Nick Pidgeon

Time for a better understanding of the psychology of climate change

23 June 2011

Nick Pidgeon, Professor of Environmental Psychology

In this guest article, Nick Pidgeon, Professor of Environmental Psychology and the Chairman of the Understanding Risk Research Group at Cardiff University discusses the psychology of climate change.

One of the more puzzling things in the debate about climate change is the fact that, while a majority of people in Britain, and other nations, profess their concern about this issue and the environment in general, far fewer are willing to make substantial changes which would lead them to live in more sustainable ways.

Climate change a distant threat

From research conducted by social scientists over the past 20 years we now know quite a lot about why this is.

For some individuals other aspects of life loom larger than the environment on a day-to-day basis - such things as personal and family relationships; financial security, or employment. Although people do have a good appreciation of many of the more prominent climate change impacts (warming, sea level rise, melting glaciers), they often assume that these will only affect other people; future generations or distant places. In effect, climate change has become, in psychological terms, distant in both space and time for many people.

Evidence of change too subtle?

If people view climate impacts as distant and not particularly relevant to them, this then raises an important research hypothesis which has been discussed for some time by environmental psychologists. When people become aware of climate change impacts directly affecting them or their local area, will that reduce psychological distance, thereby increasing their concern? For various reasons this has been a very difficult proposition to test, and as a result the evidence to date has been equivocal at best.

One problem here is that evidence of direct climate change impacts is difficult to demonstrate to people, as this either involves subtle changes to natural systems such as migration patterns, gradual sea-level rise and ocean acidification, or alternatively, very small increases in the risk of existing meteorological phenomena which themselves vary greatly on a seasonal, or even daily, basis.

Extreme weather gets noticed

Extreme weather, such as rain resulting in major flooding, does provide, perhaps, the best visible local sign of increasing climate risks, and, therefore, hold the potential to change the way people view climate change by making it more real and tangible for them.

We do know that for many places, including the UK, periods of intense rainfall have increased in frequency over the past 40-60 years, resulting in a greater number of floods - with further increases predicted.

However, it is challenging to make a direct link between any one such event and climate change. Although the latest flood research, led by Oxford University, shows that human activity substantially increased the odds of damaging floods occurring in England and Wales in Autumn 2000, there is a challenge for communicators or the public to link actual experiences with the more abstract notions of risk derived from climate models.

Survey of behaviour

Britain has experienced a series of very high profile floods over the past 15 years, and as a result we decided to revisit the psychological distance hypothesis using a major nationally representative survey. The findings, published in the first edition of the journal Nature Climate Change , provide evidence that direct experience of flooding increases concern about climate change and also, importantly, people's willingness to engage in sustainable behaviour.

With the assistance of Ipsos-MORI we surveyed a sample of 1,822 members of the British public in early 2010. We found that individuals who reported that their local area had been subjected to flooding also had significantly different perceptions of climate change, compared to those who had not experienced flooding. These perceptions were, in turn, related to a greater preparedness to save energy.

Of course this study is only a start and the effects observed were quite subtle. But they were consistent, and point to the research which now needs to be done to better understand the relationship between emerging climate impacts at a local level and changes in public acceptance. I also firmly believe that this research effort needs to be an interdisciplinary one, involving both climate and social scientists.

Our results suggest new ways in which climate scientists and the environmental policy community can engage people in discussion of reducing emissions of greenhouse gases and adapting to climate change.

Although the global impacts of climate change are extremely important for policy, to focus solely upon this might simply distance ordinary people further from the issue. Communications might, therefore, also focus upon the ways that climate risks are, even now, becoming more tangible at a local level, and the concrete implications of this for people, their localities, and everyday lives. In other areas of public policy, as when trying to encourage more healthy behaviours, such efforts have become routine. For climate change the challenge now is to find ways of matching that effort.

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