Why Americans Don't Act on Climate Change

Three-quarters of Americans think climate change is an important issue, a recent Pew Research Center survey found. But they don't see it as an immediate threat and so aren't keen to act to change the status quo. The issue ranked last on a list of 20 compelling issues, behind things like terrorism and the economy.

Now a task force set up by the American Psychological Association concludes that getting people to "go green"  requires policymakers, scientists and marketers to look at psychological barriers to change and what leads people to action.

Why are psychologists delving into this issue?

The main influences of climate change are behavioral – population growth and energy consumption, the group said in a statement.

"What is unique about current global climate change is the role of human behavior," said task force chair Janet Swim 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 several factors are to blame for the lack of public urgency:

  • 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 has some recommendation to change things.

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.

Citing other studies, the task for said efforts to get people to weatherize their homes should include strong financial incentives and attention to customer convenience and quality assurance.

Live Science Staff
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