The psychology of fixing climate change / by Paul Gambill

One of my fundamental beliefs is that activism alone won’t solve the climate change problem. Asking people to do something (drive less, compost more, use less energy, etc.) is ineffective because people don't tend to think about how their tiny impacts can collectively create really big impacts. And asking them to do so can make them feel they are being shamed for their current behaviors, especially because many people don't have the option to just stop driving or use less energy.

Part of the problem is that climate change is a really big and scary concept. And humans don't cope well with scary things. Psychologist Dr. Laura Brown spoke with the local NPR affiliate in Seattle today about this:

We really tend to avoid things that are frightening...But when there is something you can do, avoidance can actually be quite counter-productive, and maybe even dangerous.

How do people change and move past the fear? Dr. Brown describes 3 stages that people go through:

  1. Pre-contemplation: "There's not a problem, and it has nothing to do with me."
  2. Contemplation: "There's a problem, but there's nothing I can do about it."
  3. Action: "There's a problem, and I can do something about it."

Activism can also make people feel ashamed for their energy consumption habits, which in turn discourages them from moving out of the pre-contemplation stage (#1). If one activist says to another, "I walk everywhere now, and I've reduced my home energy usage in half" it makes the other feel guilty that they haven't accomplished as much.

Activism also involves petitioning governments, corporations, and other large organizations to make changes to their behavior. It's no wonder that people can get caught in the contemplation stage (#2), when it seems like the only way to fix the problem is to convince these large organizations to do something. The tediousness of bureaucracy often has the psychological effect of inhibiting people from changing their own private habits in response to activism.

Dr. Brown suggests we should take a more validating approach in order to encourage people to change their habits:

What's the one small thing that you could do everyday, that if a million of us did this small thing, it would make an enormous difference? That's the kind of message we need to give the general public.

This is exactly what I aim to do with a business to undo climate change. What if we could make products that people already want and need that just so happen to scrub CO2 from the air? Take the superheated buckyballs from my previous post and imagine those were used to make a small filter that could fit inside a smartphone case. Now you have a product that:

  1. Protects the user's smartphone (personal utility)
  2. Removes a tiny fraction of CO2 from the atmosphere (global utility)

Validating people's lives and experiences while simultaneously making a dent in the problem is going to be the real key to reversing climate change.