Panic, Powerlessness, Motivation

The Psychology behind a crisis
8 Min.

Text: Felix Bürkle, 10.07.2020

One thing is clear: climate change is not simply gone just because the coronavirus pandemic has us in its grip. It is, and remains, one of the biggest threats to humanity. But how exactly are people treating their fears about climate change in the time of the coronavirus pandemic? Why do some fears suddenly become more important than others? We spoke to environmental psychologist Susanne Bolte from the University of Salzburg.

Alarming figures

But first, let us briefly remember the most important facts about climate change. According to National Geographic, nine out of ten scientists agree that climate change is accelerated by man-made CO2 emissions. The website reports that 2016 was the warmest year since weather records began, and that the warming trend has continued for several decades. Temperature records are stacking up, the oceans have warmed and sea levels are rising steadily. The pH value of the sea surface is currently at a global average of about pH 8.1 and has thus already decreased by about pH 0.1 compared with pre-industrial times. This is a threat to numerous marine organisms such as mussels or sea snails, as lime is no longer able to accumulate easily as a shell at lower pH values.

The carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere is increasing steadily. In 2017 it was already 41% above the pre-industrial level. Greenland is continuously losing ice – the glaciers are disappearing. The list could go on and on.

Supposedly far away

So, all in all, reason enough to really panic. And yet, for decades, we were simply not fast enough or consistent enough in our efforts to mitigate climate change. Why? As the writer Jonathan Franzen put it in his widely acclaimed essay for the New Yorker in autumn 2019: “Psychologically, this denial makes sense. Despite the outrageous fact that I’ll soon be dead forever, I live in the present, not the future. Given a choice between an alarming abstraction (death) and the reassuring evidence of my senses (breakfast!), my mind prefers to focus on the latter. The planet, too, is still marvelously intact, still basically normal – seasons changing, another election year coming, new comedies on Netflix – and its impending collapse is even harder to wrap my mind around than death.”

The coronavirus pandemic has thus somehow moved closer to the forefront of people’s minds. It hit us more acutely – the consequences ranged from panic buying and sewing masks to the denunciation of our neighbors who weren’t following the official rules. Sociologist and risk researcher Ortwin Renn speaks of a novelty factor that comes from a general unfamiliarity with natural disasters in Germany. As Renn expressed to NDR in February 2020, i.e. before the lockdown in Germany. there is also a subconscious longing for catastrophes – which mankind then intends to heroically survive by conscious and quick action.

The psychological factors of our actions

Environmental psychologists such as Susanne Bolte and her colleague Isabella Uhl-Hädicke deal with strategies for motivating people to behave in an environmentally friendly way. They also see the speed at which disasters gain momentum as a key factor. The higher it is, the faster panic spreads – a reaction that is less likely to occur in the case of climate change. How could it be ensured that the statistically persistent fear causes as much commitment as the coronavirus effect? Environmental psychologist Susanne Bolte answered our most important questions on the subject.

Ms. Bolte, the coronavirus activism that can be observed everywhere is intended to protect us against a loss of control. Masks and disinfectants compensate for the fear of the virus. How could more activism be generated with regard to the dangers of climate change?

Sabine Bolte: The coronavirus pandemic is very present at the moment. It has appeared quite suddenly and is a risk for many people. Climate change and its consequences, on the other hand, are developing more slowly and are more difficult for many people to grasp. Even though climate change in its magnitude is probably ultimately much more threatening than the coronavirus for all of us, it does not trigger the same kind of panic and motivation for activism in people. Many people feel a particular sense of powerlessness when it comes to the issue of climate change. However, this is an obstacle in motivating people to take active, climate-friendly action. Nevertheless, an effective mechanism to achieve this could be a political framework. This could create social norms, meaning that the desired (i.e. climate-friendly) behavior would increasingly be regarded as “normal” and therefore more likely to be implemented by society.

Let’s assume that every person could be exposed to a small climate shock that would immediately be felt – would that help?

SB: For many people, climate change and its consequences are very abstract and still seem far away, both in time and in distance. One would therefore assume that a concrete, tangible impact of climate change would make it more real for people and lead to more climate-friendly behavior. However, the study of climate change skepticism has shown that people who are already affected by the consequences of climate change (such as in winter sports areas) often deny it, or are at least skeptical about it. Thus, unfortunately, direct exposure to a “climate shock” does not necessarily seem to lead to climate-friendly behavior.

Studies have shown that, when it comes to climate change, many people think that an individual cannot make a difference. Why is this not the case with the coronavirus? Where is the line between feeling powerful and powerless? 

