The problem of waiting for governments to take action on climate change

Yeah they'll look at you weird, but in a good way ;)

Yeah they’ll look at you weird, but in a good way 😉

Some of the attitudes about climate change have already shifted in a favourable direction: that is the majority of people now think that climate change is real, and the pool of deniers is shrinking. However, now it is not the question of whether it is happening, it is a question of who should do something about it.

Climate change mitigation is usually framed as a global problem that must be dealt with at the legislative level: that is, to mitigate the effects of climate change we must reduce our carbon emissions, which can only be done if governments force corporations to do it. When framed like this, it takes the onus off regular people because anything they may do in their individual lives doesn’t really count, or has no impact.

I think one of the attitudes we need to change is this idea that the governments need to do something, and all we can do is wait until they act. We need to shift this attitude to the idea that everyone needs to do something in their life to reduce their personal carbon footprint, not because it will make some sort of impact on global emissions but because it will have SOCIAL IMPACT.

When you choose to not use plastic, when you choose to shop local, when you choose to bike or take public transit, you are communicating to those around you that you want to change to a sustainable lifestyle, that it is worth doing, and that we all have to start doing something. Just the mere fact that you are doing it activates descriptive norms for people around you. The more they see others doing it, the more it is in our collective conscious that this is what people who care about climate change do. The more diverse and unexpected people that do it, the more attention it will get, and the more different groups will identify with the shift. You are signalling to others around you about what is important. Some, who already do it too, will be more motivated because they will feel community support, some who don’t already do these things will follow, and when enough follow, that is how you reach a tipping point. Only then can our collective voice be loud enough to tell our governments to make better choices for all of us.

For more on what you can do to reduce your impact check out these links:

No impact project

My plastic-free life

Psychology for a better world: Strategies to inspire sustainability (free ebook)

How worried should you be about climate change?

Hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil... and evil will go away?

Hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil… and evil will go away?

Most people nowadays have climate change on the brain. But should you really be worried? Or are people exaggerating the threat?

The function of worry is to help you cope with threat; worrying is the thing that prompts you to plan ahead. It’s totally normal to worry about climate change. That being said, people don’t want to think about climate change because it brings up questions of life and death, as well as profound change. Thinking about these things is threatening and anxiety provoking, thus people may feel that a topic that arouses such deep fears is exaggerated, hysterical, and not rooted in reality. But there is nothing wrong with thinking about death, and there is nothing wrong with the fact that it provokes anxiety. The more you think about it, as morbid as that is a) the better prepared you are for the fact that it is inevitable, and b) the more likely you are to put your anxious energy to productive use – motivation for action to lessen the impact on your life and the lives of others.

According to Langford (2002)  and Maiteny (2002) (who have done their classifications independently of one another and are put together here) people tend fall into four camps in their response to climate change risk:


These are the people who actively deny that climate change is happening, or that humans have anything to do with it. They tend to rely strongly on rationality, and have a low tolerance for scientific uncertainty. While rationality is a positive attribute that is needed for problem solving, in this situation it is not aiding in problem solving, it is rationalizing inaction. Their desire for scientific certainty is unrealistic, because their threshold is way too high. The analogy that I’ve seen others use and I think is quite effective is this: If you went to 10 doctors, and 9 told you that you have cancer, and one told you that you are fine, would you listen to the one because his diagnosis puts all the other ones in doubt? Or do you assume he is an outlier because the other 9 independently converged on a diagnosis?  According to Maiteny (2002) these people are likely to stave off their anxiety by increasing their consumption.


These are the folks who don’t care. They are disinterested in the topic of climate change, and are likely disproportionately low income. People in this category feel that they have more pressing things to worry about, they have less free time to worry about nebulous threats, when they have more immediate needs to focus on. They may be less educated and thus have a harder time understanding the nature of the problem at hand, and can’t parse the truth from the jargon and exaggerations that pepper the discourse. People in this category believe that climate change is completely out of their control, that whatever happens, happens and there is nothing they can do.

