healthier environment.
- A more just, equitable and healthy world.
- Healthier bodies from active transport and eating less meat, dairy and processed food.
- More jobs, and increased prosperity from a growing renewable energy industry.
- Feeling a sense of a satisfaction and wellbeing from helping create a safe climate.
- Describe clear, plausible and meaningful actions that people can take in response to climate risks. The more people believe that their actions can and do make a genuine difference, the easier it is for them to do these things11.
- Use vivid, emotive and personal stories, particularly those that elicit positive emotions – these are more memorable and also a stronger motivator for action.
Value it – show people how their core values are often linked to other values that are about restoring a safe climate, and that caring about these issues actually reinforces their core values.
The values we hold affect our behaviours, choices and feelings, and are the bedrock on which attitudes are built. Values are learned, and can be shaped and cultivated.
Build bridges between your audience’s values and values that are about restoring a safe climate
- Once you’ve identified your audience’s values, look for the overlap with values such as ‘protecting the environment’, ‘helping others’ and ‘caring about their kids’.
- Build a bridge between their values and those of a more sustainable society.
- Show them how their core values are linked to other values that are about restoring a safe climate, and that caring about these issues actually reinforces their core values.
Build people’s identity as carers for the environment
- Show people how action on climate makes them even more who they are - that it actually reinforces their identity as a conservative, or as a member of a religious group, a loving parent, a health professional, etc.
- Show people that ‘people like them’ are concerned about climate and are taking action.
- Help people to feel they belong to a group of similar others caring about the climate. People need to feel proud to belong to their group, and to feel they are contributing to a worthwhile goal.
Promote intrinsic values
When people are too focused on extrinsic values (e.g., rewards, financial success), they are also more likely to show lower empathy, higher preference for social inequality, less concern for the environment. Intrinsic values (equality, social justice, caring for the planet), however, are a better motivator for acting on bigger-than-self problems, like climate change12.
- Promote intrinsic values by showing that they are highly desirable, underpin human rights, and are often the social norm. e.g. “Most Australians believe action on climate change is needed. You can see this in the huge numbers of homes with solar panels on their roofs”.
- Attend to but move beyond 'what's in it for me?' to 'what's best for humanity?'
A-ct personally and collectively
Act personally and collectively to contribute to climate change solutions and feel engaged and less despairing.
Doing something that is good for the environment often goes hand in hand with actions that are psychologically significant. Such actions both contribute to the solutions to climate change and help us to feel engaged, part of the solution not just the problem. They also allay some of our distress about climate change13. Action is the best antidote to despair and helplessness. It is also the case that Governments will not act on climate change unless we create the political will, and that requires action by all of us beyond the context of our personal lives.
Make action on climate change an informed choice
There is enough evidence to tell us that climate change is here, now and for sure, and also an enormous amount of information about what we need to do, and how. We therefore now have an informed collective choice to make between a desirable and a catastrophic future. This means that inaction is itself a choice - but in favour of severe climate change. When put this way, it becomes hard to justify inaciton!
Engage in personal and group actions
- Reduce your own carbon footprint with actions like purchasing green power, commuting by bike or public transport, reducing consumption of beef and lamb.
- Prioritise actions with high carbon reduction potential. Be careful not to overlook actions with the greatest conservation potential (like improving inadequate insulation) just because other options (like switching off lights) are more visible.
- Be wary of tokenism – behaviours that aim to reduce your environmental impacts but don’t really make much difference in the bigger picture, and just lead you to think you have done your bit, and are ‘off the hook’ for any further action.
- Be wary of the rebound effect – e.g. don’t erase the gains of reducing emissions in one area (e.g. by using less energy in the home) by spending the savings on an even higher carbon emitting product or activity (e.g. like an overseas holiday).
- Support and join climate action groups, express your support of renewable energy to politicians, protest against the environmentally destructive behaviours of fossil fuel companies.
- Weave climate change into the activities of existing social groups and networks, such as sporting clubs. We are more likely to engage with an issue when our valued group also cares about it.
Consider collective action where citizens gather together to use the democratic process to ensure that our councils, state and federal government are treating the issue with the right seriousness. Consider local events like community tree plantings, where groups of people can re-vegetate much larger areas than they could do on their own.
T-ime is now - show that it's here, now & for sure
To counter the sense that climate change is only a distant threat, we need to show people that climate change is relevant to them, and that it threatens their health, families, communities, jobs or other things they deeply care about. People are more likely to heed risks they see as relevant, personal and salient. Indeed, research findings are reporting increasing levels of people reporting events in their communities that they regard as evidence of climate change.
Show that climate change is personal and affects you and I
- Ask ‘What do you love that is threatened by climate change?’
- Show that climate change is happening now, not just in the future.
