Speaking of Psychology: Understanding climate change

Episode 9

As the discussion over how to address climate change heats up this Earth Day, we’re taking a look at how people understand the risks of climate change and how they adapt. We talk with two psychologists in this episode about how psychological research can contribute to an understanding of global climate change. Psychology professor Janet Swim, PhD, and conservation psychologist John Fraser, PhD, discuss the psychology of communication, politics and behavior as well as how psychologists can encourage others to become more engaged in the environment.

About the experts: Janet Swim, PhD, and John Fraser, PhD

Janet Swim, PhD Janet Swim, PhD, professor of psychology at The Pennsylvania State University, has chaired the American Psychological Association Task Force on Psychological Perspectives on Climate Change and is currently examining how people’s beliefs about climate change are influenced by others, as well as how to encourage people to support pro-environmental behaviors. She works with the National Network for Ocean and Climate Change Interpretation to train educators in how to effectively communicate climate change information.




John Fraser, PhD, is a conservation psychologist, architect and educator serving as president and CEO of the New York think tank New Knowledge Organization. His research focuses on how social relationships and media influence how people choose to engage in solving big social problems like climate change mitigation and resolving health disparities.

Transcript

Audrey Hamilton: As the discussion over how to address climate change heats up this Earth Day, we’re taking a look at how people understand the risks of climate change and how they adapt. In this episode, we talk with two psychologists, who study everything from communication to behavior change and discuss how psychological research can contribute to an understanding of global climate change. I’m Audrey Hamilton and this is “Speaking of Psychology. “

Janet Swim is a professor of psychology at The Pennsylvania State University. She chaired the American Psychological Association Task Force on Psychological Perspectives on Climate Change. She is currently examining how people’s beliefs about climate change are influenced by others as well as how to encourage people to support pro-environmental behaviors.

Also with us is John Fraser. He is a conservation psychologist, architect and educator serving as president and CEO of the New York think tank New Knowledge Organization. His current research focuses on how social relationships and media influence how people choose to engage in solving big social problems, like climate change mitigation, resolving health disparities or creating positive opportunities for youth to become their best selves. They are working together with the National Network for Ocean and Climate Change Interpretation, which has the goal of training educators on how to effectively communicate climate change information. Welcome Dr. Swim and Dr. Fraser.

Janet Swim: Thank you.

John Fraser: Thanks very much.

Audrey Hamilton: First and foremost, this is the most basic question, but how is psychology contributing to the discussion about climate change?

Janet Swim:  Well, I would say that there are probably two major ways that psychology is contributing. One way is that a lot of psychologists look into behavioral change and so there are issues about getting individuals to change everyday behaviors and individuals to engage in civic action, contacting their political officials and things like that. The other is a broader perspective and bringing in issues of environmental justice and thinking about the ways that climate change affect people – minority groups, people in vulnerable parts of the world – both in the United States, actually and across the planet.

John Fraser: I think there’s been a lot of conversation about how people understand the facts of climate change, but very little about how we process it in our minds and that is really going to be key to any kind of future change and that’s where psychologists can be really useful.  

Audrey Hamilton: Are people’s behaviors changing when it comes to taking steps to help prevent climate change, such as being more energy conscious, recycling?

Janet Swim: Yeah, I think they have changed. It’s a slow movement. It’s not all going to happen all at once. But, you can see things across the country and even at our universities, there are lots more committees being formed and task force and trying to change institutions that way. So, I think we actually are seeing a lot of change. 

John Fraser: I think it’s such a big question about what you can do that when people think at small levels, like turning off lights or recycling, they’re really not systemically organizing it in their minds about how can they deal with the biggest problem because it’s pretty overwhelming when we start to think about the scale of climate change and what our little actions are going to be. But, these collective actions are really starting to show.

Audrey Hamilton: Why do some people reject the notion of climate change occurring at all? Is there some sort of psychological reasoning behind this?

John Fraser: Well, I definitely think there is some psychological reasoning behind it. I think there are two conversations there in that question that I think it’s important to unpack. The first is that there aren’t that many people who really deny climate change. It’s about five percent of our country doesn’t think it’s possible. There are a lot of people who are questioning whether climate change or what the mechanisms are. But, it’s not denial. That’s a kind of propaganda story. I mean, eight percent of America thinks Elvis is still alive. So, it’s not really a fact that people don’t get it. It’s understanding how it works. So, we’re arguing over facts that everyone agrees on. What the real issue is is how do people understand climate change in their lives and practically how they can relate to the topic.  

Janet Swim: I also say that part of the issue is that people are not talking about climate change either. And so part of the message when people think that other people are not believing in climate change, then they think they don’t want to be the ones to say something, but actually a lot of people do. And so they need to just start talking about it with each other and start figuring out what it means for them and what they can do, what they can’t do, what they’re feeling like they’re able to do.

John Fraser: I mean, that’s really the heart of our research is how do we get people engaged in the conversation and something that is proactively imagining themselves in the solution instead of pretending no one believes it and then we just don’t talk about it and so we don’t know where to go. And it has been politicized. That’s probably the biggest problem. Facts have been politicized. And one of the things that the National Network for Ocean and Climate Change Interpretation is trying to do is take the politics away and get it back to practical action.

Audrey Hamilton: And how can psychologists inform policy discussions in this area?

John Fraser: One of the biggest roles for psychologists is really, how do we talk about what is possible. What is our potential future? When we think about policy – I mean – I’ll tell you, our research is funded by the National Science Foundation. We are not involved in policy discussions in our research. But, when I think as an individual about policy, one of the things psychologists can certainly do is help people understand what they can be as a political actor. Someone who is advocating for positive change, that’s going to make the world a better place. You know, that’s my individual opinion, not the project, though.