Some people can experience despair and hopelessness, or feel very overwhelmed by the thought of climate change, which may also lead to inertia. Unfortunately, because people can be looked down upon as hysterical, morbid, and even unpatriotic, few readily admit these feelings.


These are the people who show their concern for the environment by shopping more thoughtfully, but without major changes in lifestyle. This is probably the category I would fall into, and I would say is probably a good place to start for others. Making more thoughtful choices about what you buy is a process – you have to find better products to replace the products you currently use. Through this process you discover that some products cannot be replaced with an “eco-friendly” version, at which point you may decide to live without it or continue using it. Hopefully, the journey leads one to become better informed and engaged in the issue, but not necessarily. Many people who fall into this camp run the risk of patting themselves on the back without putting in enough effort (e.g. not researching purchases enough and falling prey to “green-washing”), or reducing their consumption.


These people are engaged, feel a sense of empowerment from the changes that they have made, and a sense of personal responsibility to spread the word, the joy, and the wisdom. The folks in this category share a belief in “communal efficacy” or the idea that we can come together and solve this complex problem effectively. There are many of these people on the internet running wonderful and informative blogs, encouraging others, educating through film and other media, building sustainable communities, and growing organic food.

As for what proportion falls into each category – it’s hard to tell, and depends on who actually answers the polls, where the information is collected, demographics and social context.

Which category do you fit in? Or do you find you do not fit into any of these? What kind of emotions do people around you express about climate change? Let me know in the comments 🙂

Climate change: Fear based messages don’t work

WWF is fond of this strategy

WWF is fond of this strategy

This has been the dominant strategy so far – tell people how bad things are going to get if we don’t make changes now, and the fear of an uninhabitable planet will motivate people to start changing their act. But does this really work? Can we appeal to people to make changes in their behaviour in order to reduce climate change by using fear?

Theories of social influence and persuasion paint a complicated picture. For example, if you think that David Suzuki is a legitimate ambassador and a valuable source of information on climate change, then the fear that rises in you may in fact motivate you to start doing something. If you think the government or oil companies (and their scientists) are legitimate sources of information, then perhaps the opposite will occur. But if you fall into the latter camp, then any fear-based message that is coming from the environmentalist side will be met not with scrutiny. Instead, all the focus will be on the fact that the message comes from an illegitimate source, and the message itself will be ignored without thought or reason. This is why you may often hear things like “Oh, that David Suzuki. Isn’t he kind of radical? He is such an alarmist.” Sure, if that is what you want to believe, but that hardly negates the message, which is separate from David Suzuki himself. Unfortunately, research shows that reactive attitudes are exceptionally persistent, especially when there is pride associated with being resistant to persuasive messages.

The other problem with fear-based approach is that it only works when the target of the message feels vulnerable to the threat. We can talk about increased severe weather – heat waves, tornadoes, hurricanes, snow, etc. but people are very adept at the “it won’t happen to me” bias. As severe weather events increase, this may become easier to overcome – when people in places like New York experience hurricanes, it’s harder for them to say it can’t happen to them. But this means we have to wait until enough people have experienced such adversity before we can get them to change their behaviour. There needs to be another approach in the mean time.

And then there is this gem: a study found that, “the fear of publicly supporting favoured causes in which one had no stake prevented nonvested individuals from acting on their attitudes.” In other words, even if you can persuade someone to change their attitude about climate change, unless how this will serve their self-interest is readily apparent, attitude will not result in behaviour change. It is quite common to talk to people who believe climate change is happening, who believe that human behaviour is a contributing cause, and who are not necessarily doing anything about it because the personal costs right now are high, and personal costs in the future…. are for future you to worry about.

Many of our current behaviours are habits of convenience – and changing those takes more than changing attitudes. What we must focus on is building up people’s capacity to effect change in their lives, and their belief that these changes are not a waste of time, that they will have an impact. The perception of control – that people are choosing to do something, that they have the resources to do it, and that it will have impact, is crucial to mobilizing all the people who are already silently on our side.

