Climate change and human behavior

In the face of the many and significant challenges of a changing climate, how and why do humans act the way they do? Does it take a crisis for people to actually do something? And, when the crisis passes, does the action stop? Are human beings, collectively, doomed to failure due to inaction, denial, greed, corruption, and, the most challenging barrier, outright fear?

Quick bibliography–articles on the connections between climate change and human behavior.

*Berry, M. S., Repke, M. A., Nickerson, N. P., Conway, L. G., Odum, A. L., & Jordan, K. E. (2015). Making time for nature: Visual exposure to natural environments lengthens subjective time perception and reduces impulsivity. PloS One, 10(11), e0141030. [PDF] [Cited by]

Impulsivity in delay discounting is associated with maladaptive behaviors such as overeating and drug and alcohol abuse. Researchers have recently noted that delay discounting, even when measured by a brief laboratory task, may be the best predictor of human health related behaviors (e.g., exercise) currently available. Identifying techniques to decrease impulsivity in delay discounting, therefore, could help improve decision-making on a global scale. Visual exposure to natural environments is one recent approach shown to decrease impulsive decision-making in a delay discounting task, although the mechanism driving this result is currently unknown. The present experiment was thus designed to evaluate not only whether visual exposure to natural (mountains, lakes) relative to built (buildings, cities) environments resulted in less impulsivity, but also whether this exposure influenced time perception. Participants were randomly assigned to either a natural environment condition or a built environment condition. Participants viewed photographs of either natural scenes or built scenes before and during a delay discounting task in which they made choices about receiving immediate or delayed hypothetical monetary outcomes. Participants also completed an interval bisection task in which natural or built stimuli were judged as relatively longer or shorter presentation durations. Following the delay discounting and interval bisection tasks, additional measures of time perception were administered, including how many minutes participants thought had passed during the session and a scale measurement of whether time “flew” or “dragged” during the session. Participants exposed to natural as opposed to built scenes were less impulsive and also reported longer subjective session times, although no differences across groups were revealed with the interval bisection task. These results are the first to suggest that decreased impulsivity from exposure to natural as opposed to built environments may be related to lengthened time perception.”

*Gifford, R. (2011). The dragons of inaction: Psychological barriers that limit climate change mitigation and adaptation. The American Psychologist, 66(4), 290-302. [PDF] [Cited by]

Most people think climate change and sustainability are important problems, but too few global citizens engaged in high-greenhouse-gas-emitting behavior are engaged in enough mitigating behavior to stem the increasing flow of greenhouse gases and other environmental problems. Why is that? Structural barriers such as a climate-averse infrastructure are part of the answer, but psychological barriers also impede behavioral choices that would facilitate mitigation, adaptation, and environmental sustainability. Although many individuals are engaged in some ameliorative action, most could do more, but they are hindered by seven categories of psychological barriers, or “dragons of inaction”: limited cognition about the problem, ideological worldviews that tend to preclude pro-environmental attitudes and behavior, comparisons with key other people, sunk costs and behavioral momentum, discredence toward experts and authorities, perceived risks of change, and positive but inadequate behavior change. Structural barriers must be removed wherever possible, but this is unlikely to be sufficient. Psychologists must work with other scientists, technical experts, and policymakers to help citizens overcome these psychological barriers.”

*Gifford, R., Kormos, C., & McIntyre, A. (2011). Behavioral dimensions of climate change: Drivers, responses, barriers, and interventions. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews, 2(6), 801-827. [PDF] [Cited by]

“This overview describes the anthropogenic drivers of global climate change, reviews the behavioral and psychological responses to its impacts (including barriers to behavior change), considers behavior‐focused intervention strategies, and suggests future directions for research. In doing so, it demonstrates why and how behavioral science is crucial for confronting the complex challenges posed by global climate change. The human dimensions of climate change are discussed, followed by descriptions of key theoretical models for explaining and predicting climate‐relevant behavior, issues and distinctions in studying human behavior in response to global climate change, an account of psychological (as opposed to structural) adaptation and its behavioral sequelae, the many psychological barriers to behavior change in this context, and behavior‐focused intervention strategies. The overview concludes with suggestions for researchers interested in advancing knowledge about behavior change and psychological responses to climate change. When knowledge about human behavior, cognitions, and psychological adaptation is integrated with that produced by researchers in related social and natural science disciplines, the result will facilitate solutions to this massive shared challenge.”

