In the United States, we’ve reached a tipping point where the public is concerned and alarmed about climate change. Experts and laypeople alike assert the need for more extensive and productive climate action to deliver a future safer than the one we now face.
Now – not later – is the time to figure out the best ways to help. We can do that by following a few points based on clear psychological principles.
Assess, accurately, your environmental engagement
The better-than-average effect refers to our tendency to self-assess positively when comparing ourselves against other people. For example, people think their driving skills, athletic abilities, and leadership skills are better than average. Unfortunately for the climate, a new study shows most people also believe they are ‘better than’ the average person in their concern for the environment. This bias breeds complacency and not enough useful action.
So, instead of overestimating your positive contributions, start your path to higher-leverage climate action by assessing yourself honestly against what you could and should be doing. An accurate picture is likely to show plenty of untapped and difference-making potential.
Assume responsibility for helping
Being aware of a problem such as climate change, and even caring about it, doesn’t mean people will take useful action. Feeling responsible is the stronger motivator. Here’s the crucial question: How do you define responsibility?
In the realm of climate change, a standard definition of responsibility uses a polluter-pays principle that focuses on who caused the problem. This principle insists that past and current transgressors take responsibility for paying the price.
Common attitudes such as ‘not my fault’, ‘not my responsibility’, and ‘I can’t make a difference anyway’ can seem perfectly logical with this perspective. This point is not to let anyone off the hook for their transgressions, but offloading all the responsibility for creating better futures isn’t delivering what the planet needs.
Decide to launch
Towards action on climate change, the next step is to decide that you will act. That may seem obvious, but even in the face of worsening climate-change effects – more extreme and severe weather, biodiversity loss, poverty, food and water shortages, climate refugees, conflict and military threats, and more – people don’t often say ‘I’m deciding right now, I will do my part.’
The more common ‘I might do more’ and ‘Someone else will take action’ and ‘Maybe someday’, wishing and hoping, are not clear decisions and intentions.
A high-leverage decision is to act not just on your own, but also to find and collaborate with other people. All else equal, collective action generates higher leverage than solo acts. So start conversations and seek like-minded others.
Consider becoming one of the many new climate leaders we need. For instance, enlist others to vote for new political leaders and help them exercise their voting rights, or speak up in your workplace, so your employer strengthens some aspect of its sustainability efforts. Opportunities exist everywhere.
Having chosen to act, now decide when, where, and how
The reasons you decided to act are causes you care about. They give you a start toward choosing what to do. Still, many options, seemingly too many, may remain. The tyranny of choice can translate to indecisiveness and no real action.
Sorting options into categories can help. Consider the following, decide yay or nay, and select your favourites:
- Work locally or beyond, via political activism or other avenues.
- Act at home or in your workplace or community.
- Vote every four years or, better yet, at every voting opportunity.
- Work on mitigation (emissions reductions) or adaptation (preparing for worsening futures).
More generally, ask yourself whether you prefer making good things happen or stopping and preventing bad things. And if you haven’t done so yet, think about (or brainstorm with others in your line of work) how you can apply your particular knowledge and expertise, and what networks you can tap.
Then, under the umbrellas of one or more causes, pick a specific action, any action, that you know you can execute—one for which psychology says you have high self-efficacy. Be more specific by identifying the when, where, and how. Ideally, specify with whom you’ll talk and take action, and you’ll have an initial action plan.
Now you’re truly ready to act; with the first step, you’re off and running. Think also about a coping plan that defines how you’ll handle things when some of your attempts don’t work, or you hit a plateau. Identify again what’s next, including what, when, where, and with whom.
Master the long haul with intrinsic motivation
Paul Simon sang, ‘the nearer your destination, the more you’re slip-sliding away.’ The tendency to backslide after making progress – three steps forward and two steps back, goes the adage – may be one of the biggest psychological challenges of climate change. After doing something righteous, for instance, environmentally, we give ourselves moral licence: metaphorical permission to relax and plateau or take a step back.
With climate action, we were making political progress before reversals came, and vital scientific indicators started looking better but then took turns for the worse. I worry that this will happen enough overtime to hinder progress greatly.
Extrinsic rewards or incentives, such as financial gain, can motivate people to increase or change their behaviour in the short run. But the long haul of dealing persistently with climate change will require intrinsic motivation, the satisfaction that comes from inherently-satisfying actions, not to mention plenty of strategic re-thinking along the way.
You are likely to find climate action to be intrinsically rewarding – even when immediately costly in terms of time, money, and effort. You will be doing something meaningful and interesting, meet new and dedicated people, and find gratification in progress made and other impacts of your efforts.
You don’t need to know climate science to hit the ground running by contributing your personal skills and other resources like time and energy. And since these are multidisciplinary pursuits, you will learn a lot along the way. You even might grow into the Renaissance person or world-class good Samaritan most of us only think about becoming.
We can no longer afford passivity about recent climate developments and what will become worse. We don’t need more pessimism or false hope or claims of caring; we need more and smarter climate action.
Thomas Edison said that if we did all the things we are capable of doing, we would astound ourselves. He had an action-based optimism that we need today, along with the ancient wisdom of viewing problems as opportunities. It’s time to decide that climate action is a lifetime opportunity to find and engage our most meaningful pursuits.
An earlier version of this articles was published on Psychology Today.
Thomas Bateman is Professor Emeritus with the McIntire School of Commerce, University of Virginia.