New position paper outlines the importance of using psychology to combat climate change



Human activity and behaviour are much to blame for climate change in Canada and the world—and this is only projected to intensify in the future. Although last year saw one of the hottest years on record, there is hope. Science has shown that by changing human behaviour, even simple measures, can mitigate global warming. For example, research by Dr. Jiaying Zhao and colleagues shows making bins more convenient boosts recycling and composting rates, a simple online game can teach people to sort waste correctly, and how to talk to people about climate change more effectively.

Getting this science into the hands of policy makers and government is key. A group of Canadian environmental psychologists who study climate change and human behaviour have collaborated to write a position paper for the Canadian Psychological Association (CPA). The position paper draws on psychological science in the areas of mental health, environmental psychology, and behaviour change to inform how Canada needs to respond to its changing climate. Dr. Jiaying Zhao, Canada Research Chair in Behavioural Sustainability at UBC, is one of the co-authors.

Based on psychological insights, the paper Addressing Climate Change in Canada: The Importance of Psychological Science, outlines three key recommendations on what federal, provincial, and municipal governments should do to address climate change:

  1. Communicate to the public about human behaviour and the environment;
  2. Ensure climate policy is informed by psychological science; and
  3. Support research that addresses the relationship between health, wellbeing, human behaviour and climate change.

Led by Dr. Lindsay McCunn, chair of the environmental psychology section of the CPA and professor of psychology at Vancouver Island University, the paper presents policy makers with data and clear recommendations to help mitigate climate change. McCunn says the position paper summarizes key findings about how individual attitudes and behaviours can affect the environment—as well as the effects natural and built environments have on our mental health and wellbeing.

“We highlighted the connections between people and the environment to humanize the recommendations we make in the paper to federal, provincial, and territorial governments to support more research at the intersection of psychology and climate change.”
Professor of Psychology, Vancouver Island University

Dr. Zhao, associate professor in UBC’s department of psychology and Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability, says climate policy should be informed by psychological science—and what we know about human behaviour and mental health.

“To change human behaviour, we need psychology—and this is where psychological scientists can contribute. Psychology can inform policy and programs on how best to change human behaviour to mitigate climate change.”
Canada Research Chair in Behavioural Sustainability, UBC

While Canada has a number of climate change policies, many are not enforced and compliance is low at the different levels of government. For example, Dr. Zhao says food waste is a behavioural problem in addition to an infrastructure problem.

“Vancouver has bylaws to ban food waste in the garbage stream for multifamily residences, but the compliance rate with composting is still low,” says Dr. Zhao. “Psychology can provide evidence-based interventions to increase the efficacy of these policies, so that people follow the policy that is set up in the first place.”

The CPA and the authors of the paper urge all levels of government to implement public communication strategies, advocate for climate literacy, and fund more climate change research in order to help Canadians change their environmental behaviours and make eco-friendly decisions.

Dr. McCunn adds, “An understanding of human behaviour and decision-making should inform government policies that aim to conserve nature, promote energy-efficient building practices, and help Canadians make environmentally sustainable decisions in all of their activities.”

Why is this position paper important in addressing climate change in Canada?

The most important takeaway is that a body of applied psychological literature exists that addresses links between health, wellbeing, human behaviour, and climate change—and that utilizing this research may help governments optimize climate policies and public communication strategies. The position paper summarizes key findings about how our attitudes and behaviours can affect the environment—as well as some of the outcomes that both natural and built environments have on our mental health and wellbeing. We highlighted the connections between people and the environment to humanize the recommendations we make in the paper to federal, provincial, and territorial governments to support more research at the intersection of psychology and climate change.

How is psychological science key to mitigating the effects of climate change?
General societal responses to climate change include reducing greenhouse gas emissions, mitigating the varied effects of climate change, and adapting to new conditions. Psychological science is a key to the success of these efforts. A number of studies in environmental psychology demonstrate how natural and built settings affect human health and wellness, and how our behaviours and decisions affect natural and built environments. Individuals are more likely to take pro-environmental action when they know more about what to do (and believe that they can do it!). Developing a sense of global identity can motivate people to act in pro-environmental ways, as can developing environmentally-adaptive social norms at the individual, community, and corporate levels. An understanding of human behaviour and decision-making should inform government policies that aim to conserve nature, promote energy-efficient building practices, and help Canadians make environmentally sustainable decisions in all of their activities.

What is next?
The position paper has been posted to CPA’s website, as well as to its news and social media outlets. It has also been shared on the environmental psychology section’s blog and social media pages. CPA’s national magazine Psynopsis will print a copy of the position paper in its upcoming special issue about psychology and climate change. The CPA will also be sharing the paper with the federal government and political parties.