Washington, DC - “Why do humans continue to engage in polluting activities when the consequences are so great?” Ambassador Ngedikes Olai Uludong, Permanent Representative of the Permanent Mission of Palau

The above question asked by Ambassador Ngedikes Olai Uludong during her presentation at the Eleventh Annual Psychology Day at the U.N. this past April 12, 2018, captured a human behavior conundrum for climate change.

 Understanding this conundrum is more puzzling when we look at some of the undeniable factors relating to environmental issues and climate change:

  • Clean Seas
    More than 8 million tons of plastic contaminate the oceans annually. By 2050 the oceans are expected to have more plastic in them than fish.
  • BreatheLife
    Air pollution is the biggest health risk we presently face causing over 6 million deaths annually.
  • U.S. Global Change Research Program
    While the number of hurricanes overall is predicted to remain the same globally, a projected increase in strength and the rise in sea levels are expected to continue to the end of the century. This is projected to increase the intensity of hurricane impacts as the associated storm surges penetrate further inland.

The above are only some of the ways climate change and environmental issues can adversely impact Earth and violate the fundamental rights of people. 

Some specific threats related to climate change 

The effects of climate change on humans encompass many aspects of the quality of life and affect areas ranging from economics to overall health, including mental health. But climate change also violates the human rights of people by limiting access to nutritious food and shelter, drinking water that is safe, and air that is clean. According to The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (U.N., 1948) “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person” (Article 3). People are disproportionally affected by climate change, particularly communities who are of lower socio-economic status and members of vulnerable populations (i.e., elderly, health status, etc.). Let’s take a look at some of these threats:  

  • Threats to mental health: With climate change, the frequency, duration and ferocity of weather-related extremes — such as heavy rains and droughts, and some other types of severe weather — are increasing. According to American Psychiatric Association (APA, 2017), a changing global climate-related event can lead to loss of homes and businesses, forced migration, a loss of social support and community resources. More people are being exposed — or, worse still, the same populations are exposed more frequently — to mental health consequences, including anxiety, depression, distress, loss, grief, PTSD, high-risk coping behavior such as alcohol use, and even suicide. For example, the incidence of suicide and suicidal ideation increased following Hurricane Katrina in the United States in 2005. In addition, one in six people in affected areas developed post-traumatic stress disorder, and 49 percent reported anxiety and depression (The Lancet Planetary Health, 2017).
  • Threats to children: The environmental degradation resulting from the effects of climate change have been termed a violation of children’s human rights. It causes negative effects on their health, both manifested in physical and psychological consequences resulting from weather disasters, increased heat stress, decreased air quality, difficulty accessing water, poor sanitation, inadequate shelter, negative impacts on education and nutrient insecurity in vulnerable regions. Children are particularly vulnerable to the impact of climate change due to their stage of physiological and cognitive development, emotional immaturity, and reliance on adults for security. Their innate curiosity also leaves them at a heightened risk of exposure to environmental hazards, for example, they play closer to the ground, spend longer time outdoors, and are more likely to put objects in their mouths, all of which increase their exposure to pollutants posed by climate change.
  • Threats to the family: Climate change threatens the cleanliness of our air, depletes water sources and lengthens the dry season. It disrupts livelihoods and, by doing so, forces families from their homes and pushes people into poverty. For example, farmers in Niger must cope with "the hunger gap" — a period when the year’s food stores have been depleted, because of the lean season, and the next harvest is not ready causing a greater risk of hunger and famine. (“Quick facts,” 2018). These vulnerable populations, especially those who are dependent on the environment for sustenance, are not only at risk of starvation and malnutrition, climatic adversity and uncertainty, but face the potential that their mental health and wellbeing will erode. A more recent example was in September 2017, when more than 250,000 families left Puerto Rico because of Hurricane Maria. These families were forced to leave their homes and live in shelters, in search of necessities and financial support (“Quick facts,” 2018). The negative psychological consequences are amplified by the loss of home, work environment and family separation.
  • Threats to older adults: In general, older adults are more vulnerable to the climate change-related health impacts because they are more likely to have an existing chronic health condition that increases their sensitivity. As reported by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), extreme heat exposure can increase the risk of illness and death among older adults, especially those with congestive heart failure and diabetes (EPA). Poor air quality deteriorates respiratory conditions common in older adults such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder. It can raise the risk of heart attack in older adults, especially those who are diabetic or obese, and the pollution increase of both drinking and recreational water, increases the risk of older adults contracting gastrointestinal illnesses.