Species on autopilot vs planetary consciousness



It would be useful to re-frame the way we talk about effects of climate change: we are not killing or doing irreparable damage to the planet, we are only killing ourselves (and taking some other species with us). The planet itself will be fine, especially when we are gone. The extreme weather events constantly in the news are worrying but they are either not seeing the bigger picture by asking ludicrous questions like “Do you think this will ever happen again?” (to which scientists respond with “Yes, with absolute certainty”) or they swath it in doom and gloom rhetoric that makes it sound like we are destroying the world. I can understand when people don’t buy that. It is also perfectly understandable to think that the world is naturally changing, like it always has and: 1. It is happening so slow that we have time to figure something out and 2. there’s nothing really we can do but deal with it when it comes.

But I think that what we are really learning in this stage of our development as humans is that the planet is really not that big. We truly are a part of an enclosed unified ecological system. And there are SO MANY of us, that we are having measurable effects on our ecosystem.

I’m sure everyone who witnessed Neil Armstrong be the first man to walk on the moon was tremendously excited and proud of this human achievement. Let’s now listen to what astronauts have to say about what it felt like up there. What  can we learn from what they saw? Check out this amazing short film that talks about the Overview Effect described by many astronauts  as “awe for the planet, a profound understanding of the interconnection of all life, and a renewed sense of responsibility for taking care of the environment.” They have insight because they saw what we can mostly just symbolically imagine —

In many ways the planet functions very much like the human body, and all the species on it are like the bacterial flora that cover both inside and outside of the body. Right now we are behaving like an invasive species. We are wrecking stuff because that is how we function as a species on autopilot. Let’s not be a virus, let’s be the planet’s consciousness instead. Think about it, we, as we like to think of ourselves, are the smartest species on the planet, and are capable of prolonging our existence on this body we call the planet. Much like our ingenious capabilities allowed us to increase our own life spans, we can improve the longevity of the human race as a whole. If you have or want to have kids, you want them to have a great future. I imagine no one is envisioning that their children will live in poverty and desolation. But an impoverished environment will do just that. I do not wish this on anybody’s children.

We need to come together to stop our own self-destruction by examining what we can all do to help.  Paradoxically, I think that the way we do this is by going local. For many of us on this planet, there are better things to worry about – like putting food on the table or trying to survive in a war-torn zone. But those of us who can, should take it as our mission to restructure our society to support communities and small businesses. We will still all be interconnected through the web, but it’s time to think big and go small. Live IN your community – learn about who you share it with, support those who are trying to make it better (in both fun and necessary ways), and keep sustainability in mind when you are making day to day decisions and do what you can. Only by being present, by researching products, examining our habits, by spending time in nature and realizing we have to take care of the place we live in so it can sustain us, can we effect some kind of change. Little by little, everyone can pitch in a lot. This will transform lives and it’s really truly important. You and everyone you love will benefit from this effort.

Lastly, I think that the youth can be a drivings force for this. We are in an uncertain time; we can’t find jobs, and when we do there will be no such thing as “full time” “full benefits” “retirement savings” (or in my case, this magical fairy unicorn called “tenure”). Who knows, maybe even “union” will be gone. So maybe we should rethink what we are going to do with our lives, because the formula that appeared to work for our parents is not going to work for us. Maybe more of us should be more focused on creating citizenship unions, and contribute to projects in our communities, and learning how to apply our skills to solve world problems. Many such efforts are already in place. For example, locally we have GenNext by United Way that brings together young professionals and allows them to contribute to the community in meaningful ways using their skill sets. But we need to learn how to make this work for us so that we can make a living. Soon most jobs that can be automated will be, so we need to educate ourselves so we can do things robots can’t: think creatively and wisely.


Obesity is not that simple

A great article on the importance of situational/environmental factors in rising levels of obesity. Researchers agree that pinning personal responsibility as the culprit is too simplistic as many things in our environment, including: history, nutritionally empty food, stress and sleeping patterns, light pollution, chemicals, virus and bacterial infections, alcohol, etc turn out to be “metabolic disturbers” that reset how your body processes fat and can have generational effects. Great article, definitely worth a read.

