APA Report Draws Attention to Psychology of Climate Change

Diana J. Smith

On February 28th, the IPCC released its latest report describing the enormous threat that climate change presents to human health and well-being. On the same day, the American Psychological Association (APA) released its own report detailing what psychologists can do in response to this threat.

Why do we need psychology? Calls to rethink, reinvent, and redesign the way we function as a society in the face of climate change are becoming more urgent. Many people understand that this requires a transformation in the “hard infrastructure” means of energy production and its use.

The IPCC report describes the evidence that mental health and wellbeing are affected by climate change, and that these impacts tend to have a disproportionate impact on more vulnerable groups of people. The APA report draws attention to the need to change our “soft infrastructure” so that we are better prepared to address the psychological dimensions of climate change, climate justice, and climate policy.

Psychology helps us understand three important features of the societal response. First, cognitive and emotional barriers interfere with the way people understand the crisis. Second, human behavior needs to change in order to mitigate the amount of climate change that takes place. Third, mental health is threatened by the direct and indirect consequences of climate change, from extreme weather events and wildfires to climate-related displacement and anxiety about the extent of climate change.

Greater involvement by psychologists can better prepare us to meet the challenges of climate change. As Chair of the APA Climate Change Task Force, co-author of Science Denial: Why It Happens and What to Do About It, a lead author on the IPCC Sixth Assessment Report, and member of the APA Task Force, we wish to highlight how psychology can play a key role in managing the climate crisis:

  1. Support people’s understanding of climate science and help them avoid misinformation. As we saw during the COVID-19 crisis, what people know and believe about vaccines, masks, and the spread of infectious disease is as important as what medical science tells us. Similarly, a challenge to addressing the climate crisis is promoting the public’s understanding of the root causes of climate change. Partly this is due to the complexity of the science, but it is also due to mis- and disinformation widely spread by both well-meaning and nefarious actors through social media. Psychologists can help people understand climate science through carefully crafted education and communication strategies. They can also help people navigate the social media landscape to identify mis- and disinformation, understand which information sources to trust and why, and identify those who may be deliberately trying to mislead them. What people think and believe about climate change and related initiatives will be fundamental to the success of attempts at mitigation and adaptation.
  2. Help people adapt to new ways of living and working. Most experts agree that reducing the worst impacts of our changing climate requires changes in how we live, work, and play. This means transitioning away from some means of producing and using energy and adopting new ones, and this transition may be inconvenient or even disruptive. For example, to reduce emissions from fossil fuels, experts suggest we take public forms of transportation more often, switch to electric vehicles, eat less meat, and work remotely when possible. Psychologists can contribute to the design of new technology to make them more attractive to adopt, help people adapt to new technologies and practices for homes, transportation, industry, and other settings, and highlight the benefits of new behaviors that will both result in reduced greenhouse gas emissions and promote human wellbeing.
  3. Assist displaced persons in coping and building resilience. Even if climate change can be slowed down, humans must adapt to the changing environment. Recently, we have seen entire towns destroyed by wildfires, superstorms displace coastal inhabitants, jobs in certain industries disappearing, and lives made more difficult for those already struggling from pre-existing economic or housing inequities. Psychologists are needed to help those experiencing trauma, grief, economic hardship, and dislocation due to climate change. Psychologists can also help build the resilience of individuals and communities by providing support services to those in need.
  4. Help people manage climate anxiety. Research has shown high levels of pessimism and worry around the world, which can be associated with increased levels of anxiety and depression as well as with difficulty in planning for the future. Young adults report that fears about climate change are affecting life decisions such as where to live and whether to have children. Psychologists should provide supportive interventions that help people to cope with these challenging concerns without implying that they are unmerited.
  5. Support efforts to take social action. Research shows that one way to manage climate anxiety is to take action. Psychologists can enable and empower individuals to take actions that have a real impact such as supporting community and political action. Further, psychologists can help support the healthier and more climate-friendly ways of living and working that can also be more socially and economically equitable. Psychologists themselves can take action by applying their professional knowledge and experience in assisting policymakers and activists or taking on these roles themselves.

Psychologists have a vital role to play in developing our “soft infrastructure” so that we are psychologically more prepared for the social and behavioral impact of climate change. The APA report serves as a guide to recognize those psychological dimensions many people will face and a call to arms for psychologists to be ready to serve those needs.

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