Creating a climate of change

Ella Rhodes reports as the Paris Agreement comes into effect.

On 4 November 2016, the world’s first unified and comprehensive pledge to tackle climate change comes into effect. The Paris Agreement, which has been ratified by 94 of the 197 nations of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, aims to keep a global average temperature rise below 2 degrees Celsius.

Under the agreement all nations have agreed to combat climate change and invest in a low carbon and sustainable future. But despite this huge step towards a greener future, it remains to be seen whether individuals and businesses will begin to take climate change more seriously and make changes to their own behaviour. Climate change is one of the most challenging areas in which to affect behaviour change: not only can the threat appear distant and abstract, but it is difficult for many to accept that climate change is likely to affect us all.

Psychologists undoubtedly have a role to play in this, and many believe every psychologist could do more in this area – either through their own work and research or simply addressing their own environmental behaviours. One of these is Occupational Psychologist Dr Jan Maskell, who is the convenor of the British Psychological Society’s Division of Occupational Psychology’s Going Green Working Group. We spoke to her about challenging responses to climate change within businesses.

Maskell said that businesses respond to the threat of climate change in varied ways; responding to external legislation, internal policy, or from environmentally-minded individuals pushing for change. Just as individuals tend to, Maskell added, companies focus on local issues rather than global problems. It is therefore sometimes useful to focus on what matters to companies rather than the threat of climate change itself: ‘For most organisations cost is an issue, and if you can show them there are ways to reduce their costs through reducing energy consumption or packaging, that’s a way to encourage them to take on board those behaviours.’

It is still unclear how the Paris Agreement will affect businesses and large corporations and Maskell said there was much uncertainty for the future, particularly in the UK: ‘We signed up for the Paris Agreement, and then agreed to an extra runway at an airport, increasing air traffic. Where’s the connectivity there?’ Similarly, she added, there is much uncertainty over UK climate legislation post-Brexit. Sustainability legislation in the UK is made up of EU directives, some of which have been translated into UK law.

In the face of an issue about which many feel almost powerless, what could psychologists do? Maskell thinks that we should consider, at the very least, being positive role models, looking at our own behaviour and aiming to reduce our own carbon footprints. She said: ‘There are examples of behavioural changes that can have a big impact. Something which can reduce your carbon footprint by the equivalent of at least one tonne of carbon a year is changing from a meat-based to a plant-based diet. Most people are unaware of the impact that their food is having on climate change and the environment’.

Sander van der Linden, Director of the Cambridge Social Decision Making Lab (University of Cambridge), told us that while opinion polls and public opinion indicators show that people understand climate change is a serious threat, relatively few take action to reduce their personal impact on it. He said: ‘It’s very difficult to engage people with the issue on a day-to-day basis. Even though we’re at the point where most recognise it’s an important issue, effective and sustained responses are still lacking from people.’

Why might this be? Dr van der Linden suggests there are several factors which puts climate change at the bottom of most people’s list of priorities. First, he said, climate change presents a distant and abstract risk and many struggle to understand how it may affect them personally. Second, there are practically no social norms which tell people how they should and should not behave regarding their impact on the environment, as Van der Linden explained: ‘It’s not as if people are going to raise an eyebrow when you don’t recycle or when you don’t reduce your energy consumption. It’s shifting slowly but when you talk about societal norms there’s really not any social expectation that you should be talking to other people about climate change, or motivating your friends and family to do something about it.’

A third factor is morality – usually when faced with a moral issue we have someone, whether this be a single actor or organisation, to blame. But in the case of climate change the wrongdoing is everyone’s fault. ‘The problem is that, without necessarily intending any harm, when aggregated on a collective level, our behaviours are causing harm to the planet, so we have to point the finger at ourselves in a way… this is a confusing thing to do for people because we don’t like to blame ourselves for things. It’s very difficult to view climate change as a moral problem that demands action,’ van der Linden added.

Finally, people are confused about which behaviours are most effective at mitigating climate change – while many people recycle, this is not that effective in changing climate change as it happens post-production. Van der Linden said: ‘It’s difficult for people to know what to do and, moreover, we know that a good portion of people’s behaviour is determined by situational factors. Creating environments that help facilitate people to carry out their good intentions is incredibly important. People are busy, they have jobs and lives and kids and climate change ranks at the bottom of things we’re worried about.’

We’re interested to hear psychologists’ responses to climate change for a further article in our January edition. If you have a view or personal story to share, email our journalist on [email protected]. For further reading there’s much more on this topic in our archive

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