Cover Story

Climate change is already melting ice caps, stressing world water supplies and intensifying the weather, according to the latest report of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, released in March. The report leaves little doubt about the scientific consensus on climate change: It's happening, it's extremely likely that humans are the main cause and it will only escalate if we don't take quick and significant action.

Despite this scientific consensus, annual greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise. In May 2013, a team of scientists from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced that the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere had reached a milestone record of 400 parts per million, likely higher than at any point in the last 3 million years.

So why have we — as individuals and as a society — generally failed to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions in the face of such serious consequences?

According to Anthony Leiserowitz, PhD, the director of Yale University's Project on Climate Change Communication, it's because "you really couldn't design a worse fit for our underlying psychology" than climate change.

The pain of paying more for gas at the pump, turning down the thermostat, or deciding to forgo airplane trips is real and immediate. And yet those actions can feel minuscule compared with what needs to be done to limit global warming. Meanwhile, the most serious consequences of climate change seem remote — far away and far in the future.

"It's kind of the perfect challenge," says Columbia University psychologist Elke Weber, PhD, who studies environmental decision-making. "The costs [of reducing carbon emissions] are immediate and upfront. But the benefits come in dribbles and with great uncertainty. The public doesn't easily have the tools to think about that and weigh costs and benefits and outcomes."

Now, behavioral scientists are helping to bridge that gap, by helping climate communicators better understand their audiences and motivate people to make changes to reduce global warming. Here are a few examples of how innovative researchers, educators and others are putting those strategies into practice.

Gauging public opinion

For any climate communicator, the most fundamental rule is "know thy audience," says Leiserowitz. Without understanding what citizens know and believe about climate change, it's impossible to know how to talk to them effectively. Two decades ago when climate scientists and others first began to talk about climate change, he says, they tended to lump the public into two simple groups — those who believed humans were causing the planet to warm up and those who didn't. Then they focused their efforts on convincing the disbelievers.

Leiserowitz thought this was too simplistic. In 2008, he and his colleagues surveyed more than 2,000 Americans and found that they could segment the public into six distinct groups along the following continuum: the "alarmed," who are certain that global warming is happening and support strong action to address it; the "concerned," who are moderately sure that it is happening but are less likely to view it as a personal threat; the "cautious," who are still making up their minds; the "disengaged," who don't know anything about the issue; the "doubtful," who don't think it's happening, but if it is, it's a natural cycle and therefore not something we can do anything about; and the "dismissive," who are certain that global warming is not happening and may think it's a hoax. Leiserowitz called these groups Global Warming's Six Americas.

His work has revealed that climate-change dismissives are a small though vocal minority of Americans. They can seem like a larger group because they are outspoken in the media, but in a survey he conducted last year, Leiserowitz found that two-thirds of all Americans were in the alarmed (16 percent), concerned (27 percent) or cautious (23 percent) categories. Five percent were disengaged, 12 percent were doubtful and only 15 percent were dismissive.

Just knowing those figures, Leiserowitz says, can help climate communicators. For example, a docent in a science museum might worry about talking to visitors about climate change because he or she is afraid of being attacked by climate dismissives, not realizing that they are likely a small percentage of the visitors.

"That is a vast disservice to the other 85 percent of people who are looking to them as experts to help them understand the science and how it applies to their lives," he says.

The Six Americas concept has proven to have staying power. Over the past several years, the National Park Service, science museums, aquariums and other groups around the country have begun to use it to assess their audiences and help guide their outreach.

Matt Lappé, executive director of the nonprofit Alliance for Climate Education (ACE), for example, has worked with Leiserowitz and colleagues to help design assemblies on climate change for high school students and to assess where the students fall on the Six Americas spectrum both before and after the ACE programs. That allows them to figure out whether they're making a difference in how this critical group thinks about climate change.

"This is the demographic that has had a strong role in cultural shifts," Lappé says. "Young people tend to be on the cutting edge of pushing the conversation in a way that can result in real change."

Leiserowitz and other public opinion researchers also hope that their work will reach policymakers. Showing politicians that the public largely believes that climate change is real — and supports efforts to mitigate it — could, they hope, help convince those politicians that supporting greenhouse-gas-reducing policies is less politically risky than it might seem.

Stanford University psychologist and public opinion researcher Jon Krosnick, PhD, for example, found in a 2013 analysis that even in traditionally "red" states — where people are more likely to dismiss climate change — more than three-quarters of respondents said that worldwide temperatures probably had been going up over the past 100 years. In most traditionally "blue" states, as many as 80 to 85 percent of people responded that way. And in all but four states, more than 50 percent of people thought that the U.S. government should do more to address global warming.

