The psychology of climate change : why we know a lot about global warming but do little about it

The dangers of global warming are well known. Nevertheless, many people do: nothing. What psychological effects are behind it?

The numbers, they don’t seem to match. Take flying, for example: Almost half of Germans can imagine doing without air travel for the sake of the environment. Nevertheless, the number of air trips continues to rise. Or with meat: A good 60 percent would be willing to eat significantly less of it, yet meat consumption in Germany remains constant. You can also see it with big cars: A quarter of Germans would be in favor of banning SUVs completely. But the gas guzzlers are booming in sales.

Claim and reality, so it seems, are far apart when it comes to climate protection. There is no shortage of knowledge about the consequences of global warming: Researchers are warning of ever faster rising sea levels, an increase in weather extremes and the extinction of animal species. And they say: Action must be taken and fast.

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The way to deal with this knowledge is different. "A large proportion of people in Germany perceive climate change as a serious threat. But so far, many do not manage to change their behavior accordingly," says Torsten Grothmann from the Chair of Ecological Economics at the University of Oldenburg. Only: Which psychological effects lead to the fact that people know a lot, but do little? A search for clues in environmental psychology.

How our brain works

Part of the explanation lies in evolution. In the early phase of their development, the daily challenge of people was survival. The dangers were concrete and immediate. "We have not learned evolutionarily to deal with a threat like climate change," says Gerhard Reese, professor of environmental psychology at the University of Koblenz-Landau. "When we are in danger of being eaten by a tiger, we have reaction patterns. We can run away. There is no script for climate change."Some human thought patterns that have been useful for human survival over the course of evolution – for example, because they have helped us to filter information or react quickly – are actually a hindrance when it comes to climate change.

Part of it is our perception that the present is more important than the future. U.S. scientists examined the brain activity of their test subjects in an MRI machine. They noted strong brain activity when subjects thought of themselves in the present tense. But when they thought of themselves ten years in the future, the brain activity was weaker, similar to thinking of a stranger, for example an actor. Scientists see this as brain physiological confirmation for the theory that most people are less motivated to do things from which they will only benefit later on. They place a lower value on the rewards that await them in the future.

Another trap is "unrealistic optimism". Studies have shown that people are more optimistic about their own lives than about others. "With climate change, many think: It won’t affect me, maybe I don’t have to take action," Reese says. In addition, there is the so-called "bystander effect" – i.e. the feeling that someone else will already avert the danger, for example politics.

Feeling is more important than knowledge

The inactivity of many people is also the fault of the brain’s processing procedures. "In our brain, two processing processes run simultaneously: On the one hand, the experience-based one, which runs quickly and emotionally. On the other hand, the analytical, slower and less emotional," explains scientist Grothmann. Analytically, many people would conclude that climate change is a threat. "But their personal experiences have long told them that not much bad has happened yet."And if the two processes lead to different results, the experience-based assessment usually prevails. In the meantime, however, the experience is changing in this country as well: the past drought in Germany in particular has remained in the minds of many, he says. "The sense of concern has increased."

A question of point of view

How people deal with knowledge about climate change also depends on their ideological standpoint. A high level of knowledge about climate change does not necessarily lead to it being perceived as a higher risk. Grothmann reports on a U.S. study that showed that people who were close to Republicans there actually rated the threat lower as their knowledge of climate change increased. This seems illogical at first, but it is due to the way we process information. "Knowledge doesn’t just flow into our brain and get mapped 1:1 in our memory. It is distorted, twisted, selected, filtered," says the scientist. In the end, what corresponds to our values and norms will be saved. What contradicts this is suppressed or doubted. "For many Republicans, it is part of their ideology that climate change either does not exist or that it is not caused by humans. With supporters of the AfD it is similar."

The fact that there are people who deny climate change or at least claim that it is not caused by humans does not always have to do with party ideology. "For others, it’s a defensive reaction because the climate crisis overwhelms them, so they pretend it doesn’t exist," Grothmann says. Evolutionarily speaking, this is something like playing dead or an escape reaction.

The herd instinct

But the most underestimated factor in human behavior, according to scientists, is social norms. "We orient ourselves quite decisively on how other people around us behave," says Grothmann. "A consumption-oriented, CO2-intensive lifestyle is still the norm. This serves as justification for many: Why should I give up going on a long-distance vacation when everyone around me continues to do so?"

Environmental psychologist Immo Fritsche of the University of Leipzig observes that a threat like climate change actually increases the importance of social norms. "When people feel personally helpless in strong threat situations, collective affiliations become more important," he says. In other words, they tend to align themselves with their group. His research shows that people who had previously thought about climate change became more intolerant of social deviance in groups and more willing to sanction violations of social norms.

He did an experiment: the subjects were told that a radical action group was taking action against a sexist professor. With a part of the test persons, was said to it that the majority of the students finds the action good. The other part of the subjects learned that the majority of the students reject this. "Those who had previously thought about climate change were more likely to go along with the majority opinion," Fritsche reports. People follow their own group more closely in threatening situations. This in turn means: "The left is becoming more left-wing and the right is becoming more right-wing," says Fritsche. The threat of climate change thus leads to a stronger polarization in society.

What to do?

To get people to act in a climate-protective way, Grothmann believes it’s enormously important that troubling climate predictions are always presented at the same time as solutions. "Alarmism and sensationalism are often anything but productive because they lead to feelings of overwhelm rather than action," he says. The greater the imbalance between the perceived risk and the perceived possibilities for action, the more likely defensive reactions such as denial or pushing away are. According to Grothmann, the fact that some people develop a real "climate fear" may also be related to the fact that the risks are perceived as overwhelming, their own options for action as severely limited and the politicians as unwilling or incapable.

The key to getting people to act, scientists say, is to change social norms – precisely because people like to model themselves on others. But it’s no use if the majority is in favor of climate protection but does little about it. Here, politics can intervene by promoting environmentally friendly behavior or enacting laws. The infrastructure must change in such a way that climate-protecting behavior is easy – for example, that there are night trains to the south as an alternative to air travel. Role models such as the mayor, who rides his bike everywhere, are also important. Fritsche says it also makes sense for everyone to communicate their own climate-friendly behavior to friends – for example, if you’ve gotten rid of your car.

It is also crucial that people develop a sense of "collective efficacy". So, believing that the group they align themselves with can effectively make a difference in climate action. "Many people lack the feeling that they can change something themselves," says environmental psychologist Reese. "If I fly less or don’t eat meat anymore, I don’t see any consequences. This can demotivate."

Against this background, environmental psychologist Fritsche considers the Fridays for Future movement to be very valuable. It creates a social norm and conveys a sense of "collective efficacy". On the other hand, it showed: "Our youth is affected." Because young people will feel the consequences of climate change strongly. And in the end, this awareness is more likely to lead to solidarity than pictures of polar bears whose livelihood is melting away – but which are also far away.

More on the topic

New report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Consumption as a driver of climate change

News about climate change can also worry children. How parents should deal with it? "If children up to about ten years of age see news of disasters on television, then parents should only talk to the child about it if the child asks questions of its own accord," says psychotherapist and trauma expert Christian Ludke. "The younger children are, the more they look at their parents’ reaction. If the parents remain stable, it is also okay for the children."According to Ludke, parents should keep negative emotional reactions to themselves in the case of children under the age of ten, because otherwise it makes them feel insecure.

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