Cover Story

We have just lived through the three warmest years ever recorded. It’s not a fluke. Seventeen of the 18 hottest years on record have occurred since 2000, and the trend shows no sign of reversing itself.

It’s not an understatement to call climate change the environmental crisis of our era, yet describing it as an environmental problem kind of misses the point, says Elise Amel, PhD, a professor of industrial/organizational psychology and conservation psychology at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota. After all, the environment isn’t creating the problem. We are.

Green company cultureDespite a vocal contingent of climate change deniers who loudly suggest otherwise, climate scientists are nearly unanimous in their conclusion that human emissions of greenhouse gases deserve the bulk of the blame. "The root cause of most current environmental crises, including climate change, is human behavior," Amel says. "Psychologists are well equipped to analyze this situation and apply what we know."

Environmental-behavior change comes up against some daunting obstacles. Most humans in modern society are disconnected from the natural world. Climate change happens on a global scale and over a long time, making it difficult for people to connect their personal behavior of today to the ecological consequences of tomorrow.

"Our systems are built so efficiently that we don’t know where anything comes from or where anything goes," Amel says. "The feedback loops are so distant, it’s nearly impossible to make good choices. That’s what makes climate change so intractable."

While individual choices matter, most experts acknowledge that tackling a problem as large as global climate change will require thinking on a bigger scale. Psychologists are among those on the front lines working to change behavior within corporations, organizations and governments to curb consumption and turn down the heat.

Working for the planet

When Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) wanted to boost sustainable behaviors in its service centers, it turned to psychologists at the See Change Institute. Led by Beth Karlin, PhD, who is also president of APA’s Div. 34 (Society for Environmental, Population and Conservation Psychology), See Change worked with PG&E to design and evaluate a seven-week campaign to engage employees, increase sustainable behavior and save money on energy, water and waste at its facilities.

Man waiting for a trainPG&E tested the "Step Up and Power Down" program at three service centers with a total of 900 employees. The program focused on a different sustainable behavior each week, such as proper waste sorting and switching to reusable coffee mugs and water bottles. PG&E staff worked to educate and engage employees through weekly events, newsletters, interactive quizzes and raffles. The three facilities also competed against one another to see which site could conserve the most energy and reduce the most waste. PG&E and the See Change team found improvements in sustainable behaviors when they surveyed employees a month after the campaign, including an 8 percent increase in proper waste sorting, a 33 percent increase in reusing materials and a 40 percent increase in energy conservation behaviors, such as shutting down computers and unplugging unused devices. "These results show that a psychologically informed approach, combined with leaders who care about sustainability, can strongly impact workplace behavior," Karlin says.

Workplace competitions can also nudge employees to make more sustainable choices in their homes. A Madison, Wisconsin, nonprofit called Cool Choices created a competitive game through which teams of co-workers compete for points by engaging in green behaviors at home, such as installing rain barrels or low-flow showerheads and swapping incandescent lights for low-energy CFLs or LEDs. Cool Choices’ clients have included law firms, construction companies, car factories and others.

In a test of the intervention, Markus Brauer, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, found that workers who played the game reported more awareness of the importance of sustainability and significantly reduced their household electricity use six months after the game ended. What’s more, those who consumed the most energy at the start of the intervention showed the biggest changes in pro-environmental attitudes, reporting that they cared more than they did previously about issues related to sustainability and the environment (Journal of Environmental Psychology, Vol. 53, No. 1, 2017).

Workplace competition works in part because of peer pressure, Brauer says. Players feel pressure to change their behavior even if they aren’t yet convinced of the importance of doing so. Once they make those changes, the choices can become habitual. "One of the major themes of the behavior-change literature is that knowledge alone doesn’t necessarily change behavior. But if people engage in the behavior and see it’s not that difficult or that different, it gives them a sense of self-efficacy," he says. "Suddenly we see their attitudes change."

Energy champions

Organizational leaders can also be a deciding factor in reshaping company norms. Reuven Sussman, PhD, a psychologist at the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, reviewed energy conservation behavior-change programs and found many successful programs owed their achievements to so-called energy champions. Whether they were CEOs or enthusiastic department heads, these champions took it upon themselves to be responsible for energy savings and actively promoted conservation behaviors, such as resetting the office thermostat or encouraging everyone to shut down computers at the end of the day (American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy Research Report B1601, 2016).

Sometimes, it’s about identifying the people who can make the biggest difference. Sussman and his colleagues recently launched a behavior-change intervention at Atrium Health (formerly Carolinas HealthCare System), a health-care organization with more than 900 locations. The program aims to improve energy efficiency by targeting building facilities staff, since they have an outsize impact on a building’s energy use. Facilities managers were trained to recognize inefficiencies in lighting, heating and cooling—and given license to correct those inefficiencies. Sussman hopes to have results from the study before the end of 2018.

A sustainability competency

Corporations are working to be more eco-friendly on many levels, including investing in more sustainable manufacturing processes and trading carbon credits to meet emissions quotas. But companies can’t be truly green unless they create a culture that supports and rewards sustainable behavior among all levels of employees, from entry-level assistants to executives in the corner offices.

"Sustainability as a competency means it’s part of everyone’s job, and everyone should understand how their jobs impact the environment—and what the state of the environment means for their work," Amel says. "In the future, none of us will be able to do our jobs well unless we understand our reciprocal influence on the planet."

