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Prof. Adam Pearson Tells Us Why the Field of Psychology Should Care About Climate Change

Image of green grass and blue sky on left side with a dry arid landscape on the right.

Climate change is not just about the physical sciences. It is also a social issue -- that's why a group of researchers is examining the psychological causes and consequences of climate change as they affect people around the globe.

In this Q&A, Pomona College Professor of Psychology Adam Pearson explains why it is important for psychologists to point their research to climate change to better understand how people both perceive it and how they are influenced by it.

Pearson is a co-editor of a recently published special issue of the journal Group Processes & Intergroup Relations that seeks to understand how group dynamics influence how people process and respond to climate change as well as how climate change can inform the study of intergroup relations. 

Why should psychology point its lens to the issue of climate change?

To psychologists, climate change, in many ways, is the perfect villain. If you were to devise a problem with the potential to wreak havoc on human and non-human systems alike, and at the same time avoid triggering the type of wide-scale response needed to combat its effects, climate change would be it. It’s a vast, slow-moving problem with long time lags between human causes and their visible effects, that unfolds in complex ways mostly hidden from public view.

Climate change is also profoundly social: how people perceive and engage with the issue is powerfully influenced by the reactions of others. Despite a clear scientific consensus on the dangers posed by climate change, public mobilization around the issue has remained surprisingly limited in some of the biggest emitting nations, such as the U.S.

The question of what motivates people to act on climate change is a psychological question. Over a decade of research suggests that simply educating people about the dangers of climate change is only minimally effective. This is because how we think about climate change is partly rooted in our beliefs about what others, and especially people like us, think about the problem - social psychological processes. We need to better understand these processes, and the divisions they can sow, in order to reach effective, long-term solutions. This is the first journal issue devoted exclusively to understanding how group dynamics influence how people respond (or fail to respond) to climate change.

What are some of the key findings highlighted in this special issue “Climate Change and Intergroup Relations”?

Psychologists have uncovered a wide range of cognitive biases, such as a tendency to see climate change as something happening far away – distant in both space and time. In the special issue, we focus on a second class of biases—social biases – that we think are equally formidable in stalling progress. The special issue, co-edited with a fellow social psychologist and close collaborator, Jonathon Schuldt (in Cornell’s Department of Communication), describes new research that reveals how both overt and hidden biases can undermine collective action on climate change, and also points to how these forces can be harnessed to mobilize action.

Several studies have shown that among more educated and science-literate audiences, political polarization around the issue of climate change is actually stronger, suggesting that people often process climate-related information in ways that actually reinforce their prior views. We also know from social psychology that groups are less trusting and are also perceived as less trustworthy - than individuals, so simply aligning oneself with similar-minded others can reduce cooperation, and threats can exacerbate these tendencies. Two of the articles in the special issue suggest that awareness of climate change threats can increase group conformity - and in some cases, ethnocentrism - including among politically liberal groups. For more about these new findings, and what they mean for our ability to address climate change, see recent coverage in Pacific Standard and Nature.

We also know that perceptions matter. On the political side, how do you draw attention to a politically polarizing threat without further politicizing the issue? This is a problem that every politician faces when trying to raise awareness about a problem like climate change, and one that social psychologists have a lot to say about. Despite what we here in the media, we know, for instance, that the political divide is actually smaller than what many people perceive, and those with more extreme political views tend to be the least accurate when it comes to estimating what others think. This is an effect called polarization projection.

Fortunately, psychologists have been exploring ways in which misperceptions can be combated. For example, most people underestimate the scientific consensus around human-caused climate change (which is about 97%) and there is some evidence that simply informing people of this consensus can help to spur public support for taking action.

Tell us about your course, The Psychology of Climate Change, and how it addresses/plans to address these issues in the field?

Climate change is the perfect problem to study from the perspective of both the biophysical and social and behavioral sciences, such as psychology. It’s a complex problem. Yet, despite considerable media attention around the issue, public mobilization around the issue in the U.S. has been surprisingly limited, particularly compared to other movements, historically. My seminar explores this puzzle from the perspective of psychological science. Our topics this spring included psychological research on how people process uncertainty and risk; psychological perspectives on morality and collective action; political psychology; social influence; cross-cultural perspectives; and the use of psychology to enhance climate change communication and civic engagement. We explored puzzles such as the “activist’s dilemma” – how do you raise awareness without politicizing (and polarizing) social issues? – and the importance of identity appeals for motivating action. The highly-successful “Don’t Mess With Texas” anti-littering campaign is a great example.

Next year, in true liberal arts fashion, our class will team up with Prof. Lelia Hawkins, an atmospheric chemist and climate scientist at Harvey Mudd, to explore emerging cross-disciplinary perspectives on the problem. Many undergraduate courses on climate change focus on either the physical science of climate change or the social science of climate change. Our course will aim to bridge these understandings by providing a uniquely interdisciplinary look at climate change as both a biophysical and social phenomenon.

If climate change continues to be analyzed from a variety of disciplines, including psychology, what do you hope will change? Why is this important?

One of the big, underexplored questions when it comes to climate change is, how can scientists effectively communicate the risks of climate change to those most vulnerable to its impacts, such as lower-income communities and communities of color, and better include them in decision-making?

Beyond the usual political disagreements, there are also hidden fault-lines in the climate change debate. For instance, in ongoing collaborations with fellow behavioral scientists at Cornell University and the Environmental Defense Fund, we have found that the political divide is in fact much weaker among groups that are most vulnerable to climate change and a host of other environmental problems, such as among racial and ethnic minorities and lower-income individuals. For these groups, climate change may be less a political or scientific problem and more a social issue – one that disproportionately affects the lives and livelihoods of urban and lower-income communities.

Much of the work we are doing in my lab right now is seeking to understand how the unequal impacts of climate change and other environmental problems influence how people respond to them. Research on health disparities points to the benefits of cross-disciplinary collaborations. Like climate change, the HIV/AIDS epidemic is similarly global in reach, has both biophysical and social causes, and disproportionately affects communities of color and other economically disadvantaged groups. In part through initiatives such as the “Face of AIDS,” the International AIDS Conference, a global forum of scientists, practitioners, and community leaders, has successfully pressured world governments to provide broad access to preventive treatments and to support the development of research-based policy solutions. These types of initiatives could serve as a useful blueprint for developing better, more inclusive solutions, particularly when it comes to helping vulnerable populations respond to climate change and its impacts.

Psychology has a lot to offer, and I’m fortunate to be a part of the small, but fast-growing community of researchers working on this important issue, including the next generation of scholars and engaged citizens right here at The Claremont Colleges.