Psychology of Greed


“He who is not contented with what he has, would not be contented with what he would like to have.”

I don’t know about you but I find myself constantly astounded by the short-sightedness of corporate greed. I find myself thinking, surely they can’t be that myopic? There is no way you can do so much damage to the planet that EVERYBODY has to share and just completely fail to care. What is going on here?

Today someone posted a link to petition against a company that is planning to build “the world’s largest coal mining complex” whose shipping lane would go right through the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. Again, my first reaction was: Surely this is a joke? Can greed overpower everything else to the point where they would be willing to destroy one of the natural wonders of the world? It’s hard for me to even fathom.

But this got me thinking: what does psychology have to say on the topic of greed? What do we know about greed?

Greed is defined as “a selfish or excessive desire for more than is needed or deserved, especially of money, wealth, food, or other possessions”.

A report by Fidelity Investments found that you “need” at least 5 million dollars to “feel wealthy”. But as we can all clearly tell, once the rich reach that magic number they don’t pat themselves on the back and retire in luxury. Instead they continue to hoard more wealth. According to Seltzer (2012), profit making or securing a deal releases dopamine and can become addictive just like other addictive behaviours. And like with those other addictions, you develop a tolerance and need more and more in order to get the same “high”. Others also suggest that power causes profound distortions in behaviour, emotions, and thinking (Robertson, 2012) resulting in a skewed perception of the world and a dull appreciation of risk, while some would go so far as to call greed a psychological disorder (Hartmann, 2010).

But the truth of the matter is that we don’t need to demonize those in the financial industry, or assume that all the rotten apples congregated on Wall Street. Studies find that greed is more common than generosity. For example, one study found that if people were the recipients of an act of generosity, they were not any more likely to “pay it forward” than to perform a neutral act. However, if they were the recipient of an act of greed, they were more likely to “pay it forward” creating a negative chain reaction. This is not surprising as psychology studies have shown over and over that negative stimuli have stronger effects on our thoughts and actions than positive stimuli. I suppose it makes sense that if you perceive everyone else around you as being greedy, you feel the need to also be greedy otherwise you will not get your share. But what a sorry implication that has for our current conundrum!

The conclusion that the above study draws is that people should focus on treating everyone equally and refraining from acts of greed. Research on social norms would support this notion as people will easily conform to what others do if they perceive it to be in their interest, thus the system works best when in addition to conformity, violators (in this case the greedy) are punished (Guzman, Rodriguez-Sickert, & Rowthorn, 2007). This is perhaps the key flaw in our handling of corporate greed – the mechanism of punishment – the law – is completely ineffective against corporate misdeeds.

The idea that we should trust banks, or anybody when it comes to wealth, to be “good” while “no one is watching” is absurd (Lammers & Stapel, 2009), because “good” becomes relative (no one is around, therefore what’s good for me = good). If you don’t want people to steal or hoard, then you have to have rules that are enforced, not live in hope that people will be model citizens. Accountability is the cornerstone of a healthy society.


Fidelity Investments (2012). Key Insights into the Millionaire Mind. Retrieved from:

Gray, K. Ward, A.F., & Norton, M.I. (2012). Paying It Forward: Generalized Reciprocity and the Limits of Generosity. Journal of Experimental Psychology. Retrieved from:

Greed: definition. Retrieved from:

Guzman, R., Rodriguez-Sickert, C., & Rowthorn, R. (2007). When in Rome, do as the Romans do: The coevolution of altruistic punishment, conformist learning, and cooperation. Evolution and Human Behavior, 28, 112-117.

Hartmann, T. (2010). Greed is a psychological disorder. Retrieved from:

Lammers, J. & Stapel, D.A. (2009). How power influences moral thinking. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 97(2),  279-289. doi: 10.1037/a0015437

Robertson, I. (2012). Bankers and the neuroscience of greed. The Guardian. Retrieved from:

Seltzer, L.F. (2012). Greed: The ultimate addiction. Retrieved from:

International symposium on Arab youth identity summary


This week the psychology department at my university held a symposium on the topic of Arab youth identity that focused on both challenges across cultures, as well as integration challenges in cultures that have substantial immigrant populations.