Unfortunately, the field of industrial/organizational (I/O) psychology hasn’t realized its potential for helping organizations embrace green choices, Amel believes. But given that most of us spend the majority of our waking hours at work, businesses and workplaces are important targets for sustainable behaviors. "Organizations are designed to steer people toward something. They have all these levers to pull," she says. "Whether we’re talking about organizational systems or transformational leadership, I/O psychologists can make a huge contribution."

Rise of the eco-city

Like large organizations, governments also have broad power to chart a more sustainable course. And as municipalities find themselves dealing with more intense storms, deadly heat waves and devastating wildfires—disasters that are predicted to increase as the climate warms—they have good incentives to do so.

As it turns out, cities are often strongholds for sustainability, and they provide a natural testing ground for environmentally conscious design. Compared with rural and suburban communities, homes in cities tend to be smaller and more efficient, and residents are more likely to walk and take public transportation. Plus, most of the world’s population lives in cities, making urbanites prime targets for sustainability interventions. And with so many people living in cities, initiatives such as composting campaigns or bike-share programs can reach a lot of people in short order.

"Cities have built-in efficiencies," says Barbara Brown, PhD, an environmental psychologist at the University of Utah who studies links between physical environments and human behavior. "That makes cities a good potential vehicle for reducing our carbon footprint."

Psychologists are working with cities to capitalize on those sustainable advantages. In San Diego, Mica Estrada, PhD, a social psychologist at the University of California, San Francisco, directs a team of environmental scientists, policy analysts and other experts on the Climate Education Partners project. Through this initiative, funded by the National Science Foundation, Estrada and her colleagues have created a variety of resources to support local leaders in making informed decisions about the causes and consequences of climate change.

In surveys with local leaders, she found that 90 percent were concerned about climate change, but only 10 percent believe their peers shared those concerns. "Part of our education was making visible the other people in the community that are also concerned," she says. "We know social norms are important, and there’s evidence that leaders will be more likely to address these issues if they know they’re not acting alone."

Increasingly, researchers and policymakers are realizing that environmental sustainability also contributes to human health. Brown, for example, has studied Salt Lake City’s expansion of light-rail, which can help knock down carbon emissions by reducing car traffic. Brown has shown that the light-rail expansion led to greater physical activity and weight loss among the people who started taking the new trains (American Journal of Public Health, Vol. 105, No. 7, 2015). "A lot of the things you can do with urban design to support environmental health support human health as well," says Brown.

Psychologist Suzanne Holt Ballard, PhD, also works at the crossroads of human and planetary health. She is co-founder of the Future Cities Lab, a startup that collaborates with cities worldwide on interventions related to sustainability and citizen health and well-being. In projects in New York, Paris and other cities, she and her colleagues are collecting and analyzing data on air pollution, climate and human-activity patterns to map the connections among urban design, human mobility and health. Ultimately, Ballard and her collaborators hope the work will lead to redesigned urban spaces. Those future "smart cities" will be structured to inspire citizens to make healthy choices that also conserve energy and fossil fuels, such as taking public transportation and buying more locally grown produce in place of processed foods.

Meaningful contributions

For researchers interested in getting involved with sustainability issues, cities are the place to be. Federal funding for climate change projects is spotty, Estrada says, but city leaders around the world are finding ways to move forward on their own. The C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, for instance, brings together mayors from more than 90 of the world’s cities, including 16 in North America. Launched in 2005 by the then-mayor of London, the project connects mayors with thought leaders and other partners in efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, protect against climate risks and improve public health. Many other cities, large and small, are doing the same. "If you’re going to work in climate change, it’s really happening at the local level," Estrada says.

Psychologists don’t need to make climate change their life’s work to contribute, Estrada adds. Much of her research is on diversity and inclusion, but she’s also making a meaningful contribution to sustainability. And city leaders are always grateful for that contribution, she says. A lot of municipalities are investing in sustainability efforts, but they often don’t have the tools to evaluate whether the projects are working as intended. "There are a lot of governors, mayors and city councils that are really committed to sustainability, but they don’t know how to reach their goals. They could use collaborators," she says.

Psychological research can also help answer broader questions about what makes a sustainable city, including the cultural influences that drive our behaviors, says Brown. How do you make riding the bus as appealing to a young person as getting a driver’s license? How do you interrupt the cultural script that suggests people should move to the sprawling suburbs once they have kids?

"Psychologists haven’t delved deeply into the cultural attitudes about where to live, or how to get from point A to point B," she says. "If we want to talk about what makes a sustainable city, we also need to tackle these cultural barriers."

While psychologists are best suited to understanding people’s pro-environmental behaviors, there are barriers that keep more of them from stepping up, Karlin acknowledges. Academic psychology departments sometimes look down on these efforts as too applied, she says. At the same time, many psychologists are reluctant to get involved with existing behavior-change programs that were designed by people in other disciplines. But people working in the field are desperate for psychological know-how, she adds. "People want us in the room. There’s a behavioral science revolution going on, and we need to be a bigger part of it."

Further reading

Psychology for Sustainability, 4th Edition 
Scott, B.A., et al. 2016

Beyond the Roots of Human Inaction: Fostering Collective Effort Toward Ecosystem Conservation 
Amel, E., et al. Science, 2017

Behavior Change Programs: Status and Impact 
Sussman, R., & Chikumbo, M. American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy Research Report B1601, 2016

Psychological Research and Global Climate Change 
Clayton, S., et al. Nature Climate Change, 2015

Climate Science Special Report: Fourth National Climate Assessment, Vol. I 
Wuebbles, D.J., et al. (Eds.) U.S. Global Change Research Program, 2017