Understanding the scope of climate change can feel like trying to connect an ever-expanding set of dots. Various signs, such as rising global temperatures, retreating glaciers and more extreme weather events, are constant reminders that life on Earth is changing.
This constant influx of worrying news can make people feel overwhelmed, confused and fatalistic, unsure of how—or if—they can help balance the changes taking place in the region, especially halfway around the world.
Scholars in the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences are conducting research to better understand how people acquire and process information about climate change and make decisions about energy use.
By examining the role external factors—such as pricing and availability of alternative energy sources—and internal motivations, including self-identity and personal beliefs, play in these choices, they find valuable insights to help shift the conversation.
“Changing individual behavior in the direction of more climate-friendly decision-making is essential for the future of our planet,” said Joe Árvai, Dana and David Dornsife Chair and director of the Wrigley Institute. “To encourage positive action, we need to look at what motivates people to make important everyday changes, such as investing in non-fossil fuel-based vehicles or cutting back on things like eating meat.”
A balanced approach
Árvai, professor of psychology and biological sciences, explained that good decision-making usually involves a balance between analysis and emotion. For people to make environmentally friendly energy decisions, these ways of thinking must inform each other.
Having the critical thinking skills needed to distinguish good information from false, and being able to process data to understand how individual behavior contributes to—or mitigates—climate change are two abilities necessary for calculation.
At the same time, engaging with our emotions helps us determine what we do or don’t like, what does and doesn’t excite us, and what feels right to do for our neighbors and the planet.
If people understand the interplay between analysis and emotion, organizations such as companies and governments can work to develop strategies that stimulate both so that people can make better decisions in their daily lives.
“We’re looking at decision support tools, ones you might find in a showroom or in a search engine, that help people understand the different goals at play when they’re considering a ‘green’ decision,” Árvai said.
“What kinds of data, comparisons and exchanges can help people make the choice that makes the most sense for them given their values and financial realities?” While not everyone can afford an electric car, almost everyone can take small steps in a green direction, he added.
“You have to know who you’re talking to, what they’re worried about, and what trade-offs they’re willing to make given their current situation. And then you have to show what’s possible within that range of opportunities and constraints,” said Árvai. “If we promote and facilitate a more climate-friendly lifestyle, the most important thing we can do is respect people and meet them where they are.”
Appeal to a wider consumer base
Diversification of the energy message is necessary to reach a broad segment of the population. But one of the issues in this arena is the fact that renewable energy items such as electric vehicles and solar panels do not fit smoothly into the lives of most people, especially those in the lower part of the socio-economic spectrum, says Professor of Psychology at the Dean Daphna Oyserman, professor of psychology and education.
Currently, Oyserman explained, “living green” is still packaged and viewed as a luxury lifestyle choice, available to those who can buy a luxury electric vehicle or hire a landscaping team to create a garden full of native plants.
Measures such as rebates for electric vehicles and tax breaks for installing solar panels have helped increase affordability, but low-income people—who tend to live in rented housing without access to a car charging station or solar panels—often don’t.
Additionally, decisions such as whether to purchase an energy-saving appliance can be economically challenging for low-income households, as many of these appliances cost more than their more energy-efficient counterparts.
“When appliances and energy-efficient cars are more expensive, then environmental care is framed as a kind of boutique identity,” says Oyserman. He added that there is a double effect in such a situation: Those who cannot afford to adopt these measures may feel that environmentalism is not part of their social identity, but something that belongs to people who are not like them.
So some activists try to connect environmentalism with pollution concerns—having clean air and water is not something people can do alone; it requires active engagement in the political process.
Financial incentives that give property owners, including landlords, an incentive to install energy-saving items such as electric vehicle chargers and solar panels are a step toward greater adoption of environmentally friendly practices, Oyserman said.
But this will take time, as more alternative energy infrastructure needs to be developed before the cost reduction begins. Individual choices are important, but participation in the political process is often overlooked as an efficient way to engage in environmentally friendly behavior.
In whose yard?
The development of this infrastructure, however, is not without its own complications and requires the approval of another set of individuals: those who live in the communities adjacent to the proposed renewable energy plants. Jennifer Bernstein, a visiting scholar at USC Dornsife’s Spatial Sciences Institute, says individual and community sentiment about such projects is often complex and difficult to gauge.
“There is a dichotomy between the fact that we all want renewable energy, but the people who advocate the most for renewables are the ones who always think that they should be developed elsewhere, far away,” he said.
Bernstein noted that in determining where to locate renewable energy plants, spatial scientists focus not only on measurable metrics, such as waste or pollution output, but how such factories affect—and are received by—people living nearby. Some low-income areas responded well to the prospect of more jobs, Bernstein explained, while more affluent retirees had to be persuaded that the impact on their lives would be minimal.
Although people may have an initial, negative reaction to an industrial solar or wind plant in their own neighborhood, these concerns may not last, he said.
“I looked at attitudes towards nuclear power, and there is something called the ‘good neighbor effect,’ where people who live close to nuclear plants are the most supportive of them,” said Bernstein. “I think communication between residents, developers and scientists will go a long way towards breaking these assumptions people have about industrial energy development.”
Engage with emotions
We can publish data on extreme weather events, wildfires and rising temperatures all day long, but until we connect with people emotionally, they will never take consistent steps to combat climate change, Árvai said.
“Many people in government or in private companies see climate change as a mathematical problem that can be ‘solved’ by looking at things like cost or carbon footprint,” he said. “But looking at it this way increases the psychological distance from it, which may make people feel less compelled to act. We need to see climate change not just as a mathematical problem to solve, but as a human problem we can solve.”
Provided by the University of Southern California
Citation: When it comes to climate change, what drives us to act? (2023, July 25) retrieved 25 July 2023 from https://phys.org/news/2023-07-climate-2.html
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