Perceptions of climate change

Climate change is the major threat facing humanity. Human interactions with climate occur at all levels but so far research has focused on governments, industries and on the technological, demographic and economic trends that drive climate change. Factors that influence decisions and behaviour at the individual level have received less attention. But, individual behaviour drives societal change via adoption of technologies and support for policies.

Unless we examine what factors influence mitigation and adaptation behaviours and how climate change will affect human well-being, we will be unable to respond effectively as a society. Too much policy is based on oversimplifications and erroneous assumptions about these factors, for example, the assumption that informing individuals about climate change science is sufficient to affect decisions and behaviours. Ignoring insights from psychological research will handicap progress towards a low-carbon, sustainable future. Climate change will affect well-being in ways that are often overlooked. Natural disasters have direct impacts on mental health and indirect impacts will result from cumulative environmental stresses. Awareness of these impacts encourages public engagement and encourages effective adaptations that minimize negative effects and capitalize on possibilities for more positive changes. People typically underestimate the likelihood of being affected by disaster events and tend to under- rather than overreact.

Community preparedness can be improved. by considering these processes in the design of education and messaging; for example, by accompanying risk information with information about the specific personal implications of the risk and about specific actions to address the risk. The psychological perspective is uniquely placed to understand individual factors in socio-ecological systems, and provide important input towards a multi-level approach integrating natural sciences, social sciences and the humanities.

Researchers concerned with understanding and responding to climate change acknowledge that multiple disciplinary approaches are necessary, but do not always act on this recognition. It is time to develop effective ways to integrate psychological research into these efforts.

To successfully communicate about risk, change behaviours that contribute to climate change and facilitate adaptation, it is necessary to consider individual capabilities, cognitive processes, biases, values, beliefs, norms, identities and social relationships, and to integrate this understanding  into broader understanding of human interactions with a changing climate.