Friday, September 24, 2010

What psychology can teach us about our response to climate change

Calls to 'save the planet' or 'do it for our grandchildren' do not engage people, says psychology professor

The Guardian Environment Blog

Leo Hickman Thursday 23 September 2010

Tonight at the Royal Society's lecture hall in central London, Prof David Uzzell will present this year's joint British Academy/British Psychological Society annual lecture. The title of the talk is one that should interest anyone keenly involved in the climate debate: "Psychology and Climate Change: collective solutions to a global problem".

Uzzell is based at the University of Surrey's Department of Psychologyand was appointed as the UK's first Professor of Environmental Psychology in 2000. I spoke to him ahead of his lecture and asked him to summarise its themes:

Psychology has a lot to offer the climate change debate. To date, the emphasis from psychologists has largely focused on behaviour-change strategies. This makes sense: if you are interested in changing people's personal behaviour, a psychologist is probably the person you need to speak to. But my concern over the last few years is just how effective this is. It is effective up to a point, but is it really going to bring in the returns that we need to address the very serious problems of climate change?
My line is that we can try to change behaviour, but it might be more effective to change the conditions that encourage our behaviours. There is a debate being had within psychology that we should aim for environmentally significant behaviour as opposed to environmentally convenient behaviour. Not focusing on turning lights off etc, but instead concentrating on things such as buying energy-efficient appliances.
But I would take this further: psychologists now need to work with other disciplines, such as engineering, sociology etc. We need to have a much better understanding of the conditions which lead to unsustainable behaviour. It's no good the government saying to us that for journeys less than a mile you should walk or use public transport because when you are trying to juggle demands, such as your job and children within limited time, you are probably going to take your car. We need to change the conditions rather than attack individual behaviours.
There's been a lot of finger-wagging and people resent that. They also notice the contradictions. One of the things that came out of a Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs survey in 2007 was that we would do more if the government did more. We see double standards. People also need feedback on how they're doing. People need to know explicitly what the benefits are of what they are being asked to do. People are not interested in concepts such as "saving the planet" or "doing it for their grandchildren". People want impacts that are concrete, immediate and personal to them. They need to see how it's benefiting them. If they are being asked to make - what they see in their terms, at least - as a sacrifice, they need to see what the benefit is to them.

Much of this might seem like basic common sense, but Uzzell says he will also talk about why people choose to "distance" themselves from climate change:

Work over the past 15 years or so has shown that people think the environment is worse the further away it is from them. We've seen the same results in Britain, Slovakia, Australia, and Ireland. We've done it with children, with urban people, rural people. We consistently get the same results. The problem - both cause and effect - is always somewhere else.
We've also found that people think the problems will be worse in the future. And when we ask what the causes of the environmental problems are we get interesting results. If you ask people to rank causes, you find the highest scores for 'inaction by government' or the 'actions of industries'. You also see the 'industrialisation of developing countries', the 'poverty of developing countries', and 'overpopulation' as ranking highly. Overall, what you see is a tendency to distance the causes from themselves.
Rejecting climate change as a problem is, in a way, a coping strategy. Another aspect is that recent events, such as the UEA emails affair, the failure of COP15 at Copenhagen etc, give people a convenient reason to discount climate change as a threat. It gives them a permission to deny.
We shouldn't be surprised that people see climate change as remote and impersonal to them. We shouldn't be talking about how our lives will become somehow poorer through climate change, but instead be talking about it could help us to become healthier, happier and enable us to live in a better environment.
Ultimately, we have to present alternatives and opportunities. If there is no other genuine option than to drive your car, then people will continue to drive. We know as psychologists that people are resistant to change so we must address this.

By coincidence, a new paper entitled The Psychology of Global Warming, has just been published in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society. The two authors - Professor Andy Pitman, co-director of the Climate Change Research Centre at the University of New South Wales, and Dr Ben Newell, senior lecturer in cognitive psychology at the University of New South Wales – make the observation:

Simply presenting the facts and figures about global warming has failed to convince large portions of the general public, journalists, and policy makers about the scale of the problem and the urgency of required action. From a psychologist's perspective this disconnect is not surprising.

It's fascinating to see some of the "psychological phenomenon" that the authors highlight to help explain why so many people chose to reject climate change as a risk. I'll list their headings here, but do try and read the paper (pdf) for the full explanations:

* Psychological nonequivalence of mathematically equivalent information
* Influence of affective processing of information
* Discounting the importance of future events
* The differential impact of losses and gains
* Construction of mental models for representing problems
* Reliance on confirmatory evidence

In conclusion, the authors also present four examples of "food for thought" to any climate scientist wishing to disseminate their findings to the wider community:

1) Sampling issues: clarity about the source and representativeness of samples of evidence that your audience and you are using to form inferences and draw conclusions.
2) Framing issues: methods for presenting science should engage cognitive and emotional processing, in a balanced manner, and try to make distant future outcomes concrete.
3) Comprehending the problem and solution: communicators should take into account the "mental model" held by members of their audience and tailor presentations accordingly.
4) Consensus building: the process and public perception of reaching a consensus about the science needs to be effective, transparent, and objective.

