Curriculum, Engagement, Teaching

A Tale of Two Minds: Psychology and Global Climate Change

The American Psychological Association recently released its Presidential Task Force report on Psychology and Global Climate Change.  The report first notes the domains of psychological research that have borne fruit in the past. For example, sections of the report review research literature that answers the following questions: How do people understand the risks imposed by climate change? What are the human behavioural contributions to climate change and the psychological and contextual drivers of these contributions? What are the psychosocial impacts of climate change? How do people adapt to and cope with the perceived threat and unfolding impacts of climate change? Which psychological barriers limit climate change action? and How can psychologists assist in limiting climate change? Specific research, practice, and education recommendations follow the literature reviews that bear on each of the six questions above.

There are no environmental problems where humans aren’t centrally implicated.  Thus, psychology and education ought to play important roles in solving these various problems.

The report issues calls to continue these productive lines of research and suggests several promising new directions. The Task Force offers a set of eight principles for psychologists (e.g., make connections to research and concepts from other social, engineering, and natural science fields; present psychological insights in terms of missing pieces in climate change analyses; be mindful of social disparities and ethical, and justice issues that interface with climate change) designed to maximize their contributions to the science of climate change. Implementing the Task Force’s principles and proposals would inaugurate a long and productive program of psychological research on climate change. This is exactly what one would expect from a task force of a professional society. If you read the report looking for detailed analyses of the points above, you will not be disappointed. To my mind, the report fulfills the expectations many held for it. Then why am I of two minds regarding the report?

Too Little, Too Late?

In this section, I share some of the ruminations that awaken me in the middle of the night. I don’t know for certain that any of my misgivings will prove true. Nor can I be certain that the directions I will suggest will prove superior to the directions suggested in the APA report. Rather, this article affords me an opportunity to worry aloud and share my concerns with educators whose influence on young minds may hold the key to our long-term survival.

There are no environmental problems where humans aren’t centrally implicated. Thus, psychology and education ought to play important roles in solving these various problems. Why are humans central to all environmental problems? Because we have been the dominant species on this planet for thousands of years. The history of evolution for all biological species has been the same: the organism slowly changes (via random genetic mutations coupled with selective retention) to become better adapted to the environmental niches the world offers it.

Global climate change ushers in a whole new ballgame. Humans quickly (in terms of evolutionary timescales) alter the environment that we then must adapt to in the future, thereby changing the course of evolution. No longer is the influence unidirectional: we can now profoundly change the environment which then shapes our evolutionary path.[1]

Global climate change is not the only environmental threat we face. You’ve heard of the “Peak Oil” phenomenon, wherein global oil production will peak and then inexorably decline.[2] The effects of peak oil will be devastating economically unless we have huge quantities of alternative energy ready for use. Why can’t we simply use natural gas or coal instead of oil? Because both still pollute and release the greenhouse gases that propel global climate change. Finally, the “green revolution” in agriculture allowed us to go from 3 billion people on the earth (in 1948) to our current 6.6 billion people. But what are the long-term consequences of the elements that made up the dramatic gains in agricultural productivity over the last six or seven decades? Watering crops from nonrenewable aquifers represents an obvious short-term strategy. Continued watering from any aquifer builds up salts in the soil that reduce the per acre yield of our fields. The continued use of herbicides, insecticides, and chemical fertilizers poisons the fields over time, leading to reduced yields initially and abandonment of the fields eventually.[3] Did you know that for many years now the earth has lost more acres of farmland (due to erosion, desertification, soil poisoning, the spread of cities, etc.) than it has put into agricultural service? But the human population continues to double every 50 years or so.

Time, Time, Time, See What’s Become of…Us

Simon and Garfunkel’s haunting song, “Hazy Shade of Winter”, is about a person who nears death and tries to make sense of the life he/she has led. Our looming environmental problems have put me in a similar state of mind. So with my melancholy state as a backdrop, let us ask, “How much time do we humans have to act to avert global climate change?”

