Nearly two out of three American adults see global warming as a very serious problem that threatens future generations, and most feel motivated to reduce their energy use to curb climate change, finds a 2008 national household survey conducted by researchers from George Mason University and the communications firm Porter Novelli.
Yet without accurate and actionable information on the best ways to achieve those energy savings, "people tend to overestimate the importance of behaviors that are easy to think of and underestimate how much they could save with efficiency behaviors," said Paul C. Stern, PhD, a psychologist with the National Research Council. That's because activities such as turning off lights or turning down the thermostat during winter tend to be frequently repeated behaviors that are easy to think of, whereas investments in infrastructure, such as insulating the attic or installing a more energy-efficient heating unit, are typically less visible, said Stern at an APA convention symposium that was part of President Alan E. Kazdin's initiative on the grand challenges facing society.
But by purchasing more efficient household appliances and cars, Americans can reduce their energy use by almost 30 percent, without making major economic or quality-of-life sacrifices.
"That's more than 10 percent of national energy consumption in the United States," Stern noted. These actions will also help families save money in the long run.
Stern's research, conducted with University of Michigan-Dearborn psychology professor Gerald T. Gardner, PhD, and published in the current issue of Environment Magazine (Vol. 50, No. 5), prioritizes 17 of the most effective actions American households can take to cut energy use. For example, purchasing a highly fuel-efficient vehicle saves more energy and reduces carbon emissions more than all options for curtailing vehicle use - including carpooling to work, lowering highway speeds, consolidating errands and altering driving habits - combined.
This type of data-driven research helps consumers make informed decisions with regard to climate change, Stern said, but he added that more contributions from psychologists are needed in finding ways to convey information specific to a household, such as about how much energy is being lost through walls and windows and what a home's overall energy efficiency - and therefore its cost of operation - is likely to be.
In addition, psychologists can help people understand the complex and constantly changing scientific information about climate change in a way that helps people decide whether to move to areas threatened by coastal storms, heat or water shortages, he said.
Psychologists also need to work closely with other scientists and other professions, including architects and engineers, so that urban and home design solutions are "informed, relevant and applicable," said David Uzzell, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of Surrey in England. Uzzell also said that the field's role in climate change should not be limited to the work of environmental psychologists. Psychological research and practice are urgently needed in areas such as changing organizational culture, risk communication, prejudice, discrimination and intergroup conflict, and cognitive performance in extreme temperatures and under conditions of stress - all relevant to the challenges faced through climate change.
"Many psychologists feel that climate change, sustainability and the environment have nothing to do with them, yet they would be the first to say they are concerned with quality of life, well-being, health, justice and equity," Uzzell said. "All psychologists have a key role to play in understanding the causes and consequences of climate change and devising mitigation and adaptation strategies, programs and interventions at the global, regional, local and individual levels."