A green perspective

Jan Maskell with two visions from a warming planet.

It's 2040. You're still working in Psychology, but it has changed. How?

The landscape of work in 2040 will be dictated to a large extent by what we achieve in relation to climate change in the interim. Did we, as humans and as psychologists, manage to control the impacts and keep the average global temperature rise to within the 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels recommended by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)? Or did it rise by 4 degrees or beyond?

In either case there will be changes to energy supply and use, resource consumption, travel to and for work, and the supply chain. In order to look back from 2040, I need to split myself into two modes of thought… I begin with the more pessimistic perspective.

2-4 degree rise (or more)
Extreme weather events became more frequent, with heatwaves the deadliest global weather hazard. In countries that were already hot, the human heat stress limits are exceeded more often, often proving fatal. As climatic zones moved north, the range of infectious diseases such as malaria changed too. In some places, rainfall became more intense, but some areas received less rain because of changes in wind patterns… droughts became more common.

Rising sea levels caused problems for people around the world. Back in 2020, nearly 4 in 10 people lived within 100 kilometres of a shoreline, and many more lived in fear of heavy rainfall bursting riverbanks or overwhelming drainage systems.

Climate change also affected farming in the UK. Hotter weather and higher levels of CO2 made growing some crops easier, even allowing the production of new ones. However, water became harder to access, making it more difficult for farmers to plan the growing season. Climate change plus the growing population led to resource scarcity – of energy and materials. This caused conflict in some areas, for example where there are rare and valuable minerals needed for technology.

The impact on infrastructure and transport affected access to work, resources and food, all ultimately affecting vulnerable people increasing inequalities. Transport difficulties impinged on supply chains for organisations.

So, this level of temperature rise impacted on work and psychologists in two main ways: anxiety about these effects at an individual level for those affected directly through, e.g. floods and heat stress; and work related stress due to threats to employment and organisations’ ability to deal with the growing pressures from climate change, such as infrastructure damage, food insecurity, and climate conflicts.

1.5 degree rise (or less)
In this more positive world, professionals, scientists and psychologists managed – through the application of governance, technology and behaviour change – to keep the global average temperature rise to below 1.5 degrees. This has happened because those in power – in government and organisations, big and small – have taken action.

We have recognised that we could not continue with ‘business as usual’ in terms of our energy supply and use; resource consumption and disposal, procurement and supply chains; and travel to and for work.

Buildings and infrastructure have been adapted to cope with the new conditions. Organisations have planned around a changing climate. A key element was an increasing commitment to renewable energy (and on-site generation) and continuing to review and reduce energy use. Our consumption of resources moved to a circular economy, where we considered the life cycle of a product and how it will be re-used, re-purposed, repaired or recycled rather than just thrown away. ‘Almost zero to landfill’ became a mantra. The buying power of organisations rippled through supply chains as requirements for organisations to demonstrate their sustainability credentials become a greater part of the procurement process.

Emissions from work related travel have reduced as more people worked a shorter week and from home more often. There is more active travel – walking, cycling and using public transport. Personal car ownership has been, at least in part, replaced with car sharing, lift sharing and different rental models. Travel to meetings is much reduced through the use of alternative virtual communication methods becoming the new normal.

Psychologists working with politicians, organisations and individuals demonstrated the reasons why people resist the changes that are needed, drawing on Robert Gifford’s 2011 ‘Dragons of Inaction’ as false justifications and excuses. Many of these barriers are also transferable to organisations as reasons given for not taking action on climate change. For example, our ‘Limited Cognitions’ dragons of ignorance about climate change – temporal and spatial discounting, and lack of perceived behavioural control – have been countered with actions such as education and training.

The ‘Social Comparison’ dragons explained the tendency to be influenced by individuals and organisations that are admired. Perceived inequity and the rule of authority can be altered through the use of goals, organisations leading by example and modelling, plus the use of injunctive and descriptive norms.

‘Sunk Costs’ dragons are investment choices (not necessarily monetary) that limit alternatives, specifically climate-friendly choices. The behavioural momentum of habits can be difficult to change, e.g. travel habits can have strong negative effects on the environment, but can be challenged with policies, incentives, disincentives, default options and goals.

‘Limited Behaviour’ dragons showed why organisations try to do something to help the environment but sometimes these efforts fall short. The rebound effect is when a positive environmental behaviour is followed by one that cancels it out, e.g. people with fuel-efficient vehicles sometimes drive more than those without them, to the point where the net damage is greater. This is also known as the Jevons Paradox or the Khazzoom-Brookes postulate. Education, training and communication are key ways that this dragon can be challenged.

This wasn’t just about psychologists helping the planet. Engaging employees in the rapid transition needed for organisations to become more sustainable workplaces also had benefits related to hedonic wellbeing. We’re living a more ‘meaningful life’ – growth through goal achievement and the achievement of eudaimonic wellbeing.

What did we learn to get us here?
Gifford also noted that it is very difficult for humans to grasp threats that are sometimes perceived as invisible, gradual, distributed and long-term. In addition, Daniel Gilbert asserted, through our long psychological evolution we respond to four key triggers:

  • Personal – we are best prepared to identify threats from other humans
  • Abrupt – sudden changes
  • Immoral – indecent, repulsive
  • Now – at the present time

It was recognised that climate change did not spark any of these. While we were aware of climate change, it was not a threat caused by a person, it happened gradually, it did not make us feel disgusted, and was not in the present.

Psychologists looked at what worked in terms of communication, behaviour change and rapid transition. The actions of Attenborough and Thunberg were particularly effective at getting the message across to the mainstream in ways that activists and NGOs had not been able to for decades. Their ideas appealed because they focused on what we as humans had caused (plastic in the oceans) which was seen to be distasteful, and how one person was not ‘too small to make a difference’ – making the issue Personal, Immoral and Now.

George Marshall’s work also highlighted the benefits of building narratives (a strength of Attenborough) of cooperation accepting a range of approaches. Psychologists worked closely with those in power and those communicating actions with businesses, to emphasise the active values we have in common – such as a better life for all, health and thriving communities.

The pandemic showed us how we are linked in a global system and that we could change to try to overcome an issue that was clearly Personal, Abrupt, Immoral and Now. Changes to our ways of living occurred quickly and related to our shared values. The lessons learned from this were the need to affirm wider values first and then develop ways that successfully tackled climate change.

- Dr Jan Maskell is a Chartered Psychologist and Going Green Working Group Convenor for the British Psychological Society’s Division of Occupational Psychology.
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Find much more on climate change in our archive.

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