SB: Communication regarding the coronavirus pandemic explains to people that they can overcome the crisis and return to their normal lives through appropriate, temporary measures. Unfortunately, this is not possible for climate change. We can no longer stop climate change, only try to contain it as much as possible. And this requires a permanent change to our previous lifestyle. In comparison, one could say that people during this coronavirus pandemic probably feel a certain level of self-efficacy and controllability. Solidarity and joint implementation of the necessary measures are demanded at all (political) levels in an almost indisputable way. In contrast, people feel “at the mercy” of climate change and its inexorability. They feel powerless and think that they cannot achieve anything, at least not alone.

A clear line between the feeling of effectiveness and powerlessness cannot be easily drawn. It is more to do with the interaction between the underlying threat, its communication and possible solution strategies.

Umweltpsychologin Susanne Bolte beschäftigt sich mit Strategien, wie man Menschen zu umweltfreundlichem Verhalten motivieren kann.

According to your research, opinions and values shape our behavior much more than rational arguments. Who, in your opinion, would be most likely to be responsible for changing them in the long term with regard to climate change? Politicians and the school system? NGOs? The media?

SB: One of the most effective mechanisms in this context is a political framework. If environmentally friendly behavior is the norm, people perceive it as “normal” and are more likely to act accordingly. Therefore, I think a political framework related to the climate is imperative in order to motivate people to be more active with regard to climate change and its threats. In my opinion, when it comes to the climate, even more political frameworks are needed worldwide to set the course for a sustainable and livable future.

Nevertheless, the responsibility for climate change issues should not be “shifted“ to a single authority. The aim should rather be interdisciplinary cooperation at all levels in the fight against climate change.

There was a study in which the only thing that really encouraged a test group to save energy was information about how high their power consumption was compared with their neighbors. What kind of mechanisms could be imagined in order to use this in practice? Energy saver of the month – published in the local newspaper?

SB: Energy saver of the month – an interesting idea, and not such an unrealistic one (laughs). There were various ways in which people were informed about the power consumption of their fellow participants in scientific studies. For example, they received a letter every week or month informing them whether they were above, below or average in terms of their own power consumption. Another approach was the traffic light system on the electricity meters. Each household was given a small traffic light next to its electricity meter, which indicated how the power consumption was assessed in comparison to that of the neighbors. Ultimately there are no limits to creativity. But the basic principle is that the simpler something is, the more effective it will be.

According to your colleague Isabella Uhl-Hädicke, people orient themselves by the apparent majority. From a psychological point of view, what would be the smartest way to do this regarding the issue of climate change? 

SB: That’s right, people orient themselves especially towards behaviors that are shown by the majority of their fellow human beings, so-called social norms. The question therefore arises as to how social norms can be shifted towards an environmentally friendly lifestyle. On the one hand, this can happen in society itself through a shift in values (towards biospherical, environmentally friendly values). But this will take some time. On the other hand, another mechanism that is faster and more effective is the political framework, the effectiveness of which I have already explained.

Are people simply misinformed if they believe that figures such as Donald Trump are right to deny climate change? Or do you recognize psychological behavioral patterns behind it – the will to want to believe it?

SB: Environmental psychological research from the English-speaking world has already shown that climate change deniers or skeptics are mainly to be found in the political center-right spectrum. There are various explanations for this. One of them is particularly concerned with values. Climate change communication is predominantly pervaded by liberal-left-oriented values, which means that people from the political center-right spectrum do not feel addressed and are therefore not as receptive to the information communicated on climate change. We have also investigated this connection in Austria and found similar results. In addition, our study showed that while climate change skeptics claim to be informed about climate change, they use different sources of information than people who do not deny it. Climate change skeptics seem to particularly prefer information sources such as social media (YouTube videos, Facebook, etc.), whereas climate-friendly individuals draw their information on climate change mainly from objective sources (e.g. scientific literature, documentaries, etc.).

Ms. Bolte, thank you for this interview.

COVID-19 – a dress rehearsal for the greater challenges of the future?

Science seems to agree across disciplines: climate change exists, and the changes that can already be measured today give an idea of the dramatic effects it will have on the earth, and thus on the habitat of us humans, in the long term. But panic is limited in the general population because, due to evolution, humans tend to be alarmed by acute and therefore more tangible problems. One such example of this is and remains the coronavirus pandemic. Yesterday there was enough toilet paper, today there are empty shelves. Yesterday we were working in the office, today we are working from home in our one-room apartments. The changes came thick and fast, which massively intensified both the subjective feeling of suffering and the motivation to act – in whatever form.

With regard to climate change, one could therefore sum up by saying, somewhat provocatively, that events such as the coronavirus pandemic are ultimately only small dress rehearsals for what the entire global population will have to cope with before the end of this century: the consequences of climate change, which could claim far more victims than one might imagine in today’s world – where the shelves are long since full again.