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Psychological factors help explain slow reaction to global warming

While most Americans think climate change is an important issue, they don't see it as an immediate threat, so getting people to “go green” requires policymakers, scientists and marketers to look at psychological barriers to change and what leads people to action.

Scientific evidence shows the main influences of climate change are behavioral – population growth and energy consumption. “What is unique about current global climate change is the role of human behavior,” said task force chair Janet Swim, PhD, of Pennsylvania State University. “We must look at the reasons people are not acting in order to understand how to get people to act.”

The task force said numerous psychological barriers are to blame, including:

Uncertainty – Research has shown that uncertainty over climate change reduces the frequency of “green” behavior.

Mistrust – Evidence shows that most people don't believe the risk messages of scientists or government officials.

Denial – A substantial minority of people believe climate change is not occurring or that human activity has little or nothing to do with it, according to various polls.

Undervaluing Risks – A study of more than 3,000 people in 18 countries showed that many people believe environmental conditions will worsen in 25 years. While this may be true, this thinking could lead people to believe that changes can be made later

Lack of Control – People believe their actions would be too small to make a difference and choose to do nothing.

Habit – Ingrained behaviors are extremely resistant to permanent change while others change slowly. Habit is the most important obstacle to pro-environment behavior, according to the report.

The task force highlighted some ways that psychology is already working to limit these barriers. For example, people are more likely to use energy-efficient appliances if they are provided with immediate energy-use feedback. Devices that show people how much energy and money they're conserving can yield energy savings of 5 percent to 12 percent, according to research. “Behavioral feedback links the cost of energy use more closely to behavior by showing the costs immediately or daily rather than in an electric bill that comes a month later,” said Swim.

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This relates to some of the work Daniel Gilbert has done. According to him, there are four key elements a threat must have for us to act on it. The threat must: (1) have a face; (2) incite moral sensibility; (3) clear and present danger; and (4) cause absolute not relative changes.