Psyche and climate change

Surjith Karthikeyan | Updated on: Jul 21, 2022
Perception and measurement of environmental behaviour varies across different class of people. 

Perception and measurement of environmental behaviour varies across different class of people.  | Photo Credit: Boonyachoat

The attitudinal and behavioural aspects are important

Human behaviour is changing the climate and humans are, in turn, affected by the climate change in the form of natural calamities, infectious disease, pollution, etc. This leads to formulation of adaptation and mitigation strategies which may include, among others, behaviour change to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

Climate change-relevant behaviour is not solely individual specific but a collective psychological process and factors such as institutional, societal and cultural context, norms and patterns of consumption and population, community resources, resistance to change, and individual resources come into consideration.

Also, a great deal of GHG-mitigating behaviours may not consciously be performed for the sake of the environment  per se and may be determined by contextual influences and motivation. For example, an individual walks to office for improving his health than environmental considerations.

Perception and measurement of environmental behaviour varies across different class of people. The environmental footprint of a poor man with bare minimum requirements cannot be compared to that of a middle-class person using environmentally-friendly technology, car and appliances.

This is indirectly the gist of environmental discussions globally, wherein arguments for ‘environmental damages by countries in their course of development’ are sought to be included in climate change impact assessment. However, global discussions have hardly focussed on psychological barriers for climate change mitigation and adaptation.

Psychological barriers

Though climate change impacts are clearly visible globally, many people are hesitant to adopt behaviours for climate change mitigation due to several barriers. The barriers may be structural, such as poverty which hinder behavioural change, or psychological. The former could be addressed by social programmes and improvements in infrastructure, whereas the latter, which is indeed the more difficult one, requires coordinated efforts of psychologists, technocrats, scientists and policymakers.

Psychological barriers may be at either the individual or social level, wherein the former may be the lack of knowledge, uncertainty, reluctance to change in lifestyle, etc; and latter may be social norms, lack of collective initiatives, etc.

The human brain remains accustomed to practices evolved over time and climate-related problems are indeed perceived as delayed risks. Ignorance adds to this issue coupled with environmental numbness and uncertainty of effects of climate change which are not visible in the immediate future.

Optimism bias and judgemental discounting, which means ‘considering climate effects as local problems and has nothing to do with global efforts’, further worsens the same. Lack of perceived behaviour control and certain ideologies add to the reasons for the same. As people becomes aged and well off, they are reluctant to be advocates for change. Certain religious practices are also not climate-friendly; the best example being treating climate change impacts as the curse of God and nothing to do with human intervention.

Perceived inequity is another major psychological barrier which means the perception that if others are not changing, then why I should change; ; coupled with exploitative attitude of free riders motivated towards to unlimited environmental advantages. Humans generally are hesitant to avoid project of huge investments with good monetary returns, though environmentally harmful.

Habits also are part of the psychological barriers as one may be reluctant to use public transport against socially status, say, owned cars. Conflicting values and goals such as building huge apartments and houses to show social status by removing trees and natural habitations further worsens the scenario.

Attachment to a particular place though it is environmentally vulnerable and mistrust towards scientific temper, reluctance to change for the cause for environment are areas for worry. Also, at times, pro-climate efforts may be less effective, the best example being a person using a fuel-efficient car may use it unlimitedly, ultimately harming the environment. Thus, the solution to the same may necessarily incorporate ‘behaviour change strategies’ that considers these complex scenarios.

Policy approach

Behavioural approach to tackle climate change indeed requires systematic planning coupled with intervention, and once the same is implemented, needs evaluation followed by generation of well-designed successful intervention guidelines This means, as a first step, the target behaviour that requires change is to be selected, and this may possibly be the one which has high GHG impact behaviour, followed by identification of factors that underlie the behaviour. This may be succeeded by intervention, to change the target behaviour and its identified antecedents which should be evaluated based on its impact on environment, quality of life, targeted behaviour, etc.

Due care may be taken to choose intervention strategy which best suits target behaviour and this may incorporate changing attitudes, personal norms, etc., which are low cost-effective behaviours; for example, turning off unnecessary lights, using public transport, etc.

An effective combination of command-and-control approach coupled with price signals through market-based mechanism could also be part of the selected intervention strategy to get the desired results.

The writer serves as Deputy Secretary, Ministry of Finance. Views are personal

Published on July 21, 2022
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