5 MIN READ | Social Psychology

Driving Climate Action with a Future-minded Psychology: Challenges and Opportunities

Professor Thomas Bateman

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Professor Thomas Bateman, (2019, October 2). Driving Climate Action with a Future-minded Psychology: Challenges and Opportunities. Psychreg on Social Psychology. https://www.psychreg.org/climate-action-psychology/
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The human species and its leaders have devoted too little mindshare – not to mention other resources and constructive action – to coping with climate change.  We repeat old arguments through rearview mirrors and rely on ineffectual hopes that our future will turn out fine even without profound climate action.

More productive future-focused climate dialogue offers crucial scientific predictions plus aspirational goals such as sustainable energy sources, circular economies, and concern for social justice.

However, still relatively missing are forward-looking visions for a new psychology of climate action. It is now time to identify some basic aspirations for different and more productive mindsets and behaviours.

Towards attaining our best possible climate futures, we must become more actively future-minded. We can do this if we heed the following steps:

Take responsibility for our climate futures

Psychology literature highlights ‘felt responsibility‘ as a prime motivator of action. That makes intuitive sense, but the feeling now is that it’s our leaders, not us, who are responsible for both global warming and climate action.

A more constructive climate future comprises individuals, teams, and organisations in every sector embracing responsibility for our future. This collective future includes taking productive climate action even if blaming others for past environmental transgressions and the planet’s current state and trajectory.

Actively navigate our climate futures

Much, perhaps most, human behaviour is guided by Daniel Kahneman’s System 1 (automatic) information processing, rather than the more deliberative and wise System 2 thinking. That is, many of our climate decisions occur on autopilot. A dysfunctional result is that we are influenced more by past and immediate influences than by highly consequential future impacts.

We are more passive and reactive than proactive, and while we do try to predict the future, we do far less to actively choose, navigate, and create aspirational, self-determined futures.

The biggest unknown about our future climate is how people will behave – whether our uniquely-qualified species will take more active control. We make useful forecasts, but while past actions and path dependence are major determinants, the future is a matrix of maybes. Some outcomes are predetermined, but others are not. Proactively navigating multiple scenarios and forging our best possible climate futures is our individual and collective sine qua non.

Diversify climate leadership and pursue climate justice

In the most climate-friendly social psychology, we vigorously supplement the traditional dependence on top-down leadership with a model of shared, diverse, inclusive, distributed, adaptive leadership more suited to our complex and interdependent social systems. We need more climate leaders, including unelected, informal climate champions, who create bottom-up, inter-organisational, and multisector change. The leaders we need will engage relevant stakeholders and learn as they go, experimenting and adding more strategies and tactics over time.

The multiple but coordinated goals of boundary-spanning leaders will go far beyond choosing technical solutions. Leaders throughout social systems will find and enact the most effective decision-making processes, as well as fast-moving and high-quality implementation practices. They also will manage climate-change consequences through the energetic pursuit of fairness and social justice.

Reduce self-sabotage to solve problems and capture opportunities

One indication of too little quality thinking and wisdom – and a frequent cause of self-sabotage – is a preponderance of either/or thinking. For example, the future will be neither the current status quo nor a linear extrapolation of current trajectories. Such simplistic, binary, false choices suppress our ambitions, reduce motivation, hinder creativity, and undermine solutions.

Some additional examples: we can neither stop climate change nor surrender to it; we won’t either just meet or miss a temperature-change goal or a window of time; and the window of opportunity will not be either open or shut. And ‘the solution’ is not a choice between taking one action or another –it’s multiple solutions. We must both mitigate and adapt, and we must implement immediate plus longer-term solutions. And we must do so again, continually forever after.

Take the highest-leverage actions, collectively and individually

The most productive climate psychology entails allocating personal resources (time, effort, thought, money, and more) optimally across behavioural options. This won’t happen without a common understanding of which climate actions are most impactful at both individual and collective levels.

