A recent study, published in the Journal of Social Issues, criticizes the argument that human psychological barriers are to blame for inaction around climate change. They argue that these theories work to maintain the status quo for the elite who perpetuate harmful environmental policies. The authors, led by environmental activism researcher Michael Schmitt, expand on the influences of social context, power, and inequality on psychological processes. They see a role for psychologists in helping to visualize social change by narrating the human experience of climate change action.
“We consider the ways in which psychological responses to climate change are contingent upon the social-structural context, with particular attention to the ways unequal distributions of power have allowed elites to block climate action, in part by using their power to influence societal beliefs and norms,” they write.
“Why aren’t people taking action?” is a question that commonly arises in the discussion of climate change. The researchers reflect on this question first, by acknowledging the extant literature and perspectives of the field, largely understood through a “psychological barriers explanation” (PBE). They explain that this sort of psychological explanation “relies on a one-sided picture of human nature, delineating lists of psychological barriers without similar attention to aspects of human psychology that might facilitate action,” essentially, locating the problem of climate inaction within individual psychological processes.
Schmitt and colleagues propose a broader, more contextualized perspective, i.e. that human psychology exists within discourses, structures, and practices, and is often influenced by a small group of the most powerful and wealthy people.
“We take a critical social psychology approach to argue that psychological processes that deter climate action are too frequently abstracted from the larger social context, giving the impression that inaction is due to immutable aspects of human psychology and obscuring the potential for transformative social change,” they explain.
Critical social psychology considers systemic injustice and inequality as a product of the role of the social elite to continue serving their own interests, which, as the authors describe, is often difficult to see “because the system shapes so much human life that it appears normal.”
While there are individuals and groups within the system actively working to mitigate climate change, e.g. environmental organizations, indigenous communities, and youth climate activists, they hold less power in a neoliberal capitalist system than those wealthy institutions aiming to profit, e.g. the fossil fuel industry. The article uses as an example the story of Exxon withholding evidence of human-caused climate change they uncovered 40 years ago, while its executives attempted to delude the public and policymakers into thinking climate change did not exist.
Assigning the problem of climate change inaction to individuals curtails governmental responsibilities. Schmitt et al. delineate how psychological research can feed into that problematic perspective and propose that psychologists should instead hold themselves accountable for the narratives that are generated and their implications.
“When we, as psychologists, make theoretical or empirical arguments for why people do or do not take action to mitigate climate change, we are acting as agents in the co-construction of the human response to climate change.”
They conclude with action steps for future research. They recommend avoiding oversimplification, paying attention to social and political factors, acknowledging the power of the elite on climate change policy, identifying pathways for social change, and ultimately, “moving beyond the current focus on individual consumption and add to a growing body of research on environmental social movements, political participation, and social change.”
Schmitt, Neufeld, Mackay, & Dys-Steenbergen summarize how the current individualized psychological perspective neglects larger systemic action steps needed for change:
“We will not avoid climate disaster by limiting ourselves to individualized actions that work within the political and economic systems that made the catastrophic climate change possible in the first place. We need to consider alternative systems that address the problems with the system that is currently failing us.”
Schmitt, M. T., Neufeld, S. D., Mackay, C. M. L., & Dys-Steenbergen, O. (2019). The perils of explaining climate inaction in terms of psychological barriers. Journal of Social Issues 00(0), 1-13. https://doi.org/10.1111/josi.12360 (Link)