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InPsych 2014 | Vol 36

December | Issue 6

Psychology in current issues

Psychologists address the challenge of climate change at APS Conference

With the theme of the 2014 APS Annual Conference being ‘Psychology meeting society’s challenges’, psychology’s contribution to addressing the pressing global challenge of climate change begged an airing. The Hobart Conference featured presentations from a number of inspiring psychologists who are applying psychological knowledge, skills and insights to meet this enormous societal challenge in Australia and around the world. A Climate Change Forum at the Conference showcasing psychology in climate action included a presentation from former Tasmanian Senator, Dr Bob Brown. Some of the highlights of these Conference presentations that coalesced around particular themes of psychology’s contribution to addressing climate change and other environmental threats are discussed below.

Decision making processes and implications for pro‑environmental choices

Professor Elke Weber from Columbia University in New York presented at the Conference via video link (saving on carbon emissions!). Professor Weber has made seminal contributions to research on decision making under risk, and to the past three decades of international work on the human dimensions of global environmental change. She founded and now co-directs the Centre for Research on Environment Decisions, which publishes the excellent guide The Psychology of Climate Change Communication (CRED, 2009). She was a co-author on the APA Task Force Report (2009) on climate change and psychology, and co-author of a chapter in the latest International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report on risk management.

Professor Weber’s presentation focussed on increasing the public and policy makers’ awareness of the full range of processes involved in making pro-environmental decisions. Decision making is not simply rational. It is frequently very emotional. Our emotional information processing system is automatic, effortless and immediately available, hence more easily accessed. The other information processing system, more rational and analytic, requires more effort. Understanding the range of cognitive, motivational and emotional processes in decision making enables us to design solutions to increase pro-environmental decisions.

Professor Weber highlighted other cognitive psychology phenomena that affect people’s capacity to make pro-environmental decisions. Our limited attention and processing capacity is one such factor. Faced with copious amounts of information, we tend to focus on the here and now and on immediate needs, rewards and costs. We prefer the familiar status quo – which means we often overlook more promising ideas. Important psychological research is underway on how to leapfrog our status quo bias and short-sightedness to enable us to make decisions based on longer term care for the planet.

Decision making is also influenced by our preferences, perceptions, goals and motivations. People have multiple goals – material goals, social goals, environmental goals, and process goals, like the need to feel in control and effective. Often these goals are in conflict, but it appears that the goals that determine actions are those that are active at decision making time. Social and environmental goals can therefore be activated to influence decisions. For example, changing the voting locale (e.g., a church hall versus a school hall) can influence how a person votes. Apparently, church locales can prime collective and long-term values. Group versus individual settings are also important. The group context is more likely to prime cooperation and longer horizons.

Professor Weber raised important research questions requiring ongoing psychological work. How do we get people to pay attention? Much campaigning relies heavily on negative messages. However, ultimately, solutions require sustained attention, and negative mood states are not conducive to that. How do we best prime people to make social and environmental goals a high priority? How can we make rational decision making more habitual and less effortful? These and many other questions are the daily inquiry of many psychologists working around the world in the field of climate change.

Impact of direct experience of climate change

Professor Joseph Reser of Griffith University, also co-author of the IPCC chapter on risk management, presented his data on how people, once they have had direct experience of environmental changes or extreme events, display stronger belief, greater concern, and greater psychological adaptation and behavioural involvement in addressing climate change. Direct encounters with the impact of climate change appear to alter how people think, feel, take responsibility and act. This is a profoundly important finding. It suggests that fostering direct, personal experiences is a way forward for increasing people’s mitigation and adaptation behaviours, clearly essential for addressing climate change.

Professor Reser’s data is part of a larger project over the past four years, which has made important contributions to challenging the misperceptions promulgated in the media (often as the result of polls asking questions which skew responses) about how many Australians ‘believe in’ climate change. His research shows that 90 per cent of Australian respondents believed human activities were playing a causal role in climate change in 2010, with similarly high percentages (87%) in 2011. This research counters many of the pessimistic media stories about people’s apathy and lack of interest.

Targeting effective messages for difference audiences

Professor Don Hine from the University of New England (UNE) presented the results of his work on engaging audiences with a range of stances on climate change. Worldwide there has been a proliferation of climate change segmentation studies identifying relatively homogenous audience segments that share similar values, attitudes and beliefs about climate change. Most such studies then make recommendations about how to develop communications and interventions to best engage each segment in moving towards pro-environmental behaviours. Surprisingly, though, very few studies have actually empirically tested which engagement strategies work best for which segments.

