Overcoming the Psychological Barriers for Climate Action

climateecoWe all have our idiosyncrasies. People are quirky, and the way we operate is not always rational or deliberate. Some of us know exercise is healthy but can’t get off the couch. Others have two advanced degrees and still don’t know what to do with our lives. And there are those who can’t stick with relationships despite the flawless physiques and magnetic personalities of our significant others.
 
Our minds certainly work in complex ways, and it’s only with a deep understanding of our backgrounds and history that we begin to understand our individual psychological mindsets. In fact, from religion to politics, our actions are often based on the mentalities we have developed throughout our lives. To this point, fascinatingly, new research shows that voters who support Donald Trump don’t necessarily share the same politics. Rather, they have shared type of personality.
 
Overwhelmed by Large-Scale Problems
 
Personality-based decisions are likely at the bottom of why some of us feel overwhelmed trying to make a difference on social issues that seem so vast, while others feel empowered to do so. Depending on the type of personality we have, we may choose to take proactive measures or avoid acting altogether. In light of climate change, the topic establishes the question: Can those of us who don’t believe we can have a positive impact on the world be convinced to change our minds?
 
As psychiatrist Lise Van Susteren says, anxiety is often behind our hesitation to act. It is not uncommon for people who seek therapy to feel anxious without necessarily knowing why. Anxious thoughts seep in, from direct personal experiences to subtler social ones, and they affect the choices we make. The impacts we face from climate change – be it health consequences, storm-related blows or rises in temperatures – affect the number and magnitude of our worries. As Dr. Susteren says, “Climate change isn’t the only source of anxiety, but it has a terrible multiplier effect. I don’t have the slightest shred of doubt that all of us to some extent are suffering from climate anxiety.”
 
Essentially, while it seems that fear should motivate us, it often has the opposite effect. Fear impacts our mental and physical wellbeing in ways that often creates inaction.
 
Yet, despite whether we feel motivated to take personal action, the majority of the American public wants to see political action on climate change. A new public opinion survey by the Yale Program on Climate Communication and George Mason University shows that “the number of Americans who are more likely to vote for a presidential candidate that strongly supports taking action to reduce global warming exceeds the number who would be less likely to vote for such a candidate by a factor of 3-to-1 (43 percent to 14 percent).” What does this say about our admission to the climate problem, despite our personal inaction?
 
A Sign of Progress: Admitting a Problem
 
The results of the Yale public opinion survey seem to be evidence that the majority of people are willing to admit a wide-scale problem. Isn’t this a first step in taking hold of our destiny? Even in Alcoholics Anonymous, admission is a key part of the 12-step program. In this sense, the public is beginning by asserting that we need help to take action toward climate solutions.
 
Oberlin College psychologist Paul Thibodeau probes the psychological underpinnings of inaction on climate change in his co-authored new study. Though the mind sets and cognitive styles of individuals have much to do with whether people feel a connection to the environment, Thibodeau also unearthed something crucial to this discussion during the course of his study: “You can actually prompt or teach people to think more systemically, whereas you can’t easily change their politics,” he explains.
 
Couple that study with another study published in April, in the Oxford Journal BioScience, that touches upon the psychology of climate change inaction, and the issue becomes more complicated. While Thibodeau’s study reveals we can teach people to think more systemically, meaning we can envision how our actions could play into the bigger picture, our history proves we’re often consumed with the weight of our individual contributions. The upside is that, while we all realize that none of us can avert a climate disaster on our own, we’re actually quite capable of learning how to engage with others to make a broader impact. This is an encouraging prospect.
 
Collective Action as a Solution
 
The argument that has yet to be made is this: If people are admitting a problem and are able to think systemically, does it really matter if they don’t feel motivated to act entirely on their own? The important thing is that individuals are making the decision to act at all. It seems one route to our answer is a time-tested solution for mobilizing change: We must organize.
 

 
Organizing ourselves effectively can be tiring and takes time out of our already busy lives. But consider the alternatives. Rises in vector-borne diseases, storm damage to our homes, detrimental impacts on our food and resources – these are the choices that will result from our lack of action. The upside is that, given the upsurge in climate action groups such as 350.org and ecoAmerica, much of the organizing has already begun. We just need to connect.
 
It may be true that we need to do more than swap in energy efficient light bulbs in order to make substantive progress toward addressing climate change. But if we can set our eyes on a longer-term goal, and envision the success of our collective action, we can win over our own minds for the sake of our future.
 
Anna Linakis Baker, Writer and Social Media Manager for Climate for Health, has worked in the field of environmental health for over 15 years. She graduated from Georgetown University with a major in creative writing and has a Master of Public Health from Boston University. Email her at [email protected]

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