The Psychology of Climate Change: Why Feelings Matter

New research shows adults and young people are worried about global warming.

Posted Mar 08, 2019

Creativemarc/DepositPhotos
Source: Creativemarc/DepositPhotos

New research suggests that what’s simmering inside of American psyches may be as important to the climate change debate as the greenhouse gases bubbling from lakes, rivers, and wetlands throughout the world.  

While the climate change issue has regressed from a scientific to a partisan one in recent decades, research shows public opinion is changing on both sides of the political spectrum. Why have people’s feelings shifted? Will this be a psychological tipping point for action?

According to a February 2019 report from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, the past five years has witnessed a significant swing in the proportion of American adults who believe global warming is occurring and who are worried about its effects.  

Young people are worried too. From very early ages, students study climate change in school and are often more aware of scientific studies on global warming than their parents. Many children have adopted climate change as an emotionally-focused cause.

The CBS program 60 Minutes recently showcased a lawsuit filed on behalf of twenty-one children in Oregon that alleges the U.S. government knowingly failed to protect them from climate change. The case, first thought to be headed for an early defeat, is surprisingly making its way through the federal court system.

Politicians, mostly Democrats, have tried to tackle the climate change crisis with limited success. No presidential candidate has made it a signature issue since Al Gore, almost twenty years ago. That is, until now. Last week, Governor Jay Inslee (D) of Washington State entered the 2020 Presidential campaign with climate change as “his driving motivation.”

Seizing on shifting views and an active youth movement, Inslee believes Americans are ready to address global warming and recognize how climate is connected to jobs, health, global economies, migration, and other issues of our time. Thirty years in public life, co-author of Apollo’s Fire: Igniting America’s Clean Energy Economy (2007), and a strong record of green-economy job creation in Washington State gives Inslee a strong voice in the climate change debate in the United States.  

But what else must Inslee and other politicians understand about the climate change debate that has hindered this cause for decades? Will psychology play a role in moving it forward?   

Denial to Acceptance: Moving the Pendulum on Climate Change

As with all great debates, it is often how people feel on the inside that drives their attitudes and behaviors.

When researchers recently examined the 5-year trends on how Americans view the climate crisis, they learned some fascinating information: From an intellectual perspective 73 percent believe climate change is happening and 62 percent think it is human-caused. Those numbers reflect an 11 percent and 15 percent increase, respectively, since 2013.

The most significant changes occurred, however, in people’s emotional worlds. 72 percent of Americans say that climate change is important to them personally and 69 percent say they are worried about it. These numbers reflect 17 percent and 16 percent increases since 2013. It means that psychological change is happening at a more rapid pace than cognitive change. In addition, many more people have experienced the firsthand effects of climate change, almost 50 percent of Americans.

Psychologists that study the lived-experiences of humans understand that personal experience is always the driver of transformative learning and changes in perspective. Therefore, it is not surprising to see more dramatic shifts in cognition and emotion as people experience the devastating effects of fires, floods, environmental illnesses, and loss of jobs related to a fossil-fuel economy.

Until recently, scientists and climate change activists have been fighting the phenomenon of denial—the natural human tendency to erect psychological barriers that justify the avoidance of individual or collective action. Denial enables people to create mechanisms that maintain the status quo because that position is more emotionally or financially beneficial. In a state of denial, it is easier to blame others or create doubt that a problem exists than to accept the obstacle and become part of the solution.

Denial campaigns carried out by coal and oil lobbies that benefit financially from inaction on climate change have played successfully to people’s natural desire to deny catastrophic, evidence-based projections. But doom and gloom predictions from environmentalists have also been complicit in people’s feelings of denial. Generating panic about disastrous outcomes often arouses fear and anxiety—core emotions that feed denial.   

The denial of climate change has hindered corrective action for decades. In her book, Living in Denial: Climate Change, Emotions, and Everyday Life (2011), Kari Marie Norgaard suggested that climate change is “something we don’t want to think about. So what we do in our everyday lives is create a world where it’s not there, and keep it distant.”

Through their own lived experiences and better education, people are beginning to see the relationship of climate change to their everyday lives and to a multiplicity of societal issues. And they are worried.

What comes next could create a tipping point for action on climate change.