Dr. John Berry, a highly regarded and frequently cited intercultural psychologists, gave the keynote address as well as a lecture on cross-cultural and intercultural research methodology. There were also two days of panel speakers from Canada, United States, Lebanon, and Egypt who covered topics like youth civic engagement (only 2% of youth in Egypt volunteer in the community!), sexuality, how parents pass on memories to their children of historical events that they experienced (i.e. war), parental practices, resiliency, forgiveness, anxiety, substance abuse, immigration and mental illness, and more.

To me, and several other researchers, this seemed like a rather broad topic for a symposium, especially because studies on “Arab youth” from both across the Middle East as well as those who are now living in North America were included. The symposium closed with a panel of community organization representatives who talked about what kind of research they would find helpful in order to provide programming to this demographic. By that point it was apparent that youth across these different cultures are experiencing vastly different challenges. Though the symposium organizers hoped that the roundtable discussions would spark a collaborative research agenda among attendees, it was clear that each community will need to assess the needs of their own population as a starting point.

We did have a fruitful discussion about the challenges of reaching the population that we are trying to study. While conducting research on youth IN the Middle East is likely exponentially harder than it is in Canada and US, it is still a confusing challenge here as well. Youth are notoriously hard to convince to participate in research. Youth from a group that is more insular is even harder. It was disappointing that none of the student groups on campus were in attendance at the event, as their input would have been incredibly valuable. But it is also not at all surprising, and illustrative of the challenge that researchers face when reaching out to this group.

My personal research interests lie in immigrant adjustment in Canada, and my impression from the panels and the roundtable discussions was this: acculturation, or adjustment to a new culture, is a process that is experienced by both the immigrant and the mainstream individual that interacts with the immigrant. Research and programs have made substantive efforts to address both, by focusing on helping the immigrant integrate more smoothly, and by providing diversity training to individuals in the mainstream culture. Our efforts now need to focus on actually encouraging the two to interact in a productive way. Some organizations are beginning to make headway on that front, such as the ALLIES mentorship program that matches Canadian professionals with newcomer immigrant professionals. I have not heard of similar large-scale programming for youth, but I am sure something like it exists in various communities. For example, a project for which I am a research assistant, Engaging Girls, Changing Communities, just funded a youth-led initiative that will pair up Muslim young women with mentors who work in the community (so far United Way, the public library, and Rose City Islamic Center are on board) to help get them involved in the community, learn how to network, and meet professional women that they can talk to. It is my hope that we make a lasting contribution to this community and maybe set the stage for something that can be implemented more broadly.

Ignoring climate change


A current story circulating in the press about the battle of words between Joe Oliver, the Canadian natural resources minister, and various Canadian scientists has certainly gotten the attention of some Canadians. It started when Joe Oliver publicly shamed a renowned NASA scientist for “exaggerating” claims that the tar sands will have devastating environmental consequences for the whole planet. He was quoted saying “The oil sands represent one one-thousandth of global emissions. You’re talking about, from a relative perspective, a minuscule amount. So people like James Hansen who says, ‘If you develop oil sands, it’s game over,’ he’s talking nonsense.”

For many Canadians the tar sands are a hot button issue, and opinions tend to divide along what province you live in and whether your income is related to tar sand development. An American Gallup poll also suggests that when it comes to climate change denial, men and conservatives (and conservative men especially, I’m guessing) are most likely to argue that environmental claims are exaggerated (Saad, 2012).

Not surprisingly these groups have motivations for this denial, something social psychology researchers have dubbed system-justification motivation, essentially the drive to maintain status quo. While maintaining the status quo is nothing new, exploring the motivations to do so is an important area of many areas of social psychology, as it is relevant to many issues beyond climate change, such as prejudice for example. For an excellent overview of system-justification motivation head over to The Situationist.

