Climate change is a threat. But what sort of threat?
Generally, climate change is described as a threat to our environment and natural resources. With increased stress on already straining global resource systems, the effects of climate change on our natural environment will be measured in reduced crop yields and water shortages.
Climate change is sometimes framed as a threat to our economic prosperity. The Stern report famously argued that in order to maintain economic growth in the face of rapid climatic changes, 1% of global GDP should be spent on climate mitigation now in order to prevent much more being spent later. Although other economists are far less optimistic about the prospect of infinite economic growth on a planet with finite resources, it is now widely acknowledged that tackling climate change will have a significant financial cost.
But while the effects of climate change pose very real, measurable threats to our natural world and our economic systems, tackling climate change will also mean facing up to a less tangible but no less profound threat: the threat of climate change to our identity and self esteem.
In a paper published in the British Journal of Social Psychology last month, Paul Sparks and colleagues from the University of Sussex reported two experiments that suggest that climate change doesn’t only threaten the physical world – it threatens our mental world too.
In the first experiment, Sparks and his co-authors asked students from the University of Sussex to read six short pieces of ‘threatening’ text about climate change taken from newspapers and books. They then indicated their level of agreement with 15 statements that reflected various types of climate change denial – from denial of the severity of the problem, to denial of self-involvement.
Half of the group also completed a task designed to affirm people’s sense of their own kindness by writing a list of kind and compassionate behaviour that they have engaged in recently. The group who had completed the self-affirmation task reported a higher level of self-involvement – that is, the people who felt better about themselves were less likely to deny their personal responsibility for climate change.
In the second experiment, the researchers used a similar method but measured people’s willingness to recycle. The self-affirmed group expressed stronger intentions to increase the amount they recycled in the next month, suggesting that people’s motivation to engage in a specific pro-environmental behaviour is partly attributable to how they feel about themselves – or in other words, how well they are able to cope with the psychological threat of climate change.
It has long been known that people who feel better about themselves are more easily able to deal with threats. For people who do not feel self-affirmed, denial of the reality of the problem – or their role in solving it – is a common response. Paul Sparks’ research helps to explain why climate denial persists despite the evidence for climate change being overwhelming: it poses a psychological threat that we are often ill-equipped to deal with.
If we are to face up to challenge of climate change with a proportionate response, we will need every resource we can lay our hands on. Unfortunately, with the deepest and most extreme public sector cuts for a generation just around the corner, the national mood can hardly be described as ‘self-affirmed’.
On top of our reduced capacity to respond to climate change due to less public money being made available, are we also sapping our precious psychological resources by piling on the pressure to our collective self esteem?