As an attendee to the Annual Psychology Day at the UN on April 12, I am happy to share this brief report on my observations and the speeches made. The theme of this 11th year was Climate Change: Psychological Interventions Promoting Mitigation and Adaptation.
The idea was to emphasize the intimate relation between climate change and psychology. This included using the principles of psychology to communicate effectively with people about the realities of climate change and also the effects of climate change on the psychology and well being of people.
The speakers were impressive. Their individual experiences and research in the field was a valuable in highlighting how we have to take collective action against climate change, how no one is safe from the effects, and that climate change is now.
I’ve summarized my understanding of their speeches here. You can find the entire event and more about each speaker on the UN TV website, along with details about the opening and closing remarks. I have tried to be faithful to their words and ideas.
Dr Susan Clayton was the keynote speaker. Her opening slide laid out clearly the intersection of climate change and psychology. It asked what the human understanding, human consequences and human responses to climate change are. Knowing how our minds work is key in delivering information relevant to climate change – we are not rational, we prefer ignorance, and we don’t respond as well to events that are psychologically distant or nor personally relevant for us. We like to believe in the goodness of the systems around us rather than reckoning with their failure in the face of climate change. We also have beliefs that somewhere someone will build technology that will save us, or that god would not create such a catastrophic world. Using this information, she recommends using stories for effective communication that can overcome our individual and collective cognitive limits. We must highlight the personal relevance of the solutions that we recommend to each group. And we must know the audience that we’re talking to and cater to their knowledge and resource systems.
Her explanation on the various linked social impacts in our times was extremely relevant to both social scientists and all mental health professionals. For example, she showed how increased drought or heat causes increased violence, crime and interpersonal aggression, and decreased social cohesion. Add to this places that are rendered unlivable due to harsh conditions and flea to better lands, creating further immigration crises and intergroup tensions. She also brought sensitivity to invisible issues – some groups are at an increased risk for climate change and others are not sharing in the suffering of their fellow humans. For instance, those are higher risk include geographically compromised areas, low resourced groups, marginalized communities, and physiologically limited (like those unwell, or older people and children). People can lose their jobs (like farmers), and face a threat to their identity (those forced to move) and eventually face existential threat which can lead to or compound mental health problems.
Climate change can and will challenge who you are.
We need to understand and integrate these findings into our mitigation and adaptation responses to climate change. We can focus on identity – encourage an identity that is one with nature, the coming together as a social group with norms that include care for the larger environment. These connections can be empowering and enhance resilience, self-efficacy, preparedness and coping.
Protection of our ecology as individuals and social groups must become the new normal.
Next was Dr Daniel Dodgen, who has been instrumentally involved in putting out a government report on Climate and Health Assessment, which was the first of its kind to include mental health, and this was the focus of his talk.
He gave a simple example that many people in the audience responded to. He asked about increased allergies and the corresponding increase in the medication for them. He noted how these medications personally affected his physical and mental well being on a daily basis – he was drowsier, less able to focus. This was just a small example. His aim was to point out our increasing vulnerabilities to changes large and small in our environment.
He shared an interesting finding –
people who were vulnerable to mental illness before a weather related disaster become 7 times more likely to develop a mental illness after.
He also noted how medication can alter our body’s ability to regulate temperature, and extreme weather conditions will challenge us to adapt at an unprecedented scale. His experience in leading several teams for mental health interventions in disaster management made his arguments even more compelling.
He focused the rest of his talk on a lot of interesting findings in his report to be found on phe.gov/abc or health2016.globalchange.gov
The next speaker was my personal favorite – Dr Irina Feygina. She added to a lot of what the Dr Clayton said, and began by asking:
What happens when people encounter the possibility and reality of climate change?
What creates resistance and disengagement? What motivates action?
How can we harness psychological insight and methodology to engage people and connect their needs and realities in relation to climate change?
She presented a multifaceted model that looked at people’s cognitions, attitudes and values, needs and motives, social norms and identities, personal experiences and the narratives around climate change.
Cognitively, we run on an information deficit model where there is not information out there. This problem is exacerbated in low resource settings, where for example, farmers may not have access to weather forecasts.
Our attitudes and values determine how and when we respond to messages about climate change. We might ask – does relevance make climate messages more appealing? For instance, could messages that talk about the direct effect of climate change on our personal economies mobilize better action?
The needs and motives section examined what gets us to get up and take action. Could it be personal, familial, parental, the safety of our children, ideas about ecological well being? And what are our latent ideologies behind these motives: what are our beliefs about the ways in which the world works? The take away was that we should work by incorporating these needs rather than going against them.
People have a desire to uphold social institution that they are a part of, to decrease their anxieties about daily living and increase security. This allows people to go on living without constantly engaging in impending doom and therefore taking corrective actions. This is especially problematic with climate change because all their held beliefs in their system must be challenged, and so they end up shooting the messenger.
She gave a very interesting example: people claim to feel less hot than the actual temperature when they are opposing the idea of climate change. To avoid this and create a positive valence around actions to mitigate climate change, we must include people’s beliefs and needs and try and reduce the psychological distance between their daily living and the impact of climate change. Reframing becomes one effective way of doing this. For instance, linking patriotism and pro-environmental behaviors in people’s minds.
Norms and identities addresses our most powerful drive – the need to belong. Dr Feygina encourages us to harness social norms. She finds that people take more action when their neighbors are also taking similar action. This is the idea behind leaving messages in the hotel rooms like: “75% of the people who have stayed before you in this room recycled reused their towels…” Neighbor usage has also been a valuable predictor of solar panel use. As Dr Clayton also discussed,
people respond best when the risk is felt as close and personal. The local weather for example, is a great way to remind people of the effects of climate change.
And when developing narratives around climate change that harness emotions, we must remember that humor and positive emotions increase self efficacy about the issue, as opposed to fear driven campaigns, which can make people feel helpless and disengage entirely.
She had some excellent suggestions for developing intervention strategies:
Remember that people have limited attention and are not rational beings; so most effective interventions will include small changes for consistent impact. She proposed the acronym EAST:
Easy, Attractive, Socially feasible and Timely.
All interventions must learn and adapt from themselves and the people that they are targeted towards. I must highlight one extremely important and unique point that she made:
listen to the people you’re working for and with.
We must realize how powerless people feel due to climate change and their social position. Throwing science at them will not help, but including their ideas and feelings will.
The last speech for the day was by Dr Paul Stern, who focused on what psychology can offer to climate change. His talk was pragmatic and focused on macro level ideas that needed to be kept in mind when devising interventions.
One of the points that only he brought up was the cross pollination of insights from various fields, and joining the natural and social sciences to tackle this challenge together. He encouraged basic policy ideas like giving economic incentives for going green and providing quality assurance on green products so that people become more willing to substitute their earlier products for these.
The day concluded with meaningful remarks on behalf of H.E. Ambassador Dr. Ali Naseer Mohamed. My thanks to Dr Leslie Popoff who lead the organization of this meaningful event. I personally came away with several ideas and a sense of empowerment about what is one of the most pressing concerns of our times – climate change.