Here is the alarming part of this spat between scientists and the current Canadian government: much as we would like to believe that people can be persuaded by facts and research, and thus trust scientists as the “experts” on the subject, the fact of the matter is that many people are more likely to be more persuaded by dismissals, such as Joe Oliver’s above, than they are by the scientific consensus, and for a few different reasons:

1. People are reluctant to believe “dire” messages about the future.

A study by Feinberg and Willer (2011) found that people who have a “just-world” belief that bad things don’t happen to good people (for example, most people don’t think a serious illness like cancer will happen to them) become very skeptical of apocalyptic climate change messages. So even though intuitively it may seem like the best strategy to try to show people that the damage we are currently doing to the environment will have dire consequences, it is in fact, counterproductive. This is also exacerbated by:

2. Companies with vested interest in tar sand development are conducting their own “research” and then claiming that there is no consensus among scientists.

Though many of the corporate scientists have questionable credentials and a clear motivated agenda, the media has helped to frame the this issue as a “battle” between two camps of scientists, instead of reporting it for what it is. This strategy is surprisingly effective because it creates doubt. But rather than creating the kind of doubt that makes people uncertain about the issue and causing them to research it for themselves, it creates doubt whether scientists actually know what’s going on. This allows people to ignore or dismiss the whole issue. Kevin O’Leary of Dragon’s Den fame, who also co-hosts the business program the Lang and O’Leary Exchange on the CBC is notoriously persistent at pushing this climate-change research doubt agenda. The sad, and not entirely unexpected, part is that even though Amanda Lang’s part is to counter O’Leary’s arguments, she never really, with any conviction, calls him on it. If our beloved “impartial” CBC is doing this, I doubt other popular media is a whole lot better.

3. Motivation to maintain the status quo makes individuals unconcsciously misremember facts

So while scientists and corporations/government are duking it out with loads of “facts” on both sides, which facts are more likely to stick? According to a series of studies that asked participants to watch an educational video about climate change, found that:

“High system-justifiers recalled the information to which they had been exposed as less serious (i.e., remembering smaller increases in global temperatures, lower sea levels, and less reliable historical data concerning climate change) than did low system-justifiers. Poorer recall was associated with skepticism about climate change. Thus, individuals who misremembered the evidence provided in the video to be less severe were less likely to support efforts to address climate change (Hennes, Feygina, & Jost, 2011).

So if you have a stake in the tar-sands (and Stephen Harper would like us to think that we all do because it’s “good for the economy” and “creates jobs”), and you haven’t been particularly riled up to start doing your own research, the government would like you to keep doing what you are doing, since it works in their favour.

As for scientists, how can they communicate the urgency of their message without falling on deaf ears? Though no one has it figured out for now, an overview of research on climate change communication by Moser (2010) suggests the following:

  • Because climate change is hard to grasp for several different reasons, it needs to be communicated using clear and simple metaphors and imagery
  • Because climate change is not perceived as urgent by the general population because of its distant impact and our general isolation from the environment, we need to provide clear and consistent signaling (which I think would be difficult without government on board)
  • Scientists need to receive media and public outreach training and engage their communities in conversation and debate
  • Scientists need to use a combination of one way and two-way communication, and learn how to interact using popular media outlets


Feinberg, M., & Willer, R. (2011). Apocalypse soon? Dire messages reduce belief in global warming by contradicting just world beliefs. Psychological Science, 22, 34–38.

Hennes, E. P., Feygina, I., & Jost, J. T. (2011). Motivated evaluation, recall, and tactile perception in the service of the system: The case of anthropogenic climate change. Paper presented at the Princeton University Conference on Psychology and Policymaking, Princeton, NJ.

Moser, S. (2010). Communicating climate change: History, challenges, process and future directions. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change, 1, 31-53.

Saad, L. (2012). In U.S., global warming views steady despite warm winter. Gallup Poll. Retrieved April 25, 2013, from