Psychologist focuses on tackling climate change

By Catherine Robertson Souter
June 27th, 2022
Ezra Markowitz, Ph.D, is an associate professor of environmental decision-making at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
Ezra Markowitz, Ph.D, is an associate professor of environmental decision-making at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Most Americans agree that climate change is happening. We are facing the preliminary droughts, forest fires, flooding and storms that are likely to continue to increase in severity if we don’t join to slow the rise in temperature.

So, why is it so easy to ignore, to nod or shake our heads and go about our daily lives as if this impending doom will not affect us?

It is a question that drives the research of Ezra Markowitz, Ph.D, associate professor of environmental decision-making at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. A member of the APA Task Force on Climate Change, Markowitz is focusing on the psychological and social factors behind both individual and group decision-making around environmental issues. His goal is to provide insight on how to use psychology to influence the way climate science is addressed.

New England Psychologist’s Catherine Robertson Souter spoke to Markowitz recently about his work, what psychologists can do about it and if there is any hope for our future.

First, what made you tackle the issue of climate change?

I think it’s critical that we continue learning about the many different factors, psychological, cultural, contextual, environmental, economic, political, social and more, that shape our individual and collective actions that impact the world in which we live. And that we figure out how to use that knowledge to improve our own and others’ well-being, to help both people and the planet thrive and flourish.

What are some of the most significant findings from your research?

I’ve had the good luck to work on many different projects and topics over the course of my career, from the social dynamics of catch-and-release angling in wild places to the effects of normative information provision on summer lawn watering in Massachusetts to the role that legacy motives play in promoting intergenerational environmental stewardship.

I think one of the most hopeful and important things we’ve found across many of these projects is that, contrary to popular belief and deeply held assumptions among many issue advocates, the challenge we face at a behavioral level with respect to conservation efforts doesn’t necessarily revolve around a lack of motivation or concern or empathy.

It’s not that we don’t care?

Sure, there is some subset of the population that might not “care” much about the environment, but what we and others have shown repeatedly is that, in fact, most people in most places around the U.S. and the world care deeply about preserving a healthy, vibrant planet, both for self-interested reasons and for more altruistic ones such as providing a livable world to future generations. I think the motivation to conserve, both at the individual level and collectively, is oftentimes there.

Then why can’t we seem to do more about it?

Motivation isn’t always the most salient force driving behavior in the moment when people are making environmentally-relevant decisions. That tells us that if we can make those motivations and values and concerns more salient at the time of decision-making, whether we’re talking about smaller, repeated actions like grabbing reusable bags as someone walks out the door or bigger, less frequent decisions, like choosing an appliance or a candidate to vote for, we’re likely to see significant improvements in the decisions people make.

Even better is the fact that those decisions will not only be better for all of us and the planet collectively, they will also be more closely aligned with people’s own stated preferences and deeply held commitments.

Has your work helped move the needle? Have you seen any results of what you’ve been doing?

I do think we’ve seen positive changes on multiple fronts over the 10-15 years that I’ve been working in this field, and I’d like to believe that our collective research efforts on behavior, communication and conservation have played some role in pushing things in the right direction.

On climate change, we’ve seen multiple, positive shifts in how journalists, advocates, policymakers, and others communicate about this issue. These include shifts towards more inclusive and solutions-oriented issue framings, effectively leveraging intergenerational concerns and motives, and moving from communicator-centered to decision-maker and community-focused communication.

In the behavior change domain, I think we are seeing significant diffusion of insights from the environmental behavioral science literature to improve program design at both small- and large-scales, which is extremely heartening and exciting to witness.

Municipalities, utilities, resource managers, and others are, I think, doing a better and better job of incorporating our collective understanding of environmental decision-making into the programs and interventions they implement, increasing their effectiveness and impact in many different domains, from water and energy consumption to transportation mode choice to private lands conservation.

Do you think we have a chance to turn things around?

I think I, and all of us to some extent, have to believe that we have a chance to turn things around. In part, that’s for very well-studied psychological reasons: if we don’t hold on to that belief and hope, we know It’ll be incredibly hard to motivate ourselves individually and collectively to do what is needed to move in the right direction as quickly and forcefully as we need to.

For me, and for many others, there are very personal reasons to hold on to that hope, including a deep desire to see my two young sons grow up in a world that allows them to flourish and live the lives they choose for themselves.

It’s also important to recognize that every bit of good that we can do, particularly in the context of avoiding additional, future warming of the planet, is critically important. Every 0.1º of warming we can avoid through reductions in greenhouse gas emissions over the coming years leaves a more resilient, livable world for future generations and other species.

We absolutely have the tools and knowledge that we need to do that; we just need to choose to do so.

What do you think is important for psychologists to understand or to do?

As the newly released American Psychological Association report on climate change and psychology makes clear, there is an incredible amount of work to be done by psychologists specifically when it comes to confronting the challenges that lay ahead. Climate change is already and will continue to be a mental health crisis multiplier. We need psychologists to mobilize and be ready to help diverse populations navigate a wide variety of personal and societal impacts.

Learning about the many different ways in which climate change will pose challenges to different individuals and groups is a great starting point for clinicians who want to be involved in this work.

Helping to develop and implement strategies that support adaptive coping with the challenges of living in a climate-changed world will be critical. And, of course, there is still so much work to be done to uncover and scale up tools to support positive changes in behavior that promote a more sustainable and vibrant planet. Psychologists have a huge role to play in each of these domains (and many others, no doubt).

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