Facing an undeniable reality

Climate change brings anxiety and distress that affects mental health and wellbeing in people, as reported in the U.S. Global Change Research Program (Weir, 2016). We have a better understanding of the negative impacts of climate change on mental health from a recent published report by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

. Daniel Dodgen, PhD, lead author, walked us through some of the findings of the Interagency Special Report in his presentation at the 11th Psychology Day, entitled: "Climate Change and Extreme Weather Events: The Impact on Mental Health and Well-Being." Dodgen stressed the importance of connecting physical health with mental health, and the need for people to realize that one cannot refer to health without including mental health.

Although the focus of the research was primarily the United States, the report addresses a sad global reality. The changes in climate we are witnessing are not only real, but exacerbated by human activity.

The Secretary-General of the United Nations, António Guterres addressed climate change in the preface of The Annual Report 2017, "Towards a Pollution-Free Planet":

“The consequences of failing to sensibly and effectively manage the environment are profound and far-reaching. That is why the work of UN Environment is so important. And it is why the 193 countries of the UN Environment Assembly committed to work towards a pollution-free planet. I commend this annual report to all who believe that attaining our fundamental rights entails clean air, healthy oceans, resilient ecosystems and a global environment managed sustainably for the benefit of people and planet.”  

Psychologists at the U.N. 

U.N. Sustainable Development Goal 13 proposes taking urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts. This, along with general concerns about climate change and mental health impacts, prompted psychologists at the U.N. to share their expertise on climate change and shine light on the connection between the effects of climate change and the violation of human rights.

One such example is the 11th annual Psychology Day conference at the United Nations. Conference participants included psychologists and members of U.N. Permanent Missions, U.N. agencies, nongovernmental organization's and the private sector. The purpose of Psychology Day is to highlight the ways in which the field of psychology can address concerns of global importance. The theme for this year’s conference, entitled “Climate Change: Psychological Interventions Promoting Mitigation and Adaptation,” focused on the effects of climate change on humans. The conference illustrated viable solutions through theory, research and practice aiming to provide relief against the damaging impacts of climate change and the associated natural disasters. All the presenters were experts in the subject of climate change, namely, Susan Clayton, PhD, the keynote speaker, who presented on The Role of Psychology in Responding to Climate Change. Irina Feygina, PhD, from Behavioral Science and Assessment Climate Central, LLC, reinforced the need to apply psychological knowledge to understand people’s experiences and engage through communication, and create effective programs, policy and interventions.

The initial question posed by Ambassador Uludong: "Why do humans continue to engage in polluting activities when the consequences are so great?" merits repetition here. Although psychologists do not have a specific answer to this question, Paul C. Stern, PhD, president of Social and Environmental Research Institute (USA), proposed that if human behavior causes climate change, changing human behavior is key. The challenge, though, is not simply to apply existing psychological theories, but to contemplate a new psychology that considers how psychological insights can add to, or multiply, what other sciences can offer, and develop integrative theories incorporating psychological insights into different entities involved with climate change.  These presentations can be viewed on the Psychology Day at the United Nations website.

Viable solutions

While psychologists present findings portraying the deleterious effect of climate change on individuals and communities, they are also proposing solutions related to understanding specific human behaviors. For example, it is believed these proposed solutions will help people learn how to motivate others to change negative behaviors that lead to pollution of the oceans, such as a reduction in the use of plastics in general, including straws, plastic bags, bottles and other pollutants. Other examples include:

  • The application of communication techniques that could help people own their decision to change, aside from the punitive consequences for not complying with regulations. The recycling of garbage requires both a behavioral change and awareness that people will be fined if these regulations are not followed. On the other hand, people still need to be convinced that there is a connection between climate change and the increasingly stronger storms and unusual changes in weather patterns witnessed recently throughout the world, such as: Sandy and Katrina in the U.S., Irma and Maria in the Caribbean, or Pacific typhoons in 2017, and excessive floods in France and Italy. This information can be provided through different entities that people trust, such as places of worship, schools, citizens campaigns and all types of media (i.e. newspapers, periodicals, tweets, texts and other means of communication geared to children and adults). Audience consideration should include offering this information in different formats, including the use of humor with slogans and motivational riddles, that can be catchy, such as “don’t be a litter bug.” 
  • Different entities will have different responsibilities. This will be a collaborative effort including different sectors of the society involving and motivating consumers to use and invest in renewable energy production in the home. Informing people that private climate initiatives have tremendous potential, even without government support (Vandenbergh & Gilligan, 2017). Or citizens getting involved in influencing government energy policies at local to national levels (renewable energy, urban sprawl, etc.).
  • Psychology Day at the United Nations
    Deniers (i.e., individuals who deny human contributions to climate change) should not be blamed, but rather informed in a manner that makes sense. To facilitate this, there must be a psychological understanding of important cultural values. Otherwise, the end result could be a great deal of mistrust of information leading to group polarization, isolation and resistance. An example of mistrust is the belief that global warming is a socialist scam.

Rays of hope

Through valuable expertise and training, psychologists can help individuals ameliorate behaviors negatively affecting the environment and their wellbeing. Naturally, motivational techniques applied must include and understand specific cultural values and personal traits that will help people feel relevant and be willing participants in the process. The key is to motivate people to make positive behavioral changes they can identify as their own, and at the same time be able to maintain sustainable changes that will ultimately help in the preservation of our planet. This can be accomplished by:

  • Working collaboratively with key partners in society representing different disciplines and areas, including business.
  • Applying techniques that have been used effectively with positive results in smoking cessation, reduction of substance abuse and in other negative practices affecting the health and wellbeing of people. These techniques have obtained good results by combining different psychological theories found useful in attaining behavioral changes. They combine different models found to be efficacious such as: The Change Model (Prochaska, JO and DiClemente CC (1992); the Health Belief Model (Becker,1974); and Social Learning Theories (Bandura, 1977).  

There are many instances where we have seen evidence that behavior can be changed through cooperation, persuasion and leadership. A few examples include the results of the efforts undertaken by different nations throughout the world reported in the U.N. Environment Annual Report 2017 — Towards a Pollution Free Planet:

  • The ozone layer is healing as a result of the Montreal Agreement (Erik Solheim, 2017). The Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer, the first treaty to have been ratified by every nation on Earth, celebrated its 30th anniversary in 2017. “Researchers reported the first clear evidence that the ozone layers above Antarctica are replenishing. They expect the current ozone hole, which was created by the use of now banned chlorofluorocarbons, to close by 2060.”
  • In 2015, two residents of Mumbai, India’s financial hub, started spending their weekends collecting the trash that had washed up along the city’s Versova Beach. Two years later, their Saturday chore has turned into a movement that has inspired thousands to join their efforts. In 2017, the Versova Beach clean-up marked its 100th week. More than 7 million kilograms of plastic have now been collected.”
  • The U.N. Environment Assembly, the world's highest-level decision-making body on the environment, gathered in Nairobi, Kenya, from Dec. 4-6, 2017, under the overarching theme of pollution. It is promising that ending pollution is a high priority. It is believed that if all the intended commitments are achieved, over a billion people will enjoy cleaner air and coastlines. Additionally, a strong focus on research that aims to find better ways to combat pollution will be supported.
  • Similarly, the Cleans Seas campaign, launched in 2017, is making enormous efforts to deal with marine pollution. It connects individuals, civil society groups, industry and governments to fight against marine plastic litter. So far in total 83,720 individuals and 44 Governments on-board have signed the CleanSeas pledge to take action.
  • The BreathelLife has partnered with the U.N., WHO, and the Climate and Clean Air Coalition to engage cities around the world to reduce marine pollution. 

Needless to say, there is so much to be done by professionals and individuals to resolve the human conundrum associated with climate change and related behaviors. We are all in these endeavors together, and together we can achieve the critically needed changes.