Professor Hine’s research team examined 60 messages (in videos, websites, or pamphlets) promoting adaptation strategies to current or expected adverse impacts of climate change. The messages were coded in a number of different ways: do they make explicit reference to climate change; offer concrete adaptation advice; appeal to emotions; emphasise collective responsibility; highlight local impacts; directly refer to scientific evidence; or highlight health, environmental or financial impacts? The effects of these messages were tested on three audiences: ‘alarmed’; ‘uncommitted’; and ‘sceptical’. No differences were found between alarmed or uncommitted respondents, suggesting that similar messaging strategies may work for both groups. Concrete adaptation advice and appeal to emotions were both the most useful messages here. Sceptical audiences, on the other hand, seem to require unique messages that emphasise local and financial impacts, and de-emphasise climate change, science and environmental impacts.

Dr Navjot Bhullar, also from UNE, presented research on messaging in the context of wood heater smoke pollution which is responsible for 85 per cent of particulate matter in regional areas during winter. Changing people’s behaviour to improve the efficiency of wood heater use reduces these emissions and the air pollution threat to health and wellbeing. Dr Bhullar’s research looks at the effectiveness of different messages, in particular threat messages, for changing people’s behaviour. The research found that threat messages worked only if people were also told what to do to reduce the threat (i.e., given an efficacy message).

These UNE projects illustrate the enormous value of psychological research in the field of climate change, especially given that hardly any of the messaging used across multiple agencies and organisations to promote climate adaptation is ever tested for its effectiveness for different audiences.

Psychology in climate action

In the Conference Climate Change Forum, former Greens Leader Bob Brown shared the stage with passionate APS psychologists who are all integrating psychology and climate change in their work and volunteer roles.

Bev Ernst, Chair of the APS Tasmanian Branch, works in private practice, but her other passion is local environmental issues. She was part of the long but ultimately successful campaign to prevent the world’s largest pulp mill being built in the beautiful Tamar Valley. As a psychologist, she was very aware of the significant mental health impact of the protest on the people involved, pitted as they were against the government, a very litigious company and local media. Local residents and protesters endured threats of violence and death, along with the ongoing background stress about the health, economic and community impacts if the mill went ahead. As a volunteer psychologist and campaigner, Bev provided psychological first aid and organised debriefings, treatment or support groups during particularly difficult periods.

APS member Dr Bronwyn Wauchope is probably best known in environmental circles for her work as a psychologist in the group Psychology for a Safe Climate (PSC). Together with Dr Susie Burke (who was also on the panel), Bronwyn was also recently trained by Al Gore as a Climate Reality leader to educate people about climate change and build local networks of climate activists. Bronwyn shared her personal journey facing the reality of climate change and trying to find her place to contribute. Bronwyn’s work with the PSC group has been to further people’s understanding about the range of psychological responses to climate change, including resistance to action, and to help people work out how to talk and communicate about climate change in ways that engage community support for responses that are commensurate with the science. (Sue Pratt, another member of Psychology for Safe Climate, talked later in the Conference about the phenomenological method used to write the PSC booklet Let’s speak about climate change. The authors argue that distancing from the issue of climate change can be a defence against feelings of vulnerability, loss of identity and challenge to core belief systems. They write about the importance of the engagement dialogue, which requires awareness, acknowledgement, understanding and acceptance of people’s emotions. Acknowledging the underpinning values and common ground can assist engagement.)

Dr Bob Brown’s key messages were about sustaining energy for the long haul, and staying optimistic. He explained that he tried pessimism for 10 years of his life and is now trying optimism and it’s working out a lot better! “Keeping an eye on good news is extremely important”, he said. “Optimism drives early wins.” Bob finished with some voting advice which resonated with the long-term decision making dilemmas outlined earlier by Professor Weber. “If you walk up the school path to vote for yourself, you’re always going to get the wrong people elected. If you walk up the school path to vote for your grandchildren, then you’ll get the best government you need.”

Dr Susie Burke FAPS, Senior Psychologist, Public interest, environment and disaster response, APS National Office


  • American Psychological Association Task Force on the Interface Between Psychology and Global Climate Change. (2009). Psychology and global climate change: Addressing a multi-faceted phenomenon and set of challenges. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/science/about/publications/climate-change.aspx
  • Centre for Research on Environmental Decisions [CRED]. (2009). The Psychology of Climate Change Communication – a guide for Scientists, Journalists, Educators, Political Aides, and the Interested Public. Retrieved from http://cred.columbia.edu/guide/
  • Reser, J. P., Bradley, G. L., Glendon, A. I., Ellul, M. C., & Callaghan, R. (2012). Public Risk Perceptions, Understandings, and Responses to Climate Change and Natural Disasters in Australia and Great Britain. Gold Coast, Australia: National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility. Retrieved from http://www.nccarf.edu.au/publications/public-risk-perceptions-final


Disclaimer: Published in InPsych on December 2014. The APS aims to ensure that information published in InPsych is current and accurate at the time of publication. Changes after publication may affect the accuracy of this information. Readers are responsible for ascertaining the currency and completeness of information they rely on, which is particularly important for government initiatives, legislation or best-practice principles which are open to amendment. The information provided in InPsych does not replace obtaining appropriate professional and/or legal advice.