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Coping With The Reality Of Climate Change


The U.N. has said that it is unequivocal that humans have warmed the Earth and that the scale of the changes is unprecedented. And the predictions are dire - more drought, more fires, heat waves - if we don't change our ways. And it's not the first time we've heard it, though the evidence linking human behavior to climate change is now stronger. So that got us wondering, how does such overwhelming news affect us and our desire to do something about it? We're joined now by Dr. Elke Weber, professor of psychology at Princeton University, and she also contributed to the U.N.'s latest climate report. Welcome to the program.

ELKE WEBER: Thank you so much, Audie, for having me.

CORNISH: Increasingly, people are dealing directly with the results of climate change - right? - record heat across the country. How do people respond when they're confronted with the sort of bigness of the issue of climate change? What kinds of emotions can that draw out?

WEBER: It can be incredibly overwhelming, especially among younger people. And so there's no question that climate anxiety has gone drastically up by contemplation about sort of what kind of world we live in and what kind of a world we might leave to our children and grandchildren. So it's very debilitating symptoms that oftentimes have to be treated with medication or with psychotherapy.

CORNISH: From a psychologist point of view, how can the threat of climate change be communicated in a way that reaches people but also convinces them to act?

WEBER: So we have a study in the field where, for the last year and a half, we've been following 5,000 Americans across the political spectrum on issues related to both COVID but then also, in parallel, on climate change. And as you know, both COVID and climate change are highly politicized in this country. But what we find is that when you see people who have personally experienced either COVID symptoms or extreme weather events, they are equally concerned about the issue and equally willing to take action regardless of their politics.

For better or worse, the fact that we're seeing climate change hitting home now hopefully is a way of bridging the current gulf related to political ideology because people want to protect their loved ones. And when they see danger on their front step, they're actually much more willing to do something about it.

CORNISH: What's the effect of seeing governments not act quickly or aggressively enough? Is this something that comes up for people when it comes to sort of how they take in the idea of climate change, how they react to it?

WEBER: In psychology, there's this notion of pluralistic ignorance - that we might be concerned about an issue, but we don't realize how many other people are also concerned about the issue because oftentimes, when things are polarized and charged, we don't talk about it. You know, we don't talk about it at Thanksgiving. If people talked about it more, they would realize that their concern about climate change is actually widely shared. And so therefore, you know, I think there would be more awareness on the part of politicians that many people in their constituencies, you know, sort of do want them to take action.

CORNISH: I've been hearing recently, I guess, the idea that there's been too much focus in the kind of climate change activism on individuals, that it's about a solar panel on your house. I want to know about the psychology of that. Like, is there changing thinking on what it is that can move people to action?

WEBER: That's a great question. And there has been traditionally the notion that the personal action might actually distract from political action. We find that that depends very much on the reason for why people acted in the first place. And so if they acted out of a feeling of sort of a guilt, you know, or fear, then oftentimes that is something that we call the single action bias. You know, you have to do one thing to basically get rid of your feeling of fear. But when people invest in the initial action because of their personal identity and the action that they commit, the personal action actually reinforces that identity and makes it more likely that they also will push for political action.

And it's a guideline on how to elicit action. Don't make people too scared, you know, or too guilty but motivated by personal identities and also motivated by positive feelings, the pride of being part of the solution as opposed to the guilt of being part of the cause.

CORNISH: Dr. Elke Weber is at Princeton University. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

WEBER: My pleasure. Thank you so much, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.