Janet Swim: I would also say that there is a thing that psychologists can do is to help policymakers understand what people are thinking and feeling about climate change and be part of the communication to tell policymakers that people are concerned about this and to be that voice and to make them realize that there is that concern.

John Fraser: A lot of policy focuses on things that are economic in structure, but we get concerned about issues of justice because there are people who are going to lose just because of where they live, how they live or where they are in the economic spectrum. And one of the things that we know from the general population is most people really care and want people to be protected. They want to live in a peaceful society. They don’t want conflict. And so, if we continue to talk about economics and not about the justice for people who are front lined living in places that are going to be threatened, like people who live in Micronesia, then we really aren’t being good people. So, I think we can get engaged in those kinds of policy decisions.

Audrey Hamilton: How can psychologists improve communication about the very real impacts of climate change and what people can do to help address the threat?

John Fraser: You know, that’s an interesting question. Our research started long before Janet and I were collaborating. I was working for a conservation organization, The Wildlife Conservation Society in New York City, and we found that in our meetings there was a very elevated sense of concern, almost what looked like panic in some conversations. That started a project that eventually got sewed into the project we’re working on today.

We were looking at the emotional experience of knowing the problem. And climate change is really a threatening issue. People see the world around them changing and leaving them and that is emotionally distressing, when you know the facts. When you can see the evidence, it is distressing. And when you think people around you don’t believe you, you self-edit because the emotional labor that goes into doing that work is difficult.

So what we find is that people who know the facts, who understand what’s necessary, who are working in frontline conservation jobs, who are working as educators, are emotionally distressed and avoiding the emotional labor of getting involved in the work.

What we are trying to do is help these folks to see that there is a possible future, there is a possible narrative. And I think this is a real job across the many different kinds of psychology, from positive psychology to consumer psychology to justice to peace. All of these topics deal with emotionally difficult work and I think we need to focus on the worker’s personal life and experience as part of that story. Not just about telling the story, but what does it mean to be a storyteller?

When I was doing that research, Janet Swim was working for the APA’s task force on how does psychology address climate change and I realized that she had some information that I didn’t know. And so I called Janet and said I would love to collaborate with you on this question because I don’t know how to deal with this issue of emotional stress.

Janet Swim: That’s an interesting perspective because I felt like I was there doing research on emotional issues about climate change and I was looking for a place to do that research. So, I thought I’d contact you and this seemed like a great place to do that research. But, the research that I was interested in, one of the emotions I was interested in is hope. So hope is basically transforming fear into a positive experience in a sense that you have a sense that you know what you can do. You need basic fear to start with in a sense of why you want to be concerned about this and what you want to – facing the future – but when you can start thinking about your ability to do something, having a plan of action – not necessarily a big plan of action, but have a plan for how you can talk to people, then you cannot feel so threatened.  You can feel like you have some agency. And so, working with these people in the zoos and aquariums seems like an opportunity to take these feelings of threat and help them see a plan of action and be able to then start having conversations with other people.

Audrey Hamilton: Can you talk a little bit about what that work is in the zoos and in the aquariums?

John Fraser: We’re working with the National Network for Ocean and Climate Change Interpretation. That’s a National Science Foundation funded project organized by the New England Aquarium. But, it’s really a vision about creating a community of practice in the zoo and aquarium community. It’s bringing in people who are doing this interpretation from around the country working with an organization called Frameworks Institute who are helping structure conversation that is de-politicized and about an interaction between two people on a topic they both are concerned about.

And that project – what’s exciting about it is it’s an unusual training program. We suggested when the project was first getting off the ground that instead of bringing one person to training, that we bring them with someone they work with every day. That they come in twos, that they work together on the problem solving and that they’ve got somebody who’s got their back in their own office and those people work together in small groups of 10 – 10 organizations – those people work together in groups of 20 – two people from each organization, on developing strategies that are unique to their local community.

So this project that is zoos, aquariums, nature centers – people who are doing science interpretation around the country – are starting to develop techniques and tools, but they’re doing it with friends. They’re doing it with co-workers and that’s part of why the psychological aspects of this are so interesting. Because what we’re starting to see in some of the work that Janet’s leading with looking at hope is that it is about those social interactions and feeling that someone can experience what you’re experiencing. 

Janet Swim: A part of this is bringing your friends along, but also what you start doing when you go back to your organization again and so it’s about the social networks that people have within the organizations, the social networks that they have with their friends and family outside of the organization and then even when they go in and they give a program at a zoo, an aquarium or other informal science learning centers, that the people they talk to, hopefully, will start talking to other people as well. So, it’s a large network but starting at a small scale with the people who actually are on the frontline education.

John Fraser: When you think about ideas like a disease, a good idea can migrate around but it requires multiple contacts. People tend to be resistant to a single contact but multiple exposure to an idea creates a greater opportunity for it to migrate, to move in society.

So when we think about people working in local zoos, aquariums, nature centers around the country, they talk to people every day. Their best friends are their go-to folks for different topics so when you work in a zoo or aquarium, you’re the go-to on nature questions. So, our stories about climate change are going to come through social networks, through people we trust and those one-time visitors may take away a bit of an idea but the people you talk to in your social life every day, every week when you call mom and dad – those are the conversations that really have the chance to pick up around the country and move at a bigger level.      

Audrey Hamilton: Well, thank you so much for joining us, Dr. Swim, Dr. Fraser. This has been very, very interesting.

John Fraser: Thank you.

Janet Swim: Thank you.

Audrey Hamilton: For more information on Dr. Swim’s and Dr. Fraser’s work and to read the report of the American Psychological Association Task Force on Psychology and Global Climate Change, visit our website. With the American Psychological Association’s “Speaking of Psychology,” I’m Audrey Hamilton.