Climatologists have been growing progressively gloomier over the last decade about the amount of time remaining, and for good scientific reasons (see Frontline’s excellent movie, Diming the Sun). James Hansen (longtime director of NASA’s Goddard laboratory) is arguably the world’s preeminent climatologist. For several years now, he has been expressing the fear we have only a decade or so left to act to avert global climate change. If he is correct, the timescale required for the concrete changes that would flow from the recommendations of the APA Task Force report is far too long. Psychologists ­– and educators ­– must act more quickly if they are to play a meaningful role in averting global climate change.

The challenge for today’s educators’ is to raise a generation of voters who won’t fall for the dangerous thoughts that our politicians have let us believe are true.

Are there promising trends outside academia in our efforts to fight global climate change? Yes, there are. Ontario’s, Germany’s, and Spain’s feed-in tariffs on all renewable energy systems are one promising development. Europe’s cap-and-trade system is another hopeful development (the United States Senate is currently debating the passage of a cap-and-trade bill). The United States’ 30 percent incentive on all renewable energy systems is yet another cause for hope. Most importantly, these efforts work within a timescale where their effects are virtually immediate. We also have engineers and materials scientists to thank for the products that produce clean and renewable energy, as well as political scientists and economists to thank for incentives, feed-in tariffs, and cap-and-trade systems. So what is the role of educators in all of this?

What’s an Educator To Do?

We must educate young people to think quite differently than we were taught to think. Table 1 provides examples of nine types of thoughts commonly promoted, learned, and accepted in recent generations, given the assumption of a limitless world.[4] However, for a world with limits, these same thoughts are not only false – they’re dangerous.

Table 1 – Dangerous Thoughts:  For a World with Limits

  1. Consumption will produce happiness (and consumption is “needed”).
  2. The future is to be steeply “discounted”.
  3. Present consumption is preferred to investment in (or conservation for) the future.
  4. Growth is good.
  5. Free-market capitalism is the best system.
  6. Paying less is better than paying more.
  7. If it ain’t broke (yet)—don’t fix it.
  8. Until scientists can prove a phenomenon beyond scientific doubt, society doesn’t need to act on it.
  9. Innovations (technological and others) can push back biological limits indefinitely.

The next generation must think differently. Dangerous thoughts produce environmental nightmares. For example, politicians know that the quickest way to die politically is to promise to raise gasoline prices, or to raise the price of electricity produced by burning fossil fuels (all parts of a carbon tax). Yet, that is precisely the swiftest, most lethal blow we could now deliver to the dragon of global climate change. The challenge for today’s educators’ is to raise a generation of voters who won’t fall for the dangerous thoughts that our politicians have let us believe are true. Citizens must carefully analyze politicians’ statements and reach conclusions like, “While I’d like to pay less for gas, doing so would increase our unsustainable commitment to burning hydrocarbons to generate energy. Thus, I will vote against anyone who plays to my worst impulses.”

“Feeling bad, over-worked, or unappreciated? You deserve a break today…at McDonald’s.” Almost any type of consumption – to assuage psychological maladies – represents a bad strategy. Here, our prime adversary is the trillions and trillions of dollars spent on advertising. “Feeling weak, insignificant, powerless? Imagine how people will feel about you when you’re driving the biggest, toughest vehicle on the road. Get a Hummer.” Some commercials go so far as create the need first, and then tell you what to buy to satisfy it: “What if you have bad breath (or body order) and don’t know it? Be safe – buy Listerine (or Right Guard).” Helping people to “unlearn” dangerous thoughts such as these (“consumption will make me feel better”, “more is better”, “consumption is preferred to investment or conservation”) provides educators with many opportunities for discussion and consciousness-raising about aspects of human decision making, the impact of advertising, and self-defeating human tendencies.

A related dangerous psychological tendency arises whenever a short-term pleasure or pain is weighed against a long-term pleasure or pain. The short-term is always weighed too heavily in the calculus of our decision-making. Short-term rewards (the “ buy now, no money down” offer or the unhealthy diet that tastes so good) block out or beat out the longer-term punishments (increasing debt or health problems) because even though the punishments are overwhelmingly more severe, they all lie in the distant future. Because it is so common for many people to act this way, economists have quantified this tendency in a “subjective discount rate”, specifically describing exactly how badly we discount our futures. We live consumption-heavy lives as if no one will ever have to pay the costs of our profligacy. Of course, in many ways, our children and grandchildren will bear those costs.

