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InPsych 2015 | Vol 37

Psychology in current issues

Psychologists raising their concerns about climate change at the 50th APS Conference

Fittingly, in the wake of the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report giving what amounts to a "final warning" of how to avoid potentially catastrophic climate change (IPCC, 2014), and in the lead up to the Paris climate meetings of world leaders in December 2015, climate change concerns were raised in a number of places throughout the recent APS Annual Conference on the Gold Coast with several notable presentations highlighted below.

Would I, could I, should I take action on climate change?

Graham Bradley, Associate Professor at the School of Applied Psychology, Griffith University, is largely concerned with why people don’t act on their environmental concerns. Bradley presented the results of a nationwide survey he and a team at Griffith University conducted of Australians’ perceptions of climate change which revealed that 86% of Australians reported being concerned about climate change. Interestingly, despite these concerns, the survey found that many Australians continue to behave in environmentally unfriendly ways (Reser et al., 2012). Bradley’s work is aimed at making sense of this disconnect between environmental concerns and behaviours, and importantly, on identifying what factors can narrow the gap.

Bradley’s particular interest is in ‘counterfactual thinking’. Especially in the face of unexpected and undesirable events or circumstances, people ask themselves counterfactual questions of three types: “Could I?”, “Should I?”, and “Would I?”. For example, in response to environmental concerns, people may wonder could I install solar panels (what can be done?), should I do it (what is the moral thing to do?), and would I be better off if I did so (which action is most advantageous?).

Bradley and colleagues have developed a model to show how ‘could’, ‘should’ and ‘would’ factors mediate the relationship between people’s concerns and pro-environmental actions (Bradley, Reser & Glendon, 2104). Results using this model have provided some useful preliminary evidence that the concern-behaviour gap is narrowed by some ‘could’ factors (self-efficacy, time, income), and by some ‘should’ factors (pro-environment norms, perceived responsibility to act, direct and indirect experience). For example, people who felt higher self-efficacy (and could afford the expense) were more likely to act on their concerns. Likewise, people who felt higher levels of normative pressure or higher perceived responsibility were more inclined to engage in pro-environmental behaviours.

So what does this tell us about narrowing the gap between environmental concerns and behaviours? In sum, while some writers argue that behavioural change is best achieved by increasing levels of concern (‘raising the alarm’), and others argue for an approach aimed at directly targeting the most impactful behaviours, Bradley’s research supports a third approach: identifying and targeting the moderators – those factors that may help close the concern-behaviour gap. Bradley contends that interventions aimed at enhancing pro-environmental behaviours can apply the framework systematically by facilitating people’s sense that: they can behave in more sustainable ways; they should do so; and their efforts would provide a net benefit to themselves and to the planet.

Interestingly, in a parallel data analysis of Australians’ climate change coping strategies, Bradley found that this very behavioural activation (i.e. adopting pro-environmental behaviours) helped to reduce climate change distress. People who engaged in psychological adaptation coping strategies (defined as a set of responses that includes becoming more attentive to the issue, accepting its reality and implications, adopting a problem-solving attitude, and shifting values to a more ‘pro-environmental’ position) were likely to report higher distress but also higher mitigation behaviours. Overall, psychological adaptation emerged as the most valuable coping strategy for helping people respond to climate change.

A reflection on the basic psychological tasks of global climate change

Also addressing climate change distress at the Conference (via video link) was US Professor Thomas Doherty, highly regarded psychotherapist, teacher, researcher, writer, wilderness therapist, past President of the APA Division on Environmental Conservation, and member of the APA Global Task Force on Climate Change.

Doherty’s special interest is in improving human functioning in the context of climate change. He asked the audience to first reflect on the basic psychological tasks of global climate change: the expressive, descriptive, and prescriptive tasks. How do we articulate our emotional and intellectual responses to this global phenomenon? How do we seek to describe its complexities in ways that can be validated by others? What should we do about it, and how do we assess the outcomes of our various projects and proposals?

Professor Doherty made several important caveats about psychology and climate change. First, it’s a topic that gives us pause, because climate change can stir a range of emotions and exposes our amateur status – it’s impossible to be an expert in all areas of the topic. Climate change also carries a social risk if we choose to be outspoken. His second caveat refers to the enormous scale of the problem. Where to begin? Which aspect of climate change to focus on? There are so many ways psychologists can approach environmental issues.

