Psychologists’ Report Aims to Counter Dominant Pessimistic Attitudes About Climate Change > News > USC Dornsife


Climate change is not an inevitable death sentence, and the discipline of psychology needs to build its capacity to act on the issue, according to a new report. [4 min read]

A young driver charges her electric car. A new report urges psychologists to help people adopt climate-friendly behaviors. (Photo: Image source: iStock/Simon Skafar.)

In short:

  • A new report recommends ways psychologists can help people build resilience to deal with the effects of climate change.
  • Experts call the report and its advice “greatly needed.”
  • The report aligns with the work that USC Dornsife researchers are doing to help people adopt climate-friendly habits.

Read the latest story on climate change, and chances are the tone will be dark and dire, and the report will do nothing to quell your anxiety.

What he probably won’t highlight are the things you can do to prevent climate change from getting worse, or how people can build their psychological and social resilience to better cope with its impacts.

Enter the American Psychological Association (APA), which recently released a 64-page report recommending steps psychologists can take to address climate change and collaborate with other disciplines to have a meaningful impact.

The report, “Coping with the Climate Crisis: An Action Plan for Psychologists (PDF, 643 KB)is the result of 15 months of work by a task force led by Gale Sinatra, Stephen H. Crocker Professor and Professor of Education at USC Rossier, who has a cross-appointment in the Department of Psychology at ‘USC Dornsife.

“If there’s too much doomsday in the media coverage of climate change, then people will tune out, and that’s the exact opposite of what we need,” Sinatra said. “We need people to connect and we need people to engage. It is not true that we are completely doomed and there is no hope. We can make a difference.

Twelve recommendations

Building on the work of a task force convened by the APA in 2008, the new task force met approximately 30 times and made 12 recommendations – six to strengthen the field of psychology and six to expand the impact of psychology.

The focus, Sinatra said, was on the action.

For example, the report called for building the capacity of psychologists to help people address climate change and make changes to live with its effects, and to promote the engagement of psychologists with policymakers, practitioners and the community as a whole.

“A lot of people are aware of the changes we need to make to the way we live and work around energy use and consumption to fight climate change,” Sinatra said, “but I don’t think the people are also aware of the psychological impact.

“We need to prepare for the massive displacement of people, changes in living and working patterns and how we are going to adapt. There’s a huge component of adaptation and mitigation that is psychological, and we’re not there yet to solve that problem.

Sinatra used the analogy of developing vaccines against COVID-19.

“The scientific community has put incredible work into medical research, efficacy and safety, but not much effort into the psychological aspects of vaccine hesitancy,” Sinatra said.

“Much needed”

Dana and David Dornsife Chair and Professor of Psychology and Biological Sciences Joe Árvai, a risk assessment and communication expert who has done work to help people adopt more sustainable behaviors, welcomed the report. APA.

“This is one of the first steps in integrating behavioral science around climate change,” said Árvai, who also directs the USC Dornsife Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies. “I hope this gets the conversation started so others can build momentum to get us out of ‘the sky is falling on us!’ mode to ‘how are we going to support it?’ fashion.”

Árvai, like Sinatra, is appalled by the mostly negative media coverage of climate change.

“There is hardly any conversation about how to make the necessary behavioral changes that can lead us to confront the risk of climate change in a meaningful way,” Árvai said. “For this reason, the APA report was absolutely necessary.”

Wändi Bruine De Bruin, a senior professor of public policy, psychology, and behavioral sciences who has cross-appointments at the USC Price School of Public Policy and the Department of Psychology at USC Dornsife, was the principal investigator for a recent study with the United Nations Foundation on how to effectively communicate the science of climate change to the public.

This study, presented to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, was supported by USC Dornsife’s public exchangethat connects academics with policy makers and practitioners so that research can make a difference in the real world.

Bruine De Bruin said the APA report is right in line with other work by USC Dornsife aimed at helping people change their climate habits.

“Psychologists are trained to conduct carefully crafted research and test theories about what drives behavior change,” Bruine De Bruin said. “If you apply psychology to real-world problems, it can be very powerful.”

spread the word

Sinatra hopes the APA report will be an example for other disciplines and organizations.

“We believe this can help them consider what they can do to use their unique skills to address the climate crisis,” she said. “We hope people will pick up the slack.”

The APA plans to publicize its report through opinion pieces in newspapers, and the paper will be presented at the APA’s annual convention in August, Sinatra said.

“The task force is pleased to offer these recommendations to the APA as a way forward and to encourage the field of psychology to answer the call,” she said.


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