12 November 2009

Delicate Psychology of Climate Change

Excerpt from The Age, 11 November 2009

'Tackling global warming means not only changing attitudes but behaviour as well. For businesses and government, the psychology of climate change is the broken thread, the missing piece in the puzzle.

A recent American Psychological Association report found that most people don't believe the messages of chief scientists and politicians. Instead, it said we constantly compare ourselves to others and this influences our environmental behaviour.

One experiment found that people only cut their electricity usage when told their neighbours used less than they did.

In another experiment, researchers told households what electricity others in their neighbourhood used on average. To fit in, high users cut their consumption and low users increased theirs.

There was another experiment where people were given a number of messages about reducing electricity consumption. Different messages stressed energy conservation, future generations and financial savings. But the most effective were those that implored residents to join with their neighbours in saving energy.

Then there was what some call the "collective action problem". Because climate change was a global issue, many respondents said they could do nothing about it and, in any case, their actions would be too small to make a difference.

This might partly explain why attitudes have shifted. A Newspoll last year found that 61 per cent of Australians were in favour of an emissions trading scheme, but in July this year, 53 per cent either opposed it or wanted it delayed...

Part of the problem is long-term thinking. The psychology of climate change involves conceiving how the world will look in 20 years time. But many cannot see a future more than 10 years away and researchers say this capacity has faded over the last 40 years, a problem for governments and policymakers working with 20 to 30-year time horizons...

Emery said talking about 2030 or 2050 is going to mean nothing to people who see the "far distant future" as occurring in the life of their children. People cannot be expected to be motivated to take action against something which is literally "out of their minds" and on a scale of devastation that they cannot conceive...

Emissions trading and carbon solutions will be held up to scrutiny by an increasingly cynical public. Policymakers and companies need to recognise how psychological forces shape people's environmental behaviour. Unless they do, nothing will change. Billions of dollars will be spent for little result.'

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