President's Column

Current surveys show that most Americans recognize that global warming is a significant problem and is harming the environment. Less fully appreciated are related problems that exacerbate, reflect and contribute to the degradation of our environment including the population increase, reduction of glaciers, deforestation, the loss of arable land, depletion of the water supply, reduced fisheries, threats to a secure food supply, loss of coral reefs, rain forests and other critical habitats, accelerated extinction rates and more. The consequences extend to problems of a different order, including political unrest over reduced food availability and migration of people ("water refugees") because water is no longer available. Reducing global warming and promoting a sustainable environment are critical.

Many sciences are actively involved. Microbiology is focusing on microbes and plant relationships (a biological therapeutic alliance!) to produce sustainable biofuel in place of fossil fuels and to sequester greenhouse gases. Applied physics is working on new coatings to collect energy for solar power much more efficiently. In addition to science, religious scholars from a variety of traditions have articulated theological perspectives on human-environment relations and environmental stewardship (http://environment.harvard.edu/religion).

Psychology ought to play a major role because human behavior is central to energy use and environmental preservation. Psychology has been involved for a couple of decades, as reflected in such interrelated areas as environmental psychology, ecopsychology, conservation psychology, psychology of social justice and areas of applied psychology. From research, much has been learned about different types of behaviors and their relative impact on energy use, the connections of values, beliefs, norms and behavior, and strategies that can make a difference in promoting a more sustainable environment.

An APA Presidential Initiative this year is "Psychological Science's Contributions to Grand Challenges of Society," with climate change and promoting sustainable behaviors as a key focus. The initiative is in collaboration with APA's Science Directorate and its executive director, Steven Breckler. The activities have included:

  • A summit of a diverse group of scientists and policymakers to brainstorm about key social challenges (e.g., climate change, aging, disparities in health care).

  • Thematic programming of symposia and invited addresses on Grand Challenges at the annual convention.

  • A series of general public booklets (Society's Grand Challenges: Insights from Psychological Science) to communicate psychology's contributions (www.apa.org/science/GCBooklets.html).

APA is also planning a congressional briefing on psychology's role and relevance to climate change. A new APA Task Force on Psychology and Climate Change will further address and make prominent psychology's contributions.

My APA duties have brought me into contact with scientists from several disciplines working on climate change. It is surprising how often our work (e.g., on message framing, decision making, marketing) is relevant but not known. Our advances on promoting sustainable behavior are rather stealth within our own field as well. We ought to make the promotion of a sustainable environment a high priority within psychology and integrate our rich offerings with the efforts of other sciences, agencies and organizations. So many topics of our field (and virtually all of our APA divisions) are directly relevant and could be mobilized to convey more clearly that psychological science makes a difference. While an information or publicity campaign might state we are relevant, how better for society and our field to show through actions and applications that we actually are. Our organization has a strong commitment to being "green," as reflected in staff policies, use of resources, selection of convention venues and more (please see this Monitor story). The impact could be augmented by partnering with like-minded (and like-behaviored) organizations. For our field, perhaps a unifying theme for our richly diverse topics should be to make this the Decade of Promoting a Sustainable Environment. We could at once reduce the carbon footprint of society and increase the psychological science footprint of our field.

Further information

The topic of psychological science's contribution to promoting a sustainable environment was the focus of my APA presidential address. In contrast, for those of you interested in true scholarship, two sources on the scope of environmental problems we face and psychological science's contributions are:

  • Brown, L.B. (2008). Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to save civilization (3rd ed.). New York: WW Norton.

  • Gardner, G.T., & Stern, P.C. (2008). Environmental problems and human behavior (2nd ed.). Boston: Pearson.