Human psychology can put up barriers to fighting climate change, but a new article suggests strategies and policies to overcome them.

Human psychology influences the decisions we make every day—including unwise ones. Our psychological profile can make us reluctant to pay for services that benefit everyone, including those who don’t contribute. It makes us focus on achieving short-term gains and avoiding short-term losses. And, most importantly, it prompts us to engage in rationalization and denial rather than tackle difficult challenges.

In the article in BioScience, scientists explore these barriers and suggest strategies involving education, marketing, norm-creation, use of “default options,” and various behavior interventions that could overcome these barriers to meeting the challenge of climate change.

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“The costs of inaction could be catastrophic in terms of loss of food production, rising seas, poverty, and other threats to human health and welfare,” says coauthor Lee Ross, a professor of psychology at Stanford University.

The team approached these global issues by finding localized examples of psychological intervention that led to environmental action. Small-scale success stories include demonstrations of the power of neighborhood standards. In one provocative study, researchers showed that homeowners would lower their energy usage if they simply were told that they were consuming more than their neighbors.

Small step-by-step changes in the choices and practices of individual families, as well as local measures and incentives that encourage energy conservation, can help to generate new norms and the approval of sanctions for those who violate them, the authors write.

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But the real challenge is the need for collective coordinated action, Ross says, which has significant benefits.

“Effective action, including technology research, could pay huge dividends in terms of new, environmentally friendly industries and jobs that serve our national interests and the well-being of our citizens,” he says.

When people are moved to care about the environment in every aspect of their lives, they profit by making their livelihoods sustainable and by relieving the stress that is currently being placed on the natural world.

This research was a project of the Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere.

Source: Rosemary Mena-Worth for Stanford University

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