Psychology of Climate – Words to Actions

William A. Liggett — Oct 17, 2019

The biggest challenge facing humanity now is climate change, so shouldn’t we use every tool we have to address it? How can we change attitudes? How about behavior? How can we help people see a path toward reducing greenhouse gasses? The social psychologist Sander van der Linden suggests, “The ultimate solution to climate change lies with (changing) the psychology of the individual.”  

I welcome any effort to use social science (e.g. sociology or anthropology) to answer these concerns, but my training in applied social psychology makes me consider all the factors that influence attitudes and behaviors, including the internal (psychological and physiological) and external (social and physical).

An excellent example of this approach is described by Van der Linden in his PhD dissertation: The Social-Psychological Determinants of Climate Change Risk Perceptions, Intentions and Behaviours: A National Study.

Based on a large survey he conducted in the United Kingdom, he reports that public climate change efforts should “take an integrative approach in considering cognitive, experiential and socio-cultural factors.” He indicates that all three types of messages need to be sent (you may find these academic, but hopefully useful):

(1) The “cognitive-analytical” type  – Providing facts to inform people (e.g., the movie “Inconvenient Truth” by Al Gore).

(2) The “affective-experiential” type – Engaging emotions like fear (e.g., the movie “Day After Tomorrow,” showing what could happen to people with an abrupt climate change).

(3) The “social-normative” type – Appealing to societal standards (e.g., adhering to 1.5 degree C target set by Paris Climate Accord).

I was curious to see how many of Van der Linden’s factors appeared in the recent well-publicized speech delivered to the United Nations by the sixteen-year-old Swedish activist, Greta Thunberg.

My comments applying Van der Linden’s model are interspersed in red font in the transcript of her short speech.

Greta Thunberg:

My message is that we’ll be watching you.

Social-normative: The youth are observing and judging the adults.

This is all wrong. I shouldn’t be up here. I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean. Yet you all come to us young people for hope. How dare you! 

Social-normative: Adults have violated a norm and shirked responsibility.

You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words. And yet I’m one of the lucky ones. People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!

Social-normative: Instilling guilt in adults for allowing terrible things to happen while they engage in inconsequential talk.

For more than 30 years, the science has been crystal clear. How dare you continue to look away and come here saying that you’re doing enough, when the politics and solutions needed are still nowhere in sight.

Social-normative: More guilt for ignoring long-known science and not marshalling the solutions and politics to do something meaningful.

You say you hear us and that you understand the urgency. But no matter how sad and angry I am, I do not want to believe that. Because if you really understood the situation and still kept on failing to act, then you would be evil. And that I refuse to believe.

Affective-experiential: Emotions of urgency, sadness, and anger in the face of failure by adults to act—she doesn’t want to believe adults are evil (but maybe they are).

The popular idea of cutting our emissions in half in 10 years only gives us a 50% chance of staying below 1.5 degrees [Celsius], and the risk of setting off irreversible chain reactions beyond human control.

Cognitive-analytical: Presenting facts to affect attitudes and behaviors.

Fifty percent may be acceptable to you. But those numbers do not include tipping points, most feedback loops, additional warming hidden by toxic air pollution or the aspects of equity and climate justice. They also rely on my generation sucking hundreds of billions of tons of your CO2 out of the air with technologies that barely exist. 

Cognitive-analytical: Adding more facts not included in current projections to sway attitudes.

So a 50% risk is simply not acceptable to us —we who have to live with the consequences.

Affective-experiential: Linking feelings to risks.

To have a 67% chance of staying below a 1.5 degrees global temperature rise – the best odds given by the [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change]—the world had 420 gigatons of CO2 left to emit back on January 1, 2018. Today that figure is already down to less than 350 gigatons. (That is, we’ve already used up some of the “cushion” of CO2 that the atmosphere can hold and still remain below 1.5 degrees.)

Social-normative plus cognitive-analytical: More factual information applied to the norm of 1.5 degrees temperature rise.

How dare you pretend that this can be solved with just ‘business as usual’ and some technical solutions? With today’s emissions levels, that remaining CO2 budget will be entirely gone within less than 8 1/2 years.

Cognitive-analytical: Highlighting limited CO2 budget being used up fast.

There will not be any solutions or plans presented in line with these figures here today, because these numbers are too uncomfortable. And you are still not mature enough to tell it like it is.

Social-normative: Solutions and plans presented by adults fall short of the target.

You are failing us. But the young people are starting to understand your betrayal. The eyes of all future generations are upon you. And if you choose to fail us, I say: We will never forgive you. 

We will not let you get away with this. Right here, right now is where we draw the line. The world is waking up. And change is coming, whether you like it or not. 

Thank you.

Social-normative: Violation of norms by adults will be met with sanctions by youth—never to forgive.

The video of Greta Thunberg’s speech brought tears to my eyes when I first watched it. Her emotional delivery was as powerful as the words she was using.

Her message relied heavily on the social-normative component and less on making a logical argument with more facts. She may have assumed that her audience was well-versed in the facts that have been in the media for years.

She might have added some elements of hope. As Van der Linden and others have pointed out, hope can counter a negative reaction from an audience overwhelmed by fear and the scope of the problem (affective-experiential).

Although Greta Thunberg may not have incorporated all the social-psychological factors she might have, she sent a forceful message that we can all learn from.

What impact do you think people like Greta Thunberg will have on the youth of today? What about influencing the adults?

Bill Liggett writes fiction that blends behavioral and earth sciences in the new literary genre “cli-fi,” or climate fiction. In Watermelon Snow, his first novel, a long-frozen virus melts from a glacier, threatening a pandemic. His second novel, Panic Peak, (in process) entails a plot to geoengineer the earth’s climate. The planned third novel in the trilogy paints a hopeful future, based on solutions to global warming.

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Laura Border
Laura Border
October 25, 2019 7:39 pm

Hi, Bill,

Her speech was powerful and convincing. Thank you for the analysis!