Most people act when they feel efficacious – they more often do things that are easy rather difficult, believing they can execute and make an impact. This belief motivates simple but relatively low-impact recycling. Low self-efficacy stifles difficult, sustained political action and informal, bottom-up leadership efforts.

Among the most important but least pursued efforts are attempts to radically reduce carbon and methane emissions and to transcend social and professional silos via multiple-stakeholder collaborations.

Policy changes that make actions easier, changing social norms that reduce resistance to climate conversations, persuasion, and leadership attempts – within and across social, political, and geographical groupings – and seeing more immediate positive impact can enhance self-efficacy for more people across the complete range of useful climate actions.

Sustain our motivation for the long haul

After worrying about how to get people to care and take even easy climate-friendly actions, the challenge of staying motivated is particularly concerning for the future. To initiate a new climate-friendly action is admirable, but it is daunting to have to persist for long periods without demonstrable success.

Extrinsic rewards do motivate people, but can lose their effectiveness over time. For climate action, employers and communities can use financial rewards to capture people’s attention, kick-start desired behaviours, and start establishing positive norms. But ultimately, for the long haul of climate action, intrinsic sources of motivation will be essential.

Various types and aspects of climate action can be intrinsically rewarding and satisfying:

  • Individual and collective, local and beyond
  • The variety of options for mitigation and adaptation strategies and tactics
  • Learning that occurs on the journey
  • Inherent interest in the challenge and tasks
  • Meaningfulness
  • The contributions and feelings of stewardship
  • Pride in caring, giving, not harming, and creating pure environments
  • Seeing communities and natural systems recover, thrive, and flourish
  • Seeing injustice thwarted and justice maintained

Intrinsic motivation perhaps can prevail over one of my particular long-term concerns: psychological (or moral) licence to stop doing ethical or constructive things that we’ve done recently. When we do something righteous, it’s easy then to relax, turn attention to other things, plateau, and slide in the wrong direction.

This pattern is not readily predictable; like so many things psychological, it depends on other factors. For instance, some ‘spillover‘ effects are positive and others are negative. That is, engaging in one pro-environmental behaviour makes subsequent other pro-environmental behaviours more likely but some others less likely.

In conversations I’ve had, some experts say this won’t be a big problem. Others, including me, worry that licence to slacken will be a barrier we need to understand and overcome.

For the long haul, we also must apply the most productive emotions and personal values. Fear doesn’t translate into productive action, but this could change as more people see the scary impacts of severe weather and sea-level rise. Similarly, anger usually isn’t constructive but might become so when people see higher climate costs and social injustice, and as some organisations and countries continue destructive practices.

Regarding other emotions and personal values, we need a combination of hope and worry, an action-oriented (not passive) optimism. We need to value environmental purity and care, harm reduction, and social justice. And we need more constructive discussions (plus action) to successfully lead the way.

Our species must and can evolve quickly

The wicked problems of the world are daunting, but we are capable of making progress and navigating better futures. Esteemed biologist E.O. Wilson, in the preface to Rebecca Costa’s The Watchman’s Rattle, states that the cause of climate change and other current threats is applying antiquated thinking to manage exponentially-changing modern civilisation. Costa maintains that such thinking served our ancestors well but now holds our species hostage, and that more insightful problem solving will ignite the next leap in human evolution.

Insightful problem solving must include innovations not just in technology, but in developing a dedicated new future-mindedness and new behavioural repertoires. These can include increasing and strengthening collaborations, engaging optimal decision-making processes, and actively sustaining motivation over time. It feels cliché to say that the future is up to us. But it’s the truth, and we can prevail if we capitalise fully on our capabilities.

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Editor’s note: This article was published originally in Psychology Today. Read the original article.


Thomas Bateman is Professor Emeritus with the McIntire School of Commerce, University of Virginia.  Professor Bateman’s interest lies within field is organisational behaviour.

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