- Show that climate change is happening in your local area, not just elsewhere.
- Make climate change conversations about impacts of climate change for specific localities and communities that are already happening, like changed weather patterns, increased risk of drought, bushfires.
- Notice the changes that are happening where you live that are a sign that climate change is having an impact in your area.
- Ask others in your community about changes they may have noticed.
- Pair conversations about the local and personal impacts of climate change with solutions to climate change. Showing people what they can do to reduce the threat of climate change is a way of preventing the emotional overwhelm that leads to numbing and avoidance.
E-ngage with nature
As well as being a strategy for increasing environmental concern and engaging people in pro-environmental lifestyle changes and responses, helping people to connect with nature also has psychological benefits. It can help to reduce stress and improve attention; it can provide a sense of identity and ‘belonging’; and help people make sense of their world.
- Seek out a wide range of nature experiences. This could be as simple as growing plants on the windowsill, walking in local parks, or interacting with animals, or something more substantial like bush-walking, holidaying in the country or wilderness.
- Have nature experiences with others. Being part of a social group who are busy together with a shared interest, like tree planting, or taking part in Landcare groups, or bird watching, can be very empowering and can foster environmental activism.
- Be open to having both positive and negative experience of nature. Negative experiences (like being frightened or uncomfortable) help to show us nature in a way that is not idealised and disconnected from lives, but as something of which humans are a part.
- Value what remains. With one fourth of the Earth's species heading for extinction by 2050, the importance of valuing what remains is more important than ever. Build a personal and intimate connection with the very nature you are trying to protect.
Access the climate change empowerment handbook
- Clayton, S., Manning, C. M., Krygsman, K., & Speiser, M. (2017). Mental Health and Our Changing Climate: Impacts, Implications, and Guidance. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association, and ecoAmerica.
- Bradley, G. L., Reser, J. P., & Glendon, A. I. (2014). Distress and coping in response to climate change. In K. K. Buchwald Kathleen A.Moore, Siobhan Howard, Petra (Eds.) Stress and Anxiety: Applications to Social and Environmental Threats, Psychological Well-Being, Occupational Challenges, and Developmental Psychology (pp. 33–42). Germany: Logos Verlag Berlin GmbH.
- APS and collaborators. Coping with climate change distress.
- ‘Is this how you feel?’
- Cialdini, R. B., Reno, R. R., & Kallgren, C. A. (1990). A focus theory of normative conduct: recycling the concept of norms to reduce littering in public places. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 58(6), 1015.
- Norgaard, K. (2013). The Social organization of climate denial: Emotions, culture and political economy. In J. S. Dryzek, R. B. Norgaard, & D. Schlosberg (Eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Climate Change and Society. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
- Facing the heat – stories of climate change conversations’; ‘Climate for Change’
- The Consensus Project - http://theconsensusproject.com/
- Facts, myths and fallacies - http://www.skepticalscience.com/docs/Fact_Myth_Fallacy.pdf
- Centre for Research on Environmental Decisions. (2014). Connecting on Climate: A Guide to Effective Climate Change Communication. Earth Institute, Columbia University. Retrieved from http://ecoamerica.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/ecoAmerica-CRED-2014-Connecting-on-Climate.pdf
- Futerra (2005). New rules, new game. Retrieved from https://climateaccess.org/system/files/Futerra_NewRules_NewGame.pdf
- Stern, P. C., Dietz, T., Abel, T., Guagnano, G. A., & Kalof, L. (1999). A value-belief-norm theory of support for social movements: The case of environmentalism. Human Ecology Review, 6, 81–98
- Reser, J. P., Bradley, G. L., & Ellul, M. C. (2012). Coping with climate change: Bringing psychological adaptation in from the cold. In Molinelli, B. & Grimaldo, V. (Eds.), Handbook of the psychology of coping: Psychology of emotions, motivations and actions. (pp. 1–34). New York, NY: Nova Science Publishers.
- CRED (2014). http://www.cred.be/
- Hartig, T., Kaiser, F. G., & Strumse. (2007). Psychological restoration in nature as a source of motivation for ecological behaviour. Environmental Conservation, 34(4), 291–299.
Talking with children about the environment
Teaching children about nature is inextricably tied up with learning about climate change and other environmental problems and is vital for the future of children and all life.
Coping with climate change distress
The reality of climate change is actually very frightening. Coping with the feelings we have about it is very important so that we don't burnout, we keep functioning well, and we stay engaged.
Climate change and dealing with burnout
Information sheet for people working on environmental and climate change problems that can make them particularly vulnerable to burnout. Notice the warning signs so you can increase resilience.
Climate change - What you can do
Strategies to help people deal with distressing feelings when learning about environmental problems, to help them get started with taking action, and strategies for how to encuourage others.