Research on a missing link in climate action (Post 2 of 3)

When we hear “the bell tolling”, we know that one day it will toll for us. Even if we rarely set foot in a funeral home, the awareness of our own mortality rarely leaves the back of our mind. Though usually hidden, mortality awareness can also spike in our consciousness, leading to a range of reactions, not all of which point in the same direction.

Some people respond to a bad medical diagnosis with a sudden change of diet or exercise. They gain fresh resolve to finish a personal project or set a relationship straight. Others react with denial and silence, pushing the problem of death into an unknowable and unseeable future.

But we always respond in some way because the thought of our own death is just too uncomfortable. Cultural anthropologist Ernst Becker argued that “the idea of death, the fear of it … is a mainspring of human activity. [Human efforts are] designed largely to avoid the fatality of death, to overcome it by denying in some way that is the final destiny.” Hundreds of published studies in more than 25 countries show that an awareness of mortality dramatically influences our attitudes and behaviors, sense of identity, politics, even our consumption patterns.

What might this have to do with climate change?

Grim statistics about the environment activate the same reactions we have to our own mortality. The very range of emotions we exhibit in the face of death echo in our reactions to impending climate change.

Terror Management Theory, drawn from Ernst Becker’s work to articulate the drivers of human behaviour, outlines two main responses to existential threats like climate change. The first are proximal: responses within our current focus or awareness. Proximal defences include powerful psychological reactions like denial, distraction and rationalization. When global warming makes the headlines, climate skeptics shrug their collective shoulders all the more.

The second group, distal responses, take place on the fringes of our consciousness. Distal defenses include subtle antagonisms toward groups who hold views you disagree with, surrounding yourself with likeminded thinkers who reinforce the ‘rightness’ of your own views or efforts to boost your self-esteem through social recognition. This last response includes ‘hero projects’ – the pursuit of anything from philanthropy and fame to parenthood that bestows a sense of personal importance that extends beyond your biological life. In other words, grim environmental news can unconsciously motivate us to start a non-profit or finish writing the novel we half-completed.

The tricky thing is that both proximal and distal responses are mixed. In one case, mortality awareness or climate news leads to direct conflict with ‘out groups’. But they can also generate pro-environmental responses, inspiring us to minimize environmental harm and foster well-being within ourselves and others. The difference usually depends on people’s pre-existing worldviews and identities – which are often unspoken, unacknowledged and notoriously difficult to shift.

We’re only beginning to see how Terror Management Theory can provide a new framework for understanding our individual and collective response to climate change. These are deep waters. Proximal and distal responses provide an intriguing research opportunity to explain, predict – and hopefully correct – our dangerously modest response to environmental concerns.

Further Reading:

Brügger, A., Dessai, S., Devine-Wright, P., Morton, T. A., & Pidgeon, N. F. (2015). Psychological responses to the proximity of climate change. Nature Climate Change, 5, 1031–1037.

Fritsche, I., Barth, M., Jugert, P., Masson, T., & Resse, G. (2018). A social identity model of pro-environmental action (SIMPEA). Psychological Review, 125(2), 245–269.

Gifford, R. (2011). The dragons of inaction: Psychological barriers that limit climate change mitigation and adaptation. American Psychologist, 66(4), 290–302.

Solomon, S., Greenberg, J., & Pyszczynski, T. A. (2015). The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life. New York, USA: Random House.

Swim, J., Clayton, S., Doherty, T., Gifford, R., Howard, G., Reser, J., Stern, P., & Weber, E. (2009). Psychology and global climate change: Addressing a multi-faceted phenomenon and set of challenges. Report of the American Psychological Association Task Force on the Interface between Psychology and Global Climate Change. Retrieved from: https://www.apa.org/science/about/publications/climate-change.aspx

Read the full academic paper

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