by Alex Elder
Although global climate change is a well-documented phenomenon with severe implications for the future of our planet, environmental issues are often paid little attention by politicians and laypeople alike. Other issues like the economy or job security are viewed as top-priority concerns, even though continued damage to the environment could potentially endanger the human race. Small changes in our everyday lives could make a significant positive impact, but many people are not concerned enough about the environment to make a change.
But why are environmental issues perceived as less important than other, less detrimental problems? Elke Weber, a psychologist at Columbia University, seeks to answer this question through her research on risk assessment and how people perceive climate change. She is an expert on the psychological components of judgment and decision-making in the face of uncertainty, specifically in environmental contexts. She founded the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions (CRED), which investigates human adaptation to climate change and how to enable further sustainability efforts. Through this organization, Weber published an influential paper which found that people view time-delayed, abstract risks as less serious threats than more immediate, concrete risks, regardless of the severity of the outcomes (Weber, 2006). Thus, although the overall negative impact of climate change and other environmental problems is much greater than, say, possible unemployment, the former is viewed as less hazardous at the individual level.
But now that research has demonstrated this interaction between psychology and environmental issues, what can we do about it? Fortunately, by taking advantage of this new research, we can begin to represent environmental issues in a way that people will take more seriously. Once environmental initiatives are presented in a way that appeals to human patterns of decision making and risk assessment, then people will be more likely to become involved (Gertner, 2009). Elke Weber collaborated on a Climate Change Communications Guide that includes strategies on how to increase environmental engagement and which communications tactics to avoid. Based on the findings in Elke Weber’s research, simply altering the presentation of information related to climate change could result in more sustainability engagement and a prioritization of the environment. When risks are perceived as more eminent and personal and less distant and abstract, people are more likely to prioritize that risk and the actions needed to avoid it. Thus, by appealing to psychological constructs involved in decision making, participation in environmental initiatives can be increased.
Weber, E. U. (2006). Experience-based and description-based perceptions of long-term risk: Why global warming does not scare us (yet). Climatic Change,77(1-2), 103-120. Connectingonclimate.org
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. A report by the American Psychological Association’s task force on the interface between psychology and global climate change. American Psychological Association, Washington.
Gertner, Jon (2009). Why Isn’t the Brain Green? The New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/19/magazine/19Science-t.html?pagewanted=all