Food for thought, indeed.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Scientists say ozone layer depletion has stopped

ABC News Online, 17 September 2010

The protective ozone layer in the earth's upper atmosphere has stopped thinning and should largely be restored by mid-century thanks to a ban on harmful chemicals, UN scientists said.
The Scientific Assessment of Ozone Depletion 2010 report said a 1987 international treaty that phased out chlorofluorocarbons (CFC) - substances used in refrigerators, aerosol sprays and some packing foams - had been successful.
Ozone provides a natural protective filter against harmful ultra-violet rays from the sun, which can cause sunburn, cataracts and skin cancer as well as damage vegetation.
First observations of a seasonal ozone hole appearing over the Antarctic occurred in the 1970s and the alarm was raised in the 1980s after it was found to be worsening under the onslaught of CFCs, prompting 196 countries to join the Montreal Protocol.
"The Montreal Protocol signed in 1987 to control ozone depleting substances is working, it has protected us from further ozone depletion over the past decades," said World Meteorological Organisation head of research Len Barrie.
"Global ozone, including ozone in the polar region is no longer decreasing but not yet increasing," he told journalists.
The 300 scientists who compiled the four yearly ozone assessment now expect that the ozone layer in the stratosphere will be restored to 1980 levels in 2045 to 2060, according to the report, "slightly earlier" than expected.
Although CFCs have been phased out, they accumulated and persist in the atmosphere and the effect of the curbs takes years to filter through.
The ozone hole over the South Pole, which varies in size and is closely monitored when it appears in springtime each year, is likely to persist even longer and may even be aggravated by climate change, the report said.
Scientists are still getting to grips with the complex interaction between ozone depletion and global warming, Mr Barrie explained.
"In the Antarctic, the impact of the ozone hole and the surface climate is becoming evident," he said.
"This leads to important changes in surface temperature and wind patterns, amongst other environmental changes."
CFCs are classified among greenhouse gases that cause global warming, so the phase out "provided substantial co-benefits by reducing climate change," the report found.
Mr Barrie estimated that it had avoided about 10 gigatonnes of such emissions a year.
However, the ozone-friendly substances that have replaced CFCs in plastics or as refrigerants - hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) and hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) -- are also powerful greenhouse gases.
HFCs alone are regarded as 14,000 times more powerful than carbon dioxide (CO2), which is the focus of international efforts to tackle climate change, and HFC emissions are growing by 8 per cent a year, according to UN agencies.
"This represents a further potential area for action within the overall climate change challenge," said UN Environment Programme chief Achim Steiner in a statement.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Arctic sea ice reaches annual minimum extent

NSIDC Images of the Cryosphere

NSIDC, 15th September 2010
Arctic sea ice appears to have reached its annual minimum extent on 10 September. The minimum ice extent was the third-lowest in the satellite record, after 2007 and 2008, and continues the trend of decreasing summer sea ice.

Overview of conditions

On September 10, 2010 sea ice extent dropped to 4.76 million square kilometers (1.84 million square miles). This appears to have been the lowest extent of the year; sea ice has now begun its annual cycle of growth.

The 2010 minimum ice extent is the third-lowest recorded since 1979. The 2010 minimum extent is 240,000 square kilometers (93,000 square miles) above 2008 and 630,000 square kilometers (240,000 square miles) above the record low in 2007. This is 340,000 square kilometers (130,000 square miles) below 2009. The 2010 minimum is 1.95 million square kilometers (753,000 square miles) below the 1979 to 2000 average minimum and 1.62 million square kilometers (625,000 square miles) below the thirty-one-year 1979 to 2009 average minimum.

Conditions in context

This is only the third time in the satellite record that ice extent has fallen below 5 million square kilometers (1.93 million square miles), and all those occurrences have been within the past four years. The minimum for 2009 was 5.10 million square kilometers (1.97 million square miles), fourth lowest in the satellite record.

Despite a late start to the melt season, the ice extent declined rapidly thereafter, with record daily average ice loss rates for the Arctic as a whole for May andJune. Assuming that we have indeed reached the seasonal minimum extent, 2010 would have the shortest melt season in the satellite record, spanning 163 days between the seasonal maximum and minimum ice extents.

A word of caution on calling the minimum
Because of the variability of sea ice at this time of year, the National Snow and Ice Data Center determines the minimum using a five-day running mean value. We have now seen four days of gains in extent. It is still possible that ice extent could fall slightly, because of either further melting or a contraction in the area of the pack due to the motion of the ice. For example, in 2005, the time series began to level out in early September, prompting speculation that we had reached the minimum. However, the sea ice contracted later in the season, again reducing sea ice extent and causing a further drop in the absolute minimum. When all the data for September are in, we will confirm the minimum ice extent for the season.