Psychology can be an incredibly important tool not just for making scientific inquiries into the relationship between human behavior and climate change, but it can also help inform us as to the strategies and methodologies that might be used to change people’s behavior to be more sensitive to the changing climate.
Let’s explore a few other ways in which psychology and climate change are related.
Climate Change Has Real Psychological Impacts on People
Natural disasters and their impact on people’s mental health have been studied for decades. And since climate change and natural disasters go hand-in-hand, we already have a deep understanding of how events like floods, wildfires, and hurricanes can negatively impact how people feel.
Most notably, natural disasters have been shown to lead to an increase in anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder.
As natural disasters increase in frequency and intensity, it stands to reason that the incidence of these and other mental health issues will also increase in frequency
What’s more, feelings of grief or hopeless, though not diagnosable mental disorders, are certainly apparent after a natural disaster. Whether one loses their home, a pet, a family member, or a combination thereof, there is certainly going to be a period of grief that’s experienced. Even if that grief doesn’t lead to a depressive episode or the development of PTSD, it’s still a significant stressor in people’s lives as they cope with the damage done by climate change.
It’s important to note that the impacts of climate change are not felt equally across all social classes and communities.
By and large, climate change is being experienced most saliently by people in low socioeconomic classes, and unfortunately, marginalized communities like these often go unnoticed, or at the very least, overlooked, in many aspects of their lives.
This means that climate change is also a social justice issue, a topic of change that social and environmental psychologists alike have been pushing in recent years.
Climate Change Doesn’t Have to Directly Impact Someone for It to Have Lasting Psychological Impacts
A common misconception is that the only people suffering from the mental health effects of climate change are the ones on the “front lines” where climate change is experienced first-hand. This is simply not the case.
With climate change and natural disasters frequently in the news, it becomes something that we experience collectively, at least on some level.
For example, recent global events like the fires in the Amazon, typhoons and hurricanes, massive heat waves, and droughts have been in the news. These events are of such a large magnitude that they can cause stress to people that live thousands of miles away.
Stress can also build as one thinks about the future, both short-term and long-term. Wondering what kind of world one’s children or grandchildren will be living in can also elevate one’s anxiety about climate change.
According to an interview with the American Psychological Association, Susan Clayton, Ph.D., notes that in a recent APA Stress in America survey, around 50 percent of respondents said that climate change was a significant source of stress in their lives.
As Dr. Clayton points out, though we all have a lot of stressors in our lives, for some people, the stress of climate change could be the one thing that pushes them to a point at which they can no longer cope with their stress in a healthy manner. After that, anxiety, PTSD, depression, and so forth could be the result.
How One Feels About Climate Change Influences One’s Attitudes About Climate Change
Since 2013, there has been a dramatic shift in the number of American adults that believe that climate change is real and who are worried about the potential effects it will have on our way of life.
The results of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication show that 73 percent of those interviewed believe climate change is happening, with 62 percent believing that it is human-caused. Those numbers represent an increase of 11 percent and 15 percent, respectively, since the last report in 2013.
A more interesting change was on an emotional level: 72 percent of respondents said that climate change is personally important to them while 69 percent reported that they are worried about climate change. These numbers reflect 17 percent and 16 percent increases, respectively, since 2013.
In other words, the psychological changes related to climate change – it being a personally important issue and having experienced the effects of climate change directly – are driving the cognitive changes of recognizing climate change is real and caused by human activity.
But this phenomenon is nothing new to psychologists…
Learning and changes in one’s perspective are nearly always driven by personal experience. It stands to reason, then, that as more people experience the devastating effects of climate change that their thoughts, emotions, and opinions on the subject begin to change.
Psychology Can Explain Climate Change Denial, Too
At present, one of the most significant battles in the climate change war is simply fighting the prevalence of climate change denial.
But denying climate change isn’t just about ignorance, as some would argue, or the result of expensive public relations campaigns financed by fossil fuel industries, as others would argue.
Instead, denying that climate change is real has a very important psychological benefit – putting up psychological barriers of denial means one doesn’t have to deal with the stressors incited by the topic. In other words, if you can simply deny climate change is happening, you don’t have to worry about it.
What’s more, it’s much easier from a psychological standpoint to deny that the problem exists than to accept that the climate is changing and do something about it. At least if you’re in denial, you have nothing to fear or be anxious about.
This strategy is not one that is at all psychologically healthy or helpful to the climate change fight. Nevertheless, denial is a powerful tool for protecting oneself from psychological stress and trauma.
Psychology Provides a Road Map for Overcoming Other Significant Climate Change Barriers
Aside from the psychological impacts of climate change that have already been discussed – fear, anxiety, depression, PTSD, and so forth – there is another psychological barrier to overcoming climate change that psychology can help address – hopelessness.
There is a significant feeling of hopelessness that one can feel when thinking about climate change – that’s it’s too big of a problem for one to tackle individually (or collectively, for that matter).
To counteract feelings of helplessness, psychologists can promote proactive measures that help people get involved. This includes promoting patience and understanding, empathizing with people that have other views on climate change, and reframing the big issue of climate change into smaller “chunks,” each of which has a clearly identified problem and a set of associated solutions.
By breaking the issue down into smaller issues with achievable outcomes, suddenly the problem doesn’t seem so insurmountable and feelings of hopelessness tend to subside. After all, psychological research is all about empirical analyses, so developing solutions based on psychological research only makes sense.
So, psychology not only has a place in the climate change fight, it has a significant place in that fight.
From helping design strategies for battling climate change to examining the human behaviors that contribute to global warming to elucidating the best treatments for climate change-related disorders, there is much that psychologists can do in mitigating the negative impacts on people that result from our changing climate.
B.A. Social Studies Education | University of Wyoming
M.S. Counseling | University of Wyoming
B.S. Information Technology | University of Massachusetts
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