As you read through the examples of dangerous thoughts listed in Table 1, you’ll notice that several serve to convince us that it is wise not to act yet. One suggests, “If it ain’t broke – don’t fix it.” Environmental problems involve feed-forward systems (not the more common feedback systems), such that once the system is triggered, you have no control over what it does. The genie has been let out of the bottle, so to speak. Take forest fires, for example. The more CO2 we put into the air, the warmer and drier the air gets. The warmer and drier the air gets, the more likely forest fires are to occur. With more forest fires, more CO2 gets put into the air, continuing the cycle. This may start on a relatively small scale, say in California, but in such a feed-forward system, even the Amazon (which is a rainforest now) could ultimately be dried out, leaving a dense dry forest with no way to put out the fires that will occur. By the time people realize the system has been triggered, the process of climate change is under the control of the feed-forward mechanisms and impervious to human attempts to control the process.

Another thought that is dangerous because it tends to impede or obstruct action is, “If science has not yet proven something, then we need not address it.” This was the last line of defense of cigarette companies who claimed that science hadn’t proven cigarette smoking causes cancer. The history of science demonstrates that no theory is ever proven or permanent. Therefore, to wait for scientific proof is to make a demand on science that is inappropriate for the discipline.

A final defense mechanism is to claim that innovations (technological and conceptual) can push back biological limits indefinitely. Technology can sometimes push back limits, but it cannot ultimately eradicate limits. For example, medical progress can help us live some years longer, but it cannot banish death. As educators, we can contribute to the task of challenging our tendencies to wish away difficult realities.

A Final, Troubling Thought

Like the other authors of the APA report, I gave whatever wisdom I had to offer, with the background assumption that we had several decades left to act. But now, when I awaken in the middle of the night, I fear that Hanson’s prediction (of less than a decade left to act) might be correct. The Good Book was prescient in noting that, “we know not the day or the hour of our death.” In truth, we know not the day or the hour when the tragic effects of our greenhouse gases will come home to roost. Given you’ve already read my darker thoughts, I’d also urge you to read the Task Force’s more hopeful thoughts.

As a child, I was sometimes awakened at night convinced there were dragons under my bed. We know that those dragons weren’t real. As an adult, I lose sleep due to the dragons of global climate change. Because scientists tell us those fears are most likely real, I now pray that our time left to counter climate change is not too short.

EN BREF – L’American Psychological Association a récemment publié un rapport du groupe de travail présidentiel sur la psychologie et les changements climatiques mondiaux. Les principes et propositions qui y sont énoncés amorceraient un programme détaillé et productif de recherche psychologique sur les changements climatiques. Est-ce trop peu, trop tard? Les climatologues ont brossé un tableau toujours plus sombre au cours de la dernière décennie au sujet du temps qui reste, et pour de bonnes raisons scientifiques. Les psychologues – et les éducateurs – doivent agir plus rapidement pour jouer un rôle utile pour éviter les changements climatiques. Les éducateurs doivent, par-dessus tout, affranchir la génération montante d’une foule d’idées reçues fondées sur la présomption d’un monde sans limites, idées qui contribuent à une mentalité « achetez maintenant, payez plus tard » dans les contextes de consommation et d’environnement.

[1] P. R. Erlich and A. H. Erlich, The Dominant Animal: Human Evolution and the Environment, (Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 2008).

[2] K. Deffeyes, Beyond Oil: The View from Hubbert’s Peak (New York: Farrar, Straus & Groux, 2005).

[3] Lester Brown, Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization (New York: Norton, 2009).

[4] From George Howard, Ecological Psychology: Creating a More Earth-friendly Human Nature, Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1997).

Meet the Expert(s)

George S. Howard

George S. Howard is a professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Notre Dame. He served as a member of the American Psychological Association’s Presidential Task Force on Psychology and Global Climate Change.

Read More

1/5 Free Articles Left

LOGIN Join The Network