Removing Perceived Barriers to Climate Change Action

The research on how Americans think about climate change is clear. Almost 75 percent believe it is real and are worried about the future for themselves, their children, and grandchildren. The pendulum has swung significantly from denial to acceptance. But is that enough to gain bipartisan support for a clean-energy future?  

Studies suggest that political leaders must understand climate change beyond a technological, environmental, sociological, and political crisis. They must also see it as a psychological crisis. The following are three major perceived emotional barriers to climate change action that must be overcome:

1. Sense of Helplessness 

While many people accept scientific evidence and have been swayed by first-hand experiences, research suggests that among individuals who are concerned about the environment and climate change, the most common associated feeling is one of helplessness (Leiserowitz et al., 2014).

Helplessness, a concept studied by psychologists for decades, reflects a lack of hope and ability to influence a particular outcome. In the case of climate change, many see the problem as too enormous to be solved individually or collectively.

Peter Steinke, in Uproar: Calm Leadership in Anxious Times (2019), claims that structure is required during times of crisis and uncertainty. “When things are falling to pieces,” he says, “the emotional system needs a container—something to hold the parts together, something that promises that chaos is not king.” Leaders can counteract crisis by displaying patience, offering hope, and clearly reframing the problem and its solutions. This type of leadership can calm people’s emotions and alleviate helplessness.   

2. Desire for Comfort

According to researchers in Switzerland, most people are unwilling to abandon their personal comfort and lifestyle consumption habits in the name of climate change (Stoll-Kleemann et al., 2001). Climate change deniers play to this emotional barrier by spreading misinformation about proposed solutions and their effects on the everyday family.

One example played out on national television last week. Meghan McCain, a member of The View, challenged Governor Inslee on climate change using the “comfort card.” “We’re talking about. . . the elimination of planes, the elimination of cows, a railway, no planes. I guess nobody can go to Hawaii anymore,” McCain said. “It doesn’t sound rational to me.”

Inslee listened patiently, responded that her claims were inaccurate, and then provided a clear picture of what a clean energy future would look like. As recent studies might predict, the audience cheered Inslee’s response.

3. Waiting for a Super Hero

There is widespread hope and expectation that someone, somewhere will figure out a technological fix for the climate change crisis. At the same time, there is growing mistrust of government as a predictable source for pursuing the public interest (Stoll-Kleemann et al., 2001).

In the United States, this barrier may be the most challenging to overcome. What is needed is a united government with a clear, concise plan of action. Most see that as unlikely. The alternative could be a united citizenry that creates change at the grassroots of society and demands government action. Individual states will also be key players as will young people who are already changing the minds and hearts of parents and grandparents.

Climate Change Leadership

If the climate crisis is to be solved, it needs effective leaders who recognize the importance of moving people beyond helplessness to a hopeful, clean-energy future.

The psychological barriers to climate change can be mitigated by leaders with the capacity to uncover and understand people’s emotions and respond with clarity, conviction, and calm presence.

Strategies like anger and bullying preserve the status quo of a helpless citizenry that sees no end in sight to a problem much bigger than most ever imagined.

Climate change is personal. The link between nature and happiness is real. It will take visionary leaders that connect with people’s hearts and lead them forward through fear and uncertainty.

If Jay Inslee has his way, “Our country’s next mission must be to rise up to the most urgent challenge of our time: defeating climate change.”

Time will tell what role Inslee will play in the upcoming political debate. At the very least, he is getting people’s attention focused on an urgent crisis that deserves public dialogue and intelligent action.

References

Gustafson, A., Bergquist, P., Leiserowitz, A., Maibach, E. (2019). A growing majority of Americans think global warming is happening and are worried. Yale University and George Mason University. New Haven, CT: Yale Program on Climate Change Communication.

Leiserowitz, A., Maibach, E., Roser-Renouf, C., Feinberg, G., Rosenthal, S., & Marlon, J. (2014). Climate change in the American mind: Americans' global warming beliefs and attitudes in November, 2013. New Haven, CT: Yale. University and George Mason University. Yale Project on Climate Change Communication.

Stoll-Kleemann, S., O’Riordan, T., & Jaeger, C. C. (2001). The psychology of denial concerning climate mitigation measures: evidence from Swiss focus groups. Global Environmental Change, 11(2), 107-117.