What not to do in interviews

Climate crisis: why we don't do what we think is right

by Peter Carstens
The facts are on the table, but there is no decisive action: The climate crisis, it is becoming increasingly clear, is also a psychological problem. We talked about it with Lea Dohm and Felix Peter from Psychologists for Future

GEO.de: In connection with the climate crisis, it is mostly about CO2 emissions and their reduction. Why are psychologists speaking up now?

Lea Dohm: It is obvious: the climate crisis is man-made, and psychology is the science of human behavior and experience. Our behavior has led us into this crisis and can hopefully lead us out again. As psychologists, we have knowledge that we can use for this purpose.

Felix Peter: On the one hand, we have the physical knowledge that greenhouse gases are increasing and what that does with the atmosphere, what effects this increase has on the climate and weather phenomena, and so on. Many people feel threatened by it, but do not behave accordingly. Psychology can help explain this gap between our knowledge and our behavior.

Why don't we do what we think is right?

LD: It starts with the perception of danger. Even when we have grasped the factual knowledge, it does not always reach us in a depth that would be necessary to really get into action. In addition, causes and effects are complex, which makes it difficult for us to understand the crisis in its entirety. That is also a particular challenge Single action bias. This means that even if we feel uncomfortable about the climate crisis, a single action may be enough to make us feel better. If I don't eat meat today because of my worries about the climate, I immediately feel better - and then stop thinking about my behavior for three days. This problem leads to climate protection being delayed.

FP: One is to recognize the threat. The other is to act accordingly. Looking at surveys, we can assume that more than half of all people around the world are aware of the threat and are concerned. This even applies to surveys carried out during the Covid-19 pandemic. The psychological mechanisms that lead to the gap between knowledge and action have been well studied for decades. Next to the Single action bias there is, for example, the diffusion of responsibility: so many people can do something - so why should it be my turn now? Then there is the limited capacity to worry about anything at all. Issues that are closer to us emotionally appear more important to us. For example, the question of whether my child can go to school during the pandemic or whether the school will be closed again tomorrow. Depending on the personality, there is also a need for simplicity and clear answers, or in other words: a certain intolerance towards complexity. And climate change is something very complex. We also tend to look for information that confirms our view of the world. All of this has to be seen in connection with psychological defense mechanisms such as repression, relativization or even denial.

Could the denial also have something to do with the fact that the climate crisis is threatening our lifestyle?

FP: Yes, it is also about a material threat from climate protection measures. We have a large proportion of the population who are concerned about their social status. And there are status symbols that would be threatened by an effective climate policy, such as the car.

LD: But there is also targeted disinformation. Exxon, for example, has admitted that they had known how emissions would play out since the early 1980s. At the same time, there were major campaigns on the part of politics and business to cover up this. That made it easier to slip into repression or denial.

FP: This type of disinformation is an anchor that people are happy to accept. It reduces complexity and shows a solution that is very simple: You don't have to do anything - because the problem doesn't seem to exist.

Is this psychological dimension of the problem adequately recognized, for example in the media?

LD: The problem starts one step earlier: I believe that the climate crisis itself is still completely inadequately perceived by the media. If that were the case, one would automatically end up in the psychological dimension. As Psychologists for Future, however, we have a lot of press inquiries ...

FP: ... which unfortunately often deal with the pathological side of the problem. Many inquiries revolve around the topic of climate fears. And that doesn't just mean the concerns of the population, but fears in the clinical sense. At the moment, at least in this country, there are very few people who feel paralyzed by such climate-related fears and develop a mental illness.

Is politics actually using your findings? For example the Ministry of the Environment or the Federal Environment Agency? Have they ever approached you?

LD: No. But you are welcome to do it.

FP: During the corona pandemic, we noticed that psychology didn't play that big a role at first. It was more about epidemiology and virology. The psychological and social side was initially neglected. Then it was readjusted, the National Academy of Sciences, for example, included social scientists and psychologists in its Corona working group. We now need something like that for the climate crisis.

Some psychologists, including the Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahnemann, consider the climate problem to be hardly solvable precisely because of its psychological dimension ...

LD: From my point of view, the problem is very complex. It sure falls into the category of wicked problems, so the malicious problems. At the same time, the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research says that it can be solved if the time window is getting smaller and smaller. We saw that ambitious political action is possible during the corona pandemic. It can sometimes happen very quickly that political decisions are made and implemented, that a legal framework is created and people adapt to these changes in the shortest possible time. That gives me hope.

FP: Psychology not only deals with psychological mechanisms and the question of why we do not act, but also with how one could get into action. Just making us aware of psychological processes can lead to the fact that we do not fall for such mechanisms. Saying that the problem cannot be solved can also become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

LD: The attitude that the problem cannot be solved anyway can even lead to inaction and, even worse, can lead to behavior that is harmful to the climate. If there is nothing to save anyway, I can still quickly buy a big SUV and fly to Mauritius.

Fridays for Future (FFF) demands courageous action from the federal government - with a manageable result, and the 1.5-degree target is almost out of reach. Is the frustration a risk?

LD: I'm in contact with the FFF here on site. And yes, there is frustration, but at the same time there is also a professionalization. I have the impression that many have used the compulsory Corona break to further their education.

FP: Frustration does not necessarily have to lead to withdrawal, but can also motivate you to try other strategies. What FFF has achieved is still a huge success. Even if one had hoped for more political measures - there were at least some. For decades we stood still.

LD: I feel the frustration to some extent as healthy and normal. If you look at the emissions - I want to see someone who is enthusiastic. This can also create fear, not just for FFF, but for everyone who understood the problem. And that's a good thing, because these feelings can ultimately move us to action.

FP: Every tenth of a degree counts. If we now continue to focus on the 1.5 degree target and then come out at least at 2 degrees Celsius and not at 2.5 or 3 degrees, from today's perspective that is still a huge success. That makes a big difference in terms of the habitability of the earth.

The climate crisis affects everyone. What would you advise our readers to do?

LD: I would recommend that we do not stop being touched and addressed by this topic and not take the supposedly easier path of repression. And we have to move away from individual to political action. It starts with the fact that we keep talking about it with those around us. We can also join a climate group and get actively involved, or write a letter to the editor. We live in a democracy, it's about majorities and about getting people to participate.

FP: As a psychologist, one could say with a wink: The climate crisis is not primarily a psychological, but a political one. Nobody can solve the problem alone, that can only be done in a group, i.e. through political action. Such engagement also increases self-efficacy, the feeling that something can be achieved. And that is very good for us.

Lea Dohm is a qualified psychologist, psychological psychotherapist and co-initiator of the Psychologists for Future.

Felix Peter is a qualified psychologist and active in the press team of Psychologists for Future.