*Gowdy, J. M. (2008). Behavioral Economics and Climate Change Policy. Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization, 68(3–4), 632–644. [PDF] [Cited by]

“The policy recommendations of most economists are based on the rational actor model. The emphasis is on achieving efficient allocation by insuring that property rights are completely assigned and that market failures are corrected. This paper takes the position that so-called behavioral “anomalies” are central to human decision-making and, therefore, should be the starting point for effective economic policies. This contention is supported by game theory experiments involving humans and closely related primates. This research suggests that the standard economic approach to climate change policy, with its focus on narrowly rational, self-regarding responses to monetary incentives, is seriously flawed.

For social policy, leaving the confines of the current system means drawing upon aspects of human nature emphasizing cooperation, non-materialistic values, and a shared sense of urgency. Given the overwhelming dominance of the consumption-as-happiness ethic in our culture, the task of finding a less materialistic path seems daunting, but greed and accumulation are only a part of the richness of human behavioral patterns. These have come to prominence because they have been rewarded through an incentive structure that grew hand in hand with the production bonanza made possible by cheap and abundant fossil fuels. Types of behavior conducive to cooperation, doing with fewer material possessions, and recognizing the necessity of shared sacrifice are also part of the human experience.”

*Granco, G., Heier Stamm, J.,L., Bergtold, J. S., Daniels, M. D., Sanderson, M. R., Sheshukov, A. Y., . . . Aistrup, J. A. (2019). Evaluating environmental change and behavioral decision-making for sustainability policy using an agent-based model: A case study for the smoky hill river watershed, Kansas. The Science of the Total Environment, 695, 133769.

“Sustainability has been at the forefront of the environmental research agenda of the integrated anthroposphere, hydrosphere, and biosphere since the last century and will continue to be critically important for future environmental science. However, linking humans and the environment through effective policy remains a major challenge for sustainability research and practice. Here we address this gap using an agent-based model (ABM) for a coupled natural and human systems in the Smoky Hill River Watershed (SHRW), Kansas, USA. For this freshwater-dependent agricultural watershed with a highly variable flow regime influenced by human-induced land-use and climate change, we tested the support for an environmental policy designed to conserve and protect fish biodiversity in the SHRW. We develop a proof of concept interdisciplinary ABM that integrates field data on hydrology, ecology (fish richness), social-psychology (value-belief-norm) and economics, to simulate human agents’ decisions to support environmental policy. The mechanism to link human behaviors to environmental changes is the social-psychological sequence identified by the value-belief-norm framework and is informed by hydrological and fish ecology models. Our results indicate that (1) cultural factors influence the decision to support the policy; (2) a mechanism modifying social-psychological factors can influence the decision-making process; (3) there is resistance to environmental policy in the SHRW, even under potentially extreme climate conditions; and (4) the best opportunities for policy acceptance were found immediately after extreme environmental events. The modeling approach presented herein explicitly links biophysical and social science has broad generality for sustainability problems.”

*van der Linden, S., Maibach, E., & Leiserowitz, A. (2015). Improving public engagement with climate change: Five “best practice” insights from psychological science. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 10(6), 758-763. [PDF] [Cited by]

“Despite being one of the most important societal challenges of the 21st century, public engagement with climate change currently remains low in the United States. Mounting evidence from across the behavioral sciences has found that most people regard climate change as a nonurgent and psychologically distant risk—spatially, temporally, and socially—which has led to deferred public decision making about mitigation and adaptation responses. In this article, we advance five simple but important “best practice” insights from psychological science that can help governments improve public policymaking about climate change. Particularly, instead of a future, distant, global, nonpersonal, and analytical risk that is often framed as an overt loss for society, we argue that policymakers should (a) emphasize climate change as a present, local, and personal risk; (b) facilitate more affective and experiential engagement; (c) leverage relevant social group norms; (d) frame policy solutions in terms of what can be gained from immediate action; and (e) appeal to intrinsically valued long-term environmental goals and outcomes. With practical examples we illustrate how these key psychological principles can be applied to support societal engagement and climate change policymaking.”

Questions? Please let me know (engelk@grinnell.edu).

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