Leiserowitz and Krosnick differ on some issues of survey methodology and question wording — hence the differences in the magnitudes of their findings. But, Leiserowitz says, "We both find there's strong support for a variety of policies that would be put in place to combat [global warming.] … So in that sense there is and has long been more support for taking action then you see reflected in Washington, D.C."

Motivating personal change

Despite surveys showing that most U.S. citizens believe that climate change is a real and serious threat, on an individual level it can be tough to motivate them to take steps to reduce their own fossil fuel use, or advocate for political or communitywide change.

But psychologists' work can help, and educators, climate scientists and others are increasingly turning to behavioral science research to help them make their case.

One example is "The Psychology of Climate Change Communication," published by Columbia University's Center for Research on Environmental Decisions. The 50-page guide, first published in 2009 and now being updated for a second edition, is a user-friendly compilation of research meant to help environmental scientists, teachers, journalists and other climate communicators. It covers topics such as how to frame climate change in a way that makes it relevant to your audience, why to avoid overusing emotional appeals and how to talk about scientific uncertainty.

The center has conducted academic research in those areas since 2004, says Weber, who contributed to the guide. But around five years ago, staff realized that they needed to translate that research into practical recommendations for those who talk directly to the public about climate change. The guide has been a hit — it's been downloaded more than 26,000 times, according to Weber.

Part of its appeal is that it is full of specific examples of how to connect with different audiences — for example, by framing climate change as an issue with major implications for human health and national security as well as nature; and by emphasizing local rather than worldwide effects.

At the Alliance for Climate Education, Lappé is relying on that kind of advice to work with his teen audience, homing in on their demographics and interests to craft messages that will resonate most effectively with them.

For example, some researchers have found that framing climate change as a local, and not just global, problem can help. In one 2011 study in Environment & Behavior, for example, University of British Columbia psychologist Robert Gifford, PhD, asked 327 participants to complete a survey that measured their engagement with climate change issues. Before they did so, one group read a poster with information about the global effects of climate change, such as average sea level rise. Another group read a poster that emphasized local effects, such as worsening pine beetle infestations in local forests. A control group didn't read any message. Gifford found that the group that read the local message showed more engagement with climate change issues in the follow-up survey than the control group, while there was no difference between the global message group and the control group.

Because of results like these, Lappé and his staff have developed custom programs for students in different areas of the country — in the San Francisco Bay area, for example, they talk about drought and water availability, while in Denver they talk about increasing wildfires.

ACE has also worked to create follow-up "action teams" to keep the most enthusiastic students who come out of their assemblies engaged with climate change issues. These teams sponsor local projects like schoolwide energy audits or "bike to school" days. For those who want to get even more involved, ACE is organizing citywide action teams to work on larger efforts, such as community anti-car-idling campaigns in Reno, Nevada, and Atlanta.

"We think about our engagement program as being a ladder," he says. "At each point, students are given a ‘next step,' so that we can build a network of students at different levels of engagement. We've relied really heavily on research to lay out that pathway for the students."

Climate frames and carbon conversations

While ACE aims to reach hundreds of teens at a clip, Pennyslvania State University environmental psychologist Janet Swim, PhD, and her colleagues are trying to reach a different group — the 75 million people who visit zoos, aquariums and science centers every year. They're aiming to reach this sizeable population through a smaller group — the "informal science educators" who run those institutions and interact with the public there.

These staff and volunteers generally care deeply about animals, the environment and climate change issues. But often, Swim says, they feel constrained in what they can say about the topic — both because they don't want to appear too political and because they feel that they don't have the skills and knowledge to talk about the subject effectively.

Swim and her colleagues are working with a nonprofit group called the Frameworks Institute on a four- to five-month training program in which groups of about 40 of these educators meet to learn research-based techniques to talk to their visitors about climate change.

On a simple level, for example, the trainees learn to use more effective words and metaphors. For example, scientists often talk about the "greenhouse gas effect" contributing to global warming. But some research has found that people don't really understand what the greenhouse gas effect is. In fact, the metaphor may underplay the phenomenon's seriousness because people tend to think of greenhouses as gentle, pleasant places where plants grow. Instead, the training program teaches educators to use the stronger metaphor of a "heat-trapping blanket" covering the earth.

On another level, the educators also learn to frame the entire issue of climate change in a way that works with zoo and aquarium visitors.

"There are social norms in zoos and aquariums. People go there for entertainment," says Swim. "It's their vacation. So we're not going to succeed by talking doom and gloom about difficult subjects we can't do anything about."

Instead, she says, it's more effective for the educators to start the climate change conversation by emphasizing "big ideas" that most Americans agree on — that we are interconnected with the planet, and that Americans are innovators and can solve problems. "The idea is to shift people's frames, so that when you talk about climate change, people don't think about disasters, but instead about these things they already value."

