Executive Director’s Column

No Denial Here

As laid out in a recent APA report, psychologists have a critical role to play in addressing climate change.

By Steven Breckler, PhD

Public opinion polls show very clearly that Americans are concerned about global warming, and believe that the federal government should develop interventions that slow its causes. In a recent Washington Post-ABC News Poll, respondents were asked about their support for or opposition to ten different government interventions. The vast majority of respondents supported:

  • Development of more solar and wind power

  • Development of electric car technology

  • Requiring more energy conservation by businesses and industries

  • Requiring more energy conservation by consumers

  • Requiring car manufacturers to improve the fuel-efficiency of vehicles sold in this country

  • Using cash rebates to encourage people to buy more fuel efficient cars

Respondents to these surveys support cap and trade programs, even if it results in an increase in their utility bill. Americans believe that the United States should take action on global warming even if other major industrial countries do less.

The American people know what the science is telling us: our behaviors and our technologies have altered the environment in undesirable ways, and our behaviors and our technologies must change before it is too late.

Psychology will be essential to this effort. We are, after all, the science of human behavior. Helping consumers to conserve energy, adopt new technologies, and otherwise change their behaviors is precisely where psychology, more than any other scientific discipline, can help.

The timing could not be better for this summer's release of the APA Task Force report, Psychology and Global Climate Change: Addressing a Multi-faceted Phenomenon and Set of Challenges. The task force addressed an array of issues to which psychology contributes unique and important insight:

  • Perceptions of global warming and climate change risks

  • Human behavioral contributions to climate change

  • Psychosocial and mental health impacts of actual and perceived climate change

  • Social and community impacts of climate change

  • Psychological barriers that limit individual and collective action on climate change

  • Empirically-based approaches to developing interventions to alter behaviors

The support and appreciation expressed for the work of the task force has been remarkable, refreshing, and exhilarating. Psychological science is clearly welcomed by all of the stakeholders who share common concerns and goals. When it comes to addressing the challenge of climate change, it is looking increasingly hopeful that science will prevail.

There are some who insist that scientists have misled and fooled the public about climate change. That it is a liberal political plot. That the science is not at all clear and conclusive. A 2008 New York Times editorial described how the Bush administration even worked to conceal the true scientific evidence (The Science of Denial).

Of course, there are also those who insist that Neil Armstrong never set foot on the moon. As psychologists, we can understand the appeal of conspiracy theories, and the comfort people find in denial. Yet, as scientists, we can also appreciate the value of evidence and the need to intervene.

APA is strongly committed to promoting the development and application of psychological science to the problem of global climate change. We support current efforts in congress to establish an office for behavioral science within the Department of Energy. And we will continue to pursue the many policy recommendations made by the task force. Our hope is that psychologists will take this opportunity to become more engaged with the challenge. We are needed more than ever.