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The Role of Psychology in the Climate Change Discourse

“You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words, yet I’m one of the lucky ones. People are suffering, people are dying, entire ecosystems are collapsing.”

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

This is the plea being made to the world and its leaders by climate activist Greta Thunberg when she addressed the UN climate action summit this year in New York City. Love her or loathe her, Greta was named the Time Person of the Year 2019. At the age of 16 years and 11 months, she is the youngest person, in fact the first teenager to achieve this title.

It is Greta’s conviction and passion to highlight the seriousness of “Climate Change” that tipped the scale for the Time editorial team in favour of Greta to be named Time Person of the year. Overcoming competition from well-known personalities like Donald Trump, Nancy Pelosi and other worthy causes like “The Hong Kong protesters”.

So, what exactly is Climate Change? Without getting too elaborate or technical, we look at a definition by National Geographic, which defines climate change as a long-term shift in global or regional climate patterns. Often climate change refers specifically to the rise in global temperatures from the mid-20th century to present.

Hence, most topics and related solutions for climate change focuses on Global Warming. A poll conducted by the Pew research center now ranks climate change among the top threats to the globe and mankind. Polar vortex, melting glaciers, flooding and devastating wildfires are among the few catastrophes that are being attributed to the change in our climate.

It is evident that climate change affects us all on many economic, social and psychological levels. Scientists confirm that these situations and disasters are one of the major contributors, affecting the population psychology. APA reports that the damage unfolding from climate change is not limited to only water shortages, droughts or wildfires but is also detrimental to mental health on a mass scale. Depression, anxiety, grief, despair, stress and PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) are on the rise.

Psychologists have now accepted climate change as a serious threat to the health of human life. The situation is so alarming that the leaders of psychological associations from more than 40 countries signed a proclamation on November 15, 2019 at a conference on psychology and global health in Lisbon. Here they pledge to use their expertise as psychologists to “take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts.”

Thousands have lost their lives and been rendered homeless due to raging fires, floods, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. The trauma from loss of a loved one or of losing a home can bring mental health consequences that are sudden and severe. For example, according to a publication by Harvard Medical School, suicide and suicidal tendencies doubled among residents of areas affected by these disasters. In similar studies, Columbia University found that one in six people showed symptoms indicative of PTSD. Elevated PTSD levels have also been found among people who survived through wildfires and extreme storms, and these elevated levels sometimes last several years.

On the flip side, is psychology only addressing the effects of Climate change? What can we do to combat this dire situation and bring about a positive transformation? These are some of the key question that scientist, economist and psychologist are grappling with worldwide. Many of the solutions proposed are technology, innovations and economically focused. However, one of the main contributors to global warming is the behavior of the human race. There needs to be a paradigm shift in the consumption patterns of the masses. Given that the escalation in climate change is linked to human behavior, an obvious question is whether psychology can provide better insights toward creating and communicating novel methods and solutions that improve these adverse habits. We need to devise efficient processes which can convey to the society to accept and implement the resolutions and guidelines toward green initiatives.

A publication “Climate Change: What Psychology Can Offer in Terms of Insights and Solutions” from July 2018 explores this question. The authors describe climate change as a result of pervasive social dilemma involving two moral stand points. One, is social conflicts between self-interests and collective interests and second, is temporal conflicts between short-term interests and future interests. Both these dilemmas are complex, abstract and are vaguely long-term. These factors tend to discourage actions that could help in reducing climate change. Abstractness and uncertainty lead people to act in their own self interest rather than that of the society. Due to the long-term vagueness of this whole situation, people favour actions that is for “here and now” rather than future interests.

Researchers are addressing these moral facets by investigating the roles of personality and attitudes, social norms, and beliefs. In this case, psychologists can be of immense help to shape the philosophy of society to fight skepticism and promote actions that help secure a sustainable future with conducive climate and environmental conditions for all of mankind.

The call for fighting climate change is a collective effort which unites individuals, communities, nations, continents and even the globe. Our world leaders, governments and large corporates need to play a more active role and trust the facts and information provided by various scientific institutions. On the other hand, the citizens of the world also need to give a clear message to the global policy makers, aptly conveyed by the words from Greta Thunberg.

“The world is waking up; a change is coming whether you like it or not. My message is we’ll be watching you.”

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