Five Keys to Climate Citizenship: Insights from Psychological Science

by Mitch Anthony and Paul Dryfoos.

A majority of the American public believes that climate change is real, human-caused, dangerous, and in need of action to reduce emissions and manage impacts. Despite these beliefs, very few are actively engaged in practicing or advocating for climate-friendly actions and policies. According to Leo Barasi, author of the just released book The Climate Majority,

“It’s not that many people deny climate change: no more than 20% do, even in the US. The more important problem is that many people, perhaps half the population, understand that climate change is real and a threat, but just don’t think about it very much and don’t understand why they would need to change their lives to deal with it. Without their support, crucial emission-cutting measures will fail.”

Psychologist Sander van der Linden and climate communications experts Edward Maibach and Anthony Leiserowitz reviewed evidence from across the behavioral sciences to find out why the public response to climate change has been so muted.[1] They found that people believe climate change is a problem, but tend to regard it as a non-urgent and psychologically distant risk. It’s dangerous, but not here, not now, and probably not to my family and me. The authors draw some very useful lessons from behavioral and public opinion research.

  1. The human brain privileges experience over analysis. Statistical information, by itself, means very little to most people. Experience, on the other hand, can be a powerful teacher. There is research suggesting that personal experiences with extreme weather events makes people more concerned about climate change and more receptive to a strong societal response. Over time, as climate disruption affects more and more people, support for policies that decrease greenhouse gas emissions should increase.

Many climate activists and leaders recognize the importance of direct experience as an organizing principle. Encouraging concerned citizens to read a tutorial on climate change, send a donation or sign an on-line petition is fine. But true engagement is much more likely to result from “highly experiential” activities that involve group initiatives, direct interaction with other activists and public officials, and talking about climate change with friends, family, co-workers.

  1. People are social beings who respond to group norms. Climate change is a big, diffuse, complicated problem – it’s easy to feel powerless and sit on the sidelines. Research shows that people feel more powerful when they identify with a particular cultural group perspective on climate change. Much of the impetus for climate action is coming from groups of mothers, youth, elders, indigenous people, religious groups, regional groups, scientists, business, technology and finance groups.

There are many examples of organizations that have successfully used these group dynamics successfully:

  • Mothers Out Front started as a local group of mothers and grandmothers concerned about their children’ s future. The organization now has more than 20 chapters in five states. Several hundred active volunteers hold house parties in their communities to engage their neighbors in actions to address local environmental concerns and to support the broader climate citizenship movement.
  • More than 7,400 cities worldwide representing almost 10% of world population have entered into a Global Covenant of Mayors on Climate and Energy committing to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and fostering local climate resilience. Many of these cities have convened local coalitions to aggressively pursue climate solutions and move toward zero emissions economies.
  • Citizens’ Climate Lobby Is a bipartisan grassroots organization that advocates for climate-friendly legislation by empowering its 80,000 members to reach out to members of congress and their staffs. In 2016, CCL members held more than 1,000 congressional meetings, generated more than 45,000 letters to congress, op-eds, letters to the editor and outreach events
  • Ceres is a non-profit organization that convenes leaders from business and finance to pursue sustainable practices. Their Investor Network includes more than 130 institutional investors collectively managing more than $17 trillion in assets. Their Company network includes 50 major corporations committed to sustainability both as a societal responsibility and as a bottom line issue.
  • Peoples Climate Movement convened the April 2017 Peoples Climate March in Washington DC and hundreds of other cities. More than 500 national and local organizations worked together to turn out more than 300,000 people, demonstrating the movement-building potential of many small groups working together.

These are just a few examples of the initiatives that are leveraging shared group identity and values to foster climate citizenship.

  1. Out of sight, out of mind: the nature of psychological distance. People tend to heavily discount both future and geographically distant events when making decisions about where to invest attention and resources. Much of the news that people get about climate change has a future focus (i.e. sea level rise will engulf many coastal cities in 50-100 years) or a geographically distant focus (i.e. loss of sea and land ice in the polar regions.) According to the authors, psychological distancing can be reduced by highlighting the fact that climate change impacts are already happening, and that they are happening in each and every community.

This is a useful insight for climate activists and leaders. Many climate action groups gain public support by focusing on local concerns and more immediate impacts.

  1. Framing the big picture – nobody likes losing, but everyone likes gaining. Much of the media, scientific and policy discourse on climate change focuses on “losses” – environmental damage, economic displacement and climate refugee situations. Even climate solutions are framed as “losses”, such as higher taxes, constrained energy consumption and job displacement. The authors suggest flipping to a positive frame. Positive themes include: The economic and employment potential of bringing renewable energy technologies to scale; The national security advantages of a more resilient and decentralized energy grid and less need to defend foreign oil and gas sources; cleaner air and water, and – in the big picture – a more favorable environment for future generations.
  2. Playing the long game: tapping the potential of human motivation. The authors cite a large body of psychological research finding that many people intrinsically care about the wellbeing of others and the environment. This may be the most valuable insight of all. The planet is warming in dangerous ways and humanity has to respond or face dire consequences. We are an evolving, learning species. Our best hope is that humanity can come together and harness our potential to learn, innovate, organize and transform the human condition.

Why haven’t we done it yet? We didn’t have to. Though scientists have known for many decades about the dangers of climate change, we have had the luxury of ignoring those warnings and going about our business. That’s over. We have to respond or perish. Fortunately, there is a growing movement in communities around the planet. There are plenty of opportunities for individuals to become part of the movement. But we are still far from a sustainable trajectory. So we will need to resort to the well-tested human capacity for breakthrough ideas and the not so well-tested capacity for global transformation.

[1] van der Linden, Maibach, Leiserowitz, Improving Public Engagement With Climate Change: Five “Best Practice” Insights From Psychological Science, Sage, Perspectives on Psychological Science 10:6, 2015