Cover Story

A long-anticipated APA report on climate change is urging psychologists to give policymakers their behavioral tools to head off a climate change catastrophe.

During APA's Annual Convention, the association released the report from the Task Force on the Interface between Psychology and Global Climate Change, which outlines ways psychology can help people adopt more environmentally friendly behaviors as well as ways policymakers can publicize such practices and, whenever appropriate, weave behavioral research into environmental laws and regulations to make them more effective.

"The quickest way to reduce our energy consumption is clearly behavioral," says Rep. Brian Baird (D-Wash.), a clinical psychologist who is championing the addition of social and behavioral science research to environmental legislation on Capitol Hill. "It's going to take us a while to get to cellulosic ethanol or fuel cells or whatever...but we can change behavior tomorrow."

The task force was initiated by APA's Council of Representatives, chaired by Pennsylvania State University psychologist Janet Swim, PhD, and its members were appointed by 2008–09 APA President Alan Kazdin, PhD. The group explored decades of psychological research into changing behaviors at the individual, population and policy levels. Some of its findings are:

  • The well-researched psychological principle that people tend to discount future gains and losses plays a large part in their unwillingness to take climate change seriously. "Many think of climate change risks...as both uncertain and also as being mostly in the future and geographically distant, all factors that lead people to discount them," the report states.

  • Psychosocial factors, such as patterns of consumption and population growth, play a big part in climate change. Psychologists are well-versed in the motivations behind these factors, making them ideal agents for changing these behaviors.

  • Many people are uneducated about climate change, confused about the facts or don't believe their actions can make a difference. Furthermore, those who do try to act to protect the environment don't always do so effectively.

  • It's not clear exactly how climate change will affect people psychologically, but it's likely to be devastating. According to the report, "[h]eat, extreme weather events, and increased competition for scarce environmental resources...will affect interpersonal and intergroup behavior."

The task force suggests that information about environmental sustainability be infused into psychological curriculum so that budding psychologists are equipped with the right tools to encourage environmentally friendly behavior. Clinicians should prepare for potential therapy issues, such as increased stress and anxiety that may result from climate change. APA should encourage research and applied science into environmental issues through awards and grants.

To help the public and policymakers, the task force recommended creating and distributing easy-to-understand informational materials that explain what psychologists know about how human behavior influences climate change and how humans can cope with and adapt to a changed environment. It also suggested creating a database of expert psychologists willing to consult for organizations and talk to the media on behavioral topics related to the environment. Finally, the task force encouraged psychologists to lobby local, state and federal government officials to take psychology's expertise into account when legislating environmental issues.

Kazdin believes that whether the task force succeeds or not depends on both APA's commitment to the report's recommendations and policymakers' willingness to embrace behavioral research.

"The question for APA governance [is], 'Do we really want to make a difference, or do we just want to say that we are relevant?'" Kazdin says. If APA doesn't follow through on its commitment, he adds, it would be like "having several great plays, but not having any players to actually get in the end zone."

But Kazdin is cautiously optimistic. The right players do seem to be in place to make a difference, he said.

Baird admits that even with strong science on his side, it's often an uphill battle to convince both the public and other policymakers that psychology should have a role to play in environmental issues. "We're getting quite an extraordinary backlash from people who, on the one hand, have said that psychology has nothing to contribute because everybody knows what they're supposed to do anyway," Baird says, "and then turn right around and have said that it's tantamount to mind control propaganda."

Psychologists can counteract that negativity by streamlining their suggestions and providing the hard numbers and evidence to back them up, he says. "This is really an opportune time for our association to communicate the value of what we know and do to the public and policymakers," he says. "But it has to be ruthlessly practical. We have to put forth things that are real with real numbers and real consequences."

And the sooner the better. We can't afford to wait for technology to bail us out, Baird says. The leading causes behind most of the major crises facing the United States—the economy, energy, health care and national security—are behavioral in nature, he said, and so are the remedies.


The task force's full report and set of policy recommendations are available online.