Cover story

A role for psychology in the shadow of the UN conference on climate change

The field of psychology is in a key position to drive conversations about environmental sustainability

By Susan A. Nolan, PhD
APA-NGO Representative to the United Nations

Arnold Schwarzenegger's children take long showers — really long showers. "So I finally had to implement rules at home," he said, "and tell them that if they take showers that are longer than five minutes...there will be consequences, like they will not be able to go out...they will not be able to bring friends over" (Steinhauer, 2009). Governor Schwarzenegger's domestic efforts, adjuncts to the legislation he has forwarded, highlight the difficulties in effecting behavioral change in efforts to protect the environment, and simultaneously spotlight areas in which psychologists can be effective agents for transformation.

The United Nations and climate change

The United Nations Conference on Climate Change is convening in Copenhagen from December 7 through 18, 2009. As it approaches, the UN reports that "the pace of climate change is surpassing the worst case scenarios scientists predicted in 2007" (von Bülow, 2009), and at the recent meetings of the UN General Assembly, U.S. President Barack Obama said "as we head towards Copenhagen, there should be no illusions that the hardest part of our journey is in front of us" (Galbraith, 2009). Despite the obstacles noted by world leaders, the UN's Worldwide Campaign on Climate Change entreats us to join in the fight: "there is no time to waste," they insist (Seal the Deal, 2009). It is incumbent on us – as members of civil society and as psychologists – to get involved.

As the Copenhagen conference draws near, the UN nongovernmental (NGO) Committee on Sustainable Development (CSD) has recently been reconstituted. The fortuitous timing provides an opportunity for NGOs such as APA to have a voice at the UN, particularly in Copenhagen. Indeed, CSD is aware of their opportunity, and is drafting a discussion paper for submission to the conference. NGO members of CSD, including psychologists from the American Psychological Association (APA) and the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues (SPSSI), will have an opportunity to contribute to the CSD's draft. Aware of its status as a fledgling organization after several years as a moribund entity, CSD is taking explicit steps to raise awareness at the UN, as well as among those in civil society, of its presence. The steps it is taking are a model for what we as psychologists can do in advance of and in the wake of the Copenhagen conference.

Among its burgeoning initiatives, CSD is encouraging its members, and members of the NGOs that they represent, to join Seal the Deal, the UN's Worldwide Campaign on Climate Change. Seal the Deal aims to rally worldwide support to encourage governments to endorse a global climate agreement in Copenhagen. Seal the Deal provides a format through which interested world citizens may sign a petition for a climate agreement or participate in activities, such as tree-planting drives, to promote environmentally responsible change. Individuals, as well as organizations, can sign on through the Seal the Deal website.

Beyond Seal the Deal, members of CSD encourage civil society to participate in non-UN initiatives, such as 350, that also engage in efforts to combat climate change. 350 promoted the International Day of Climate Action on October 24, 2009. The number that is their name, 350, refers to the parts per million deemed safe by scientists for the amount of C02 in earth's atmosphere. The 350 organizers point to the conference in Copenhagen as a moment of truth — the proposed treaties, they say, do not meet the necessary restrictions on emissions and they call on individuals to add their voices to the call for change.

Psychology and climate change

The field of psychology is in a key position to drive conversations about environmental sustainability. This past summer, APA formally accepted its Task Force report, Psychology and Global Climate Change: Addressing a Multifaceted Phenomenon and Set of Challenges. The report reviews relevant research, outlines best practices in which psychologists might engage now, and delineates areas in which further psychology research is needed. Notably, the report calls for collaborative work among psychologists of different subdisciplines. Task Force conclusions were foreshadowed by Alan Kazdin in his 2008 APA Presidential Address, Psychological Science's Contributions to a Sustainable Environment. Stating that "our diversity is our strength" (p. 341, 2009), Kazdin noted that the wide-ranging content of our field and our position as a "hub discipline" from which other fields draw, renders psychology relevant to many aspects of proposed solutions to climate change.

As noted by the APA Task Force (2009) and Kazdin (2009), many of us are trained to conduct and understand research, to educate, and/or to conduct psychotherapy — all skills that can be harnessed by the environmental movement. First, research skills can be employed to promote global environmental values at individual and societal levels. For example, Goldstein, Griskevicius and Cialdini (2007) studied environmentally related appeals in a hotel environment. They found that encouragement that included a social norm, such as "Join your fellow guests in helping to save the environment. Almost 75% of guests who are asked to participate in our new resource savings program do help by using their towels more than once," led to a higher rate of towel recycling (44.1%) than did environmentally focused messages such as "partner with us to help save the environment" (35.1%).

Individual studies from disparate areas of psychology combine to form an expansive, empirically driven environmental movement; as the APA Task Force report outlines, psychologists of many stripes conduct a range of research related to climate change — on perceptions of risk, the role of human behavior, and psychological obstacles that prevent change at individual and societal levels, for example. Pulling subdisciplines together, the field of conservation psychology has recruited researchers with varying backgrounds to study the relation between people and the natural environment with an eye toward sustainable solutions (Chamberlin, 2005).

Our background as educators affords us a second venue for involvement in solutions to climate change. Most explicitly, the Conservation Psychology website lists 20 professors who teach courses in conservation psychology, as well as additional resources, such as several academic programs or lectures series on this topic. Beyond specific courses in conservation psychology, the Task Force report encourages educators to embed segments on climate change and environmental sustainability across psychology curricula.

The Task Force report also notes that psychologists have developed empirically-based interventions to change climate-change related behavior, many of which are educational in nature. More specifically, we might use our skills as educators to aid environmental organizations in forwarding their messages of change. For examples, we might contribute to the World Wildlife Foundation's (WWF) Strategies for Change. The WWF's Natural Change Project uses psychology research, defining the field of "ecopsychology," to drive behavior change.

Psychotherapy might seem the least likely of the three psychology skill sets — research, education, clinical work — to be a venue for fighting climate change. But as the APA Task Force notes, psychologists are involved in identifying and ameliorating psychosocial and mental health effects of climate change at both individual and community levels. Further, as the WWF's work highlights, there is a strong link between our personal feelings and the environment, and therapy can play a role in helping us to adapt to difficult but necessary changes.

The Natural Change Project targets people who are not yet strongly attached to environmental movements in an attempt to convert them to ardent environmentalists. The WWF Web site explains: "elements (of exploring environmental change) create personal psychological space and point to the need for personal change." Said Sarah Munro, a Natural Change Project participant: "We may be in uncharted water but that doesn't mean we're going down. Who knows where we could go if there was enough will for something better?" Let's, as psychologists, play an active role in helping people to develop the will to change and guiding the way to that "something better."

Or we can go the way of Governor Schwarzenegger and his environmentally friendly child-rearing techniques. "I will sometimes spy on them when it comes to the showers and time them," he said. "And I told them if I catch them, there will be something built in that I have from Europe, which only allows you to take a shower for five minutes and then it turns off automatically, which they have in Europe in gymnasiums so you don't take a shower for too long" (Steinhauer, 2009). Ah yes, if psychology fails, there's always engineering.