Doherty differentiates between direct, indirect and vicarious impacts of environmental threats on our mental health (Doherty & Clayton, 2011). He is particularly interested in vicarious impacts – the very weight, angst, stress, irritation, and despair caused by the observation of distant suffering associated with climate change. Whilst vicarious impacts are the most subjective and difficult to measure, they are also thought to be the most prominent for people in developed countries who are not as exposed to the acute and direct impacts of extreme weather disasters. Doherty helps people develop personal sustainability practices by thinking of themselves as an ecosystem, realising that it makes no sense to run oneself down in service of saving the world. ‘We are nature’.

The ‘here and now’ of climate change in Australia

Another member of the APA Global Task Force, Griffith University’s Professor Joseph Reser, followed Professor Doherty’s conference presentation with an overview of recent psychological research findings and their problematic uptake in media and climate science reporting.

Joe Reser’s work gravitates towards the descriptive task of climate change, trying to help other climate change scientists and policy makers better understand the contributions of the social sciences. He asks questions like ‘How do existing psychology models (e.g. stress and coping) inform adaptation to global climate change?’. He grapples with how to translate complex models of psychological processes into well thought-out conceptual and graphic images.

Reser’s presentation provided an update on the psychological contributions to a pending major report on the impacts of climate change on human health (due 2016). Psychologists are only modestly represented in this report, as in the IPCC report. Reser noted that there is limited understanding of the role psychology can play in helping to understand the causes and solutions to climate change. That is, psychology is often limited to explaining the mental health impacts of extreme weather events only, (which are often, and inappropriately, used as a proxy and synonym for global climate change). The psychological health and well-being impacts of climate change, however, are not just future threats related to direct experience of extreme weather disasters; the indirect and vicarious impacts are very much here and now, as each conference presenter illustrated.

So could I, should I, would I put climate change high on my agenda as a psychologist?

The message from these and other climate change conference presentations was clear. Climate change poses a substantial problem to the next generation, and with 86% of Australians concerned about it, and 20% reporting appreciable distress, addressing it is a moral, social, and personal imperative. Indeed, this is exactly what Professor Ann Sanson said in her APS Fellow’s Address at the Conference with the words:

‘Even alongside other serious crises, our efforts to improve the wellbeing of our clients and the population at large are at risk of being rendered largely irrelevant if we do not take urgent action on climate change’.

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

Current APS climate change projects

In an effort to address the impacts of climate change here in Australia, the APS is currently involved in a number of projects including:

  • The APS Climate Change Psychological Support Network
    This project has involved establishing a volunteer register of psychologists concerned about climate change and interested in using their psychological skills and knowledge in a variety of ways. An initial aim of the
    network is to facilitate support for people working in environmental NGOs and climate action groups (or
    members of the general public) who are dealing with significant distress from working on climate change and would benefit from talking with a volunteer psychologist. This group aims to help people employ the coping
    strategy of psychological adaptation, as highlighted in Bradley’s research.
  • ‘Is this how you feel’ project
    This project involves capturing psychologists and their colleagues feelings about climate change in the form of handwritten letters.
  • Submissions
    The APS has made three submissions in 2015 on environmental threats and climate related issues:
    • APS Submission to the House of Representatives Inquiry into the Register of Environmental Organisations
    • APS Submission to the Select Committee on Wind Turbines
    • APS Submission to the Inquiry into the Abbott Government’s Direct Action Plan
  • Tipsheets
    The APS has also recently produced two tip sheets with the Australian Conservation Foundation on Coping with Climate Change Distress and Burnout.


  • Bradley, G. L., Reser, J. P., Glendon, A. I. (2014). Distress and coping response to climate change. In K. Kaniasty, K. A. Moore, S. Howard, & P. Buchwald (Eds.), Stress and anxiety: Applications to social and environmental threats, psychological well-being, occupational challenges, and developmental psychology climate change (pp. 33-42). Berlin, Germany: Logos Verlag.
  • Doherty, T. J., & Clayton, S. (2011). The psychological impacts of global climate change. American Psychologist, 66(4), 265-276.
  • IPCC. (2014). Climate change 2014: Synthesis report. Contribution of Working Groups I, II and III to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Geneva, Switzerland: IPCC.
  • 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: 2010-2011 national survey findings. Gold Coast, Qld: National Climate Change Adaptation Research.

Disclaimer: Published in InPsych on December 2015. 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.