Feature

Last year's unrelenting heat in Texas, severe hurricanes in Vermont, and October snow storms are a reminder of the seriousness of global climate change and how our current decisions will affect future generations.

Recognizing this, APA and its members are working to apply psychology's knowledge on human behavior to help protect the environment and to prepare people to cope with changes already taking place. Those efforts include collaborating with other scientific societies to better teach undergraduates about the environmental, economic and social dimensions of sustainability; sharing the field's latest research in the area; and taking steps to reduce energy use at APA headquarters.

"A key factor in reversing dangerous climate changes is altering our behaviors, habits and our individual and organizational decisions," says APA Chief Executive Officer Norman B. Anderson, PhD. "Psychologists naturally should be leading the way on this."

APA's green activities include:

  • Reaching out to undergraduates: Last year, APA joined forces with 10 other science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) and education societies to work on sustainability projects. In one, APA is helping to develop policy recommendations aimed at supporting sustainability themes in STEM education and also to encourage policymakers at the local, state, organizational and national levels to make decisions that favor a more sustainable future—promoting green business, for example, or promoting the United States' role as a leader in reducing carbon emissions. APA is also disseminating research-based case studies, modules, data sets and other resources supported by research on sustainability that teachers can use in courses, textbooks, websites or class assignments.

    It's an exciting opportunity for psychology to work with other disciplines to share scientific knowledge on sustainability and to impact large numbers of students, says APA Associate Executive Director for Education Robin Hailstorks, PhD. "There are so many students who take introductory psychology that we have an opportunity to be leaders in this area."

  • Task force updates: APA's 2009 report from the Task Force on the Interface Between Psychology and Global Climate Change was very popular with the media, receiving coverage from The New York Times, The Washington Post, National Public Radio and U.S. News & World Report, among many other outlets. The report addresses psychology's contribution to understanding the human impacts of climate change, understanding psychological responses to physical and psychological impacts of climate change, and assisting efforts to adapt to and mitigate the effects of climate change.

    The task force updated its findings in a special section of the May/June 2011 American Psychologist®. The issue's seven articles address human causes, effects and potential responses to climate change, and identify psychological processes that may aid in the creation of successful adaptation and mitigation policies and strategies, says task force chair Janet K. Swim, PhD, professor of psychology at Penn State University. The articles emphasize that interventions should take into account such psychological processes as risk perception—the human tendency to underestimate the impact of future events or events we don't think will affect us directly. Psychology also must show the public how its findings can promote more green behaviors, in particular those with high impact, such as choosing transportation options with a low carbon footprint.

    Another task force effort has been to develop APA resolutions on sustainability. One, passed by the APA Council of Representatives last February, officially recognized the psychosocial impacts of climate change, the ethical imperative to address climate change through adaptation and mitigation, and the role that psychosocial processes play in hindering public acceptance of climate change. Another, passed in 2010, encourages APA to set emissions-reduction goals and to determine ways to meet those goals.

    A third resolution, which is working through APA governance, would establish a committee of psychologists charged with thinking more broadly about sustainability. Their work could include promoting research on sustainability, or encouraging psychologists with the appropriate expertise to advise companies on ways to change employees' and customers' behaviors around energy use, for example.

  • Educating the public: In another effort to reach the public, the APA Science Directorate hosted an exhibit in 2010 on psychology's role in solving environmental issues. Called "Let's use our heads to save the environment," it was one of about 500 exhibits in the USA Science Exhibit on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Several thousand adults and teens visited the exhibit, which focused on how the decisions we make every day influence the environment.

    "Our location was great—right in the middle of the exposition—and we had a steady stream of people who asked great questions and had a lot to say," says Howard Kurtzman, PhD, deputy executive director of the directorate. People expressed surprise that a psychological organization would be working on the topic, he adds. "That was great because it gave us the chance to educate people about the contributions that psychological science can make to sustainability."

  • Division collaborations: Several APA divisions are working together on sustainability issues. Div. 9 (Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues) will kick off its biennial conference June 22–24 in Charlotte, NC, co-hosting a miniconvention with Div. 34 (Society for Environmental, Population and Conservation Psychology) on "the three E's": environment, education and equity. Meanwhile, Div. 34 members are helping Div. 8 (Society for Personality and Social Psychology) faculty and students organize a pre-conference meeting Jan. 26 on sustainability psychology in conjunction with Div. 8's annual conference in San Diego. The meeting will feature talks by experts on such topics as why Americans are less likely to believe in the science of global warming today than they were in 2007. The meeting will also include a paper swap, poster sessions and a data blitz—a session where speakers give quick talks featuring one exciting new piece of data. Participants and speakers will also have a chance to brainstorm ideas on where to go from here.

  • Greenness on APA's home turf: At the association's two properties in Washington, D.C.—the headquarters building at 750 First St., N.E., and its commercial rental property at 10 G St., N.E.—efforts are under way to reduce energy consumption, maximize recycling and contribute to a healthier environment.

    In fact, APA's activities in these areas have led to some distinctions members can be proud of, notes APA Chief Financial Officer Archie Turner. For one, the Environmental Protection Agency has rated both buildings in the top 10 percent of buildings in the United States with the lowest carbon footprint. In addition, the 10 G St. building is close to being LEED-certified with the certification's gold rating, the second-highest rating for existing buildings.

    In addition, for both buildings, APA purchased a utilities plan that uses 100 percent wind energy and significantly reduces APA's carbon dioxide emissions. APA has also installed variable frequency drives on the buildings' heating, ventilation and air conditioning equipment to regulate air flow and use less energy. APA has installed a "green roof" on part of the 10 G St. building. The rooftop's plants absorb stormwater that would otherwise run into sewer systems and further pollute the Chesapeake Bay. The roof is also less reflective than traditional roofing material, meaning it absorbs heat rather than sending it back into the atmosphere.

    APA is cutting down on paper waste by asking staff to print double-sided and to electronically scan and recycle paper as much as possible. Meanwhile, all trash generated by staff besides food—about 95 percent of its total waste—gets recycled. APA officials also are adopting more energy-efficient lighting, with plans to do so throughout the headquarters building during the next renovation, scheduled to take place within the next 10 years. Over time, say APA officials, these changes will lower the building's energy use enough to position it for LEED certification.

    APA staff is also eager to help. A staff committee chaired by APA Science Programs Associate Nicolle Singer is organizing brownbag speaker sessions on environmental topics and planning staff tours of nearby green facilities, for example.

    While there's more APA can do to reduce its carbon footprint, and while the association must keep cost in mind, there is no question that APA knows where it stands in relation to the environment, Turner adds.

    "Philosophically, the [APA] Board and Council, management and staff are committed to making APA as sustainable as possible," he says. "There are no pockets of resistance here."


Tori DeAngelis is a writer in Syracuse, N.Y.

APA resources on sustainability

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—T. DeAngelis