Geoffrey Beattie and Laura McGuire, authors of The Psychology of Climate Change, talk about psychology shapes our views on climate and change and how we can use it to promote action.

Climate change is the most pressing problem that we face, or indeed have ever faced. Science tells us (unambiguously) how severe this problem is and what effect it is going to have on our planet. And yet the response of the public and some politicians has been extraordinarily sanguine. Concern about climate change seems to have gone down in recent years rather than up as the scientific evidence has grown stronger. This change in direction of concern seems to have occurred around the time of the Kyoto Protocol, and the economic threat to the energy companies and other big business, and the subsequent emergence of a vigorous ‘debate’ on the topic, which mirrors a very similar earlier debate about the possibly harmful effects of smoking (which, with the passage of time, just looks plainly ridiculous). The public are becoming more polarised about climate change in terms of their beliefs and attitudes and many do not see it as a threat that will affect them – perhaps future generations or countries overseas, but not them personally. Many campaigns have been tried without any real success to change this. There also seems to be a very severe disconnect between the reported attitudes of those who do believe in climate change and want to do something, and their subsequent actions.

We try to address many of these issues in this book. We consider cognitive and social biases and how people maintain that warm glow of optimism in the light of compelling scientific evidence that spells out the devastating effects of climate change. We discuss the false consensus effect where we all seem to believe that we are the majority and that it is people who do not share our views who are odd and distinctive in some way. We review the evidence that emotion and automatic responses guide what we see and what we remember and how we subsequently frame the problem. We also consider one fundamental problem with human beings, which is that they don’t really have a mind after all! They have two distinct sets of cognitive processes and the difficulty with much of the psychological work underpinning climate change campaigns, and carbon labelling and all that great advice about reducing carbon footprint through consumer choice of low carbon products, is that this basic fact has not been recognised. The problem with many aspects of everyday consumer behaviour is that they are very fast and automatic, and it is these automatic responses that we need to work on and change through climate change campaigns. We argue in the book that we need to rethink how to market green lifestyles to impact on these fast, automatic processes and to offer and promote the positive aspects of changing behaviour to make it more environmentally friendly.  There has been too much focus on the negatives, and too much emphasis on guilt and fear, without offering a positive rewarding alternative.

We consider the tobacco industry to see how they targeted the unconscious mind in the days when psychology as a discipline had dismissed this approach as being too unscientific. Gordon Allport, the founder of social psychology, had always assumed that explorations of unconscious motivations would take psychology down a blind alley (after Freud’s clumsy attempts to psychoanalyse him). It was a psychoanalyst in the end, Ernest Dichter, who exploited the power of unconscious motivations to sell cigarettes, and he did this with spectacular and ruthless efficiency. At the same time, he recognised that we also have a rational mind and he fed that rational mind with enough misinformation (‘there’s a confounding variable in the relationship between smoking and lung cancer – guilt, stress, personality, take your pick’) to allow them to enjoy the smoking habit by alleviating some of their own personal guilt. Recently, psychology has returned to a recognition of dual processes in the mind, bolstered enormously by the work of the Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman, and this may hold some clues as to how we may proceed in the future.

We can all present the rational case for climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have been doing this for years. But that is simply not enough. And when you remind those who direct climate change campaigns of this, they merely hit the audience with huge dollops of fear or guilt, as if these are the only alternatives. Instead we need to think in a different way about how to promote pro-environmental behaviours with subtle and sophisticated messages about how joint pro-environmental action links us together (just like smoking), helps us connect (like smoking), helps us to derive greater status (like smoking), makes us more successful (like smoking), offers us all a long and healthy future (unlike smoking).

We need to be more ruthless in getting people to recognise the threat using sophisticated social marketing techniques, borrowing ideas from the tobacco industry, if necessary. President Trump and other climate change deniers might just then, and only then, get the message.