Global climate change is a growing topic of discourse in the media; but could bombarding the public with images of melting ice caps, natural disasters, and daunting doomsday statistics be a significant cause of the widespread complacency among the public in regards to making lifestyle changes that would decrease their environmental impact?
Signs of the Times
Just this past month, NOAA announced that it was the hottest April ever recorded by a massive margin; making it the twelfth consecutive month in which record hot temperatures have been reported for the respective months. Yet despite rapidly – and visibly – worsening global conditions, surveys are showing that fewer people are responding with earnest concern. As science has been illuminating the dangers of climate change since the 1980s, and ongoing research continues to further the notion, one would think that the general population would become inspired into action to alter their increasingly evident fate. Here, psychologists and behavioral scientists are stepping in to offer explanations on the current status of widespread inaction.
In contemporary eco-psychology studies, researchers are studying how humans process the increasing frequency of doomsday-esque stories in the media on an emotional level. So far, studies have found that the constant reporting of ecological failures is resulting in an unconscious emotional numbing in consumers. Dr. Renee Lertzman, a San Francisco-based psychosocial researcher, is focused on applying psychological findings to environmental action in organizational facets.
Studies have found that the constant reporting of ecological failures is resulting in an unconscious emotional numbing in consumers.
Her book, Environmental Melancholia: Psychoanalytic Dimensions of Engagement, employs a psychoanalytic and psychosocial theory to suggest that people are being caught in a static state of unprocessed grief over the destruction of the natural environment. She refers to this experience as “environmental melancholia.” At its root, the idea proposes that while people do indeed care for the environment and are motivated to restore it, they feel powerless in facing the seemingly unstoppable threats of global climate change. As a whole, Dr. Lertzman’s work reinforces the role of psychology in understanding the intricate relationship between people and nature.
Calling on Behavioral Science
Intriguing work like Dr. Lertzman’s has led to an Executive Order from the White House calling for the employment of behavioral science insights to aid policy-making and communication with the American people. The order put out on September 15, 2015 highlights national priorities including the acceleration of the transition to a low-carbon economy, and enabling Americans to live healthier lives. President Obama’s central approach to facing these issues comes by way of his directive to “strengthen agency relationships with the research community to better use empirical findings from the behavioral sciences.”
Newfound unity among behavioral researchers, activists, government officials, and the media is generating promising efforts in improving how climate change issues are communicated to the public. Namely, studies have shown that apathy towards environmental issues may be the result of overexposure to negative messages or intimidation by the sheer size of the threats.
Dr. Craig Chalquist, eco-psychologist and department chair of East-West Psychology at the California Institute of Integral Studies, builds off this concept by explaining that leaving an audience with feelings of helplessness is completely counterproductive to inspiring action. He elaborates on the human tendency to defend against painful information through automatic emotional numbing, much in the same as Dr. Lertzman’s “environmental melancholia” model. In turn, Chalquist and other behavioral scientists are proposing insightful reforms to media and communication to combat this psychological stagnation. Leaving an audience with feelings of helplessness is completely counterproductive to inspiring action.
For one, sharing positive information about environmental solutions may better encourage action as it makes progress feel more realistic and effective. Publicizing success stories in the fight against climate change and showcasing the already existing beauty of the world has proven to be a more effective alternative to the fear-inducing news of a crumbling planet. By making climate change solutions more relatable to daily life, the Godzilla-like portrayal of environmental dangers becomes more manageable and actionable at a local level. Despite the truth behind many disheartening statistics, it is important to embrace and foster the love for nature that exists within humankind in order to spur preservation and restoration efforts.
Publicizing success stories in the fight against climate change and showcasing the already existing beauty of the world has proven to be a more effective alternative to the fear-inducing news of a crumbling planet.
Causes for Celebration
When taking a look at some of our environmental successes from last year alone, the dire outlook on earth’s future starts to lighten up. Here are just a few bright spots:
- 2015 witnessed the designation of approximately three million square kilometers of new marine protected areas (MPAs). This progress illustrates a significant stride towards the proposed goal for MPAs to cover 10% of the oceans by 2020. While the end goal of 30% coverage remains distant, it is also noted that MPA coverage was less that 1% not long ago. Today’s proposed and existing MPAs reach just above 6% of the globe’s oceans; and continuing diplomatic agreements and area expansions are illustrating huge victories for the preservation of the planet’s marine life and biodiversity.
- Innovation in renewable energy has brought the price of solar power down 80% in the past seven years, making it a viable alternative to oil and natural gas. On the other side, oil ventures have become vastly less profitable, and big oil is taking hard hits with the high operating costs of oil extraction. This has resulted in the abandoning of exploratory drilling, such as Shell’s abortion of a large offshore drilling operation off of the northern Alaskan coast; subsequently preserving the area’s ecological integrity. Additionally, the rejection of the proposed Keystone pipeline illustrates an environmental victory showing that the dominance of oil is diminishing.
- Perhaps most high profile of all was the 2015 Paris Agreement, a culmination of the diplomacy at the Paris Climate Conference. The event represents the first universal climate agreement, and, with nearly 200 nations in attendance, lays the framework for curbing global carbon emissions. While the agreement by no means serves as a final solution to rising global temperatures, it marks an emblematic step towards the end of the fossil fuel era.
While it is necessary for the science displaying the grim paths of earth’s natural environments to be shared with the public, it is equally, if not more, important to not undermine the numerous cases of environmental victories. The budding relationship between behavioral scientists, federal policymakers, and the media is working to tear down feelings of incapability and replace them with inspiring messages of action.
When surrounded by stories of a planet falling apart, it is easy to let oneself grow jaded. Yet, efforts to preserve and rescue earth’s natural environments are growing and making significant strides. These efforts must be continued and enhanced through positive storytelling, messaging, and a sincere focus on what’s working.
Image courtesy of Loren Kearns