Research on a missing link in climate action (Post 3 of 3)

In September 2018, Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg started skipping school to hold a daily protest about climate change on the steps of Swedish Parliament. “Adults keep saying ‘we owe it to the young people to give them hope,’” she declared. “But I don’t want your hope. I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day.”

Greta’s daily protest has inspired similar protests around the world and shows no signs of slowing down. Some have begun to panic. But this collective sense of panic and the media attention Greta has received may not always deliver the results she longs for.

In the previous two posts in this series, we’ve discussed how climate change warnings can have psychological effects similar to reminders of our own mortality. Climate skeptics become even more skeptical; those pre-disposed to climate action become even more bold. But what specific predictions does research in this area allow us to make?

Let’s start with the bad news. Studies have found a range of predictable reactions when climate change news activates mortality awareness:

  • increased selfish exploitation of natural resources and material consumption
  • increased discomfort with wilderness landscapes
  • lowered perceived connection to other non-human lifeforms
  • greater unwillingness to protect species-at-risk
  • increased preference for authoritarian leadership
  • further distancing of, and antagonism towards, ‘outgroups’ on issues unrelated to climate change

In other words, climate warnings can actually make some people less inclined to visit a national park, spend the day at the zoo, or think as critically of dictators. Drilling down further, Terror Management Theory (TMT) allows several hypotheses about how our psychological defense mechanisms engage climate warnings:

  • Denial: increasing both the frequency and intensity of climate change denial
  • Distraction: accepting that the climate is changing, but refuting that humans are responsible
  • Rationalization: accepting that the climate is changing, but pushing the timing of the threat far into the future or assuming that it will not significantly affect us personally

But this grim litany is not the only set of responses to environmental warnings. Greta’s protest sparked complaints on social media, but also brought her before the UN and the Davos Forum. Recent studies show that given the right conditions, mortality awareness also has positive outcomes for environmental behaviour. Individuals who derive their self-esteem from pro-environmental action respond to warnings about the environment with greater urgency.

Eco-guilt is also a powerful driver of behaviour. Urgent warnings about the environment “motivate individuals to act in line with important social values and to feel guilt when they failed to do so. Guilt, in turn motivates pro-environmental behavior” (Harrison and Mallett). If you’ve already switched half your lightbulbs to LED, the latest climate headlines may guilt you into switching the other half as well.

Surprisingly, in some cases, climate news also decreases support for violence. The universal threat of global climate change seems to potentially “short-circuit the increased support for violence that often occurs in response to existential threat [and to strengthen] support for peaceful reconciliation.” (Pyszczynski et al.)

The most promising opportunities for further study and environmental behaviour interventions relate to self-esteem. Most people want to feel good about themselves and their place in the world. Self-esteem striving can directly inspire new communities-of-action – the hero projects mentioned in the last post – that boost climate action at individual and societal levels. A prominent example of hero projects’ potential to transform landscapes, improve socio-ecological resilience and upscale action is the “Green Belt Movement.” This movement was founded by Professor Wangari Maathai—a Kenyan woman who later won the Nobel Prize for her activities. At first, the movement was a women’s grassroots organization dedicated to countering deforestation. Today the movement’s has spread to 20 African countries, resulting in the planting of over 30 million trees.

Climate change is complex. It’s simultaneously personal and social, local and global, immediate and future, chronic and acute, known and unknowable. Even simple solutions will require fundamental and persistent changes to our habits and behaviours. But individual responses are essential because they can grow into collective action. Professor Maathai’s first tree led to millions of others. By better understanding our individual responses to climate change warnings, we’ll better scale up our collective response. It’s time to take this research from the laboratory to the steps of Parliament.

Further Reading:

Adams, M. (2016). Ecological Crisis, Sustainability and the Psychosocial Subject: Beyond Behaviour Change. London, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

Barth, M., Masson, T., Fritsche, I., & Ziemer, C. T. (2017). Closing ranks: Ingroup norm conformity as a subtle response to threatening climate change. Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, 21(3), 497–512.

Fritsche, I., Cohrs, J. C., Kessler, T., & Bauer, J. (2012). Global warming is breeding social conflict: The subtle impact of climate change threat on authoritarian tendencies. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 32(1), 1–10.

Harrison, P. R., & Mallett, R. K. (2013). Mortality salience motivates the defense of environmental values and increases collective ecoguilt. Ecopsychology, 5(1), 36–43.

Pyszczynski, T., Motyl, M., Vail, K. E., Hirschberger, G., Arndt, J., & Kesebir, P. (2012). Drawing attention to global climate change decreases support for war. Peace and Conflict: Journal of Peace Psychology, 18(4), 354–368.

Vess, M., & Arndt, J. (2008). The nature of death and the death of nature: The impact of mortality salience on environmental concern. Journal of Research in Personality, 42(5), 1376–1380.

Social Sciences, 4, 1020–1045.

Wolfe, S.E. and A. Tubi (2018). “Terror Management Theory and Mortality Awareness: A Missing Link in Climate Response Studies?” WIREs Climate Change. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/wcc.566

Read the full academic paper

Funding Acknowledgement: Canada’s Social Science and Humanities Research Council, Grant/Award Number: #430-2012-0264