Swim is evaluating the program as part of a five-year National Science Foundation grant. In a study published in the Journal of Museum Education in October, she found that the training increased the educators' belief in their ability to discuss climate change, and that after completing it they were more likely to talk about climate change with their co-workers and wider social networks.

Across the Atlantic, meanwhile, Rosemary Randall is trying to change individuals' energy-consumption habits just six to eight people at a time.

Randall spent 25 years as a psychotherapist in Cambridge, England, and has also been active in the environmental movement in the United Kingdom.

In the mid-2000s, she realized that she could combine her two passions by using principles of group therapy to help people reduce their carbon footprint. The facts of climate change, she says, can cause people to feel anxiety, guilt, anger and hopelessness. So, as with many things that cause those emotions, people tend to turn away and ignore the cause rather than figuring out how to address it.

"It's not that we don't know about climate change, it's that we hide it from ourselves," she says.

Group therapy, Randall believes, provides people a safe space to address many uncomfortable truths. So why not develop a group-based intervention that would give people a safe space to explore climate change and their own contributions to global warming?

That was the genesis of her program "Carbon Conversations," in which groups of six to eight people meet for six two-hour sessions with a trained leader, who shepherds them through conversations and exercises on what climate change means for themselves and their families. They talk about their fears and anxieties, and learn practical tips for steps they can take to reduce their own carbon footprint.

Randall and her colleagues have taken the program to community groups, local governments and workplaces. So far, more than 3,000 people have participated. A not-yet-published 2013 evaluation found that participants reduced their yearly carbon output by an average of three tons (the U.K. average yearly per-person carbon output is about 12 tons) through such actions as carpooling, reducing their meat consumption, foregoing vacations that required airplane trips and eco-refurbishing their homes.

"It is very time intensive, but it's quite effective," Randall says. "Something about the deeper engagement seems to keep people determined and willing to do more difficult things than they would otherwise have done."

The Bioregional Dashboard

In the modern world, it's easy to consume energy and resources: flip on a light switch, run a load of dishes, turn up your air conditioner during a summer heat wave. What's difficult, though, is to picture where that energy comes from, how it's produced, and how your personal use contributes to the community's use overall.

To Oberlin College psychologist Cindy Frantz, PhD, that's the crux of the problem with asking people to reduce their resource use. In the past, people had to cut their own firewood if they wanted light or heat or haul water from a creek to cook with. But now we get our light, heat and water without any effort, and without seeing any obvious signs of how it's produced.

"All functional systems have to have feedback," she says. "But we as modern humans live in systems that have no feedback about our resource use."

That's what Frantz is working to change with her Oberlin Environmental Dashboard, a multipart project that aims to help citizens in Oberlin, Ohio, visualize their personal and community energy and water use, and in doing so increase their sense of connection with nature and their motivation to cut their resource use.

In the project's first phase, Frantz and her colleagues in the environmental science department installed energy-monitoring software in all of the dorms on campus. Real-time information about each dorm's energy use is displayed on a monitor in the building. Since 2007, the dorms have used the information to participate in an annual energy-reduction competition.

In 2012, Frantz and her colleagues expanded the building monitoring program to several public schools and libraries in the surrounding Oberlin community.

They also unveiled a new, online citywide dashboard that displays real-time information on how much electricity and water the entire city is consuming on an engaging screen display.

The goal of the citywide dashboard, Frantz says, is broader than that of the building dashboards. Her aim is to help people understand how their individual actions contribute to the collective resource use and ecosystem of the city, and make them feel more connected to those resources.

"It shows, literally, the connection between the coal-fired electricity plant and their house. And it shows how wastewater coming out of a house goes to the nearby creek. We're trying to broaden the context in which they think about these things."

In one study, which Frantz presented at APA's 2013 Annual Convention, she found that people who spent just a few minutes a day interacting with the dashboard, for six days in a row, showed a heightened sense of connection with nature. They also had a tendency to show wider "rings of responsibility" — in other words, to think more broadly about who shares the responsibility for an outcome like resource overuse.

"That's really exciting to me because it suggests that we're not just giving them little facts, but we're shifting the way that they think about the world," Frantz says.

Further reading

For much more on how psychology can help address climate change, read the 2009 report from APA's Task Force on the Interface between Psychology and Global Climate Change, led by Janet Swim, PhD, of Pennsylvania State University. 

Other resources include:

Center for Research on Environmental Decisions (2009). The Psychology of Climate Change Communication: A Guide for Scientists, Journalists, Educators, Political Aides, and the Interested Public. New York.

Leiserowitz, A., Maibach, E., Roser-Renouf, C., Feinberg, G. & Howe, P. (2013) Global Warming's Six Americas, September 2012. Yale University and George Mason University. New Haven, CT: Yale Project on Climate Change Communication.