The threat posed by climate change is all too real, but some of the solutions are all in the mind. That's the message from work in the field known as conservation psychology, which is beginning to show how people can be encouraged to change their lifestyles to cut greenhouse gas emissions (see "How psychology can curb climate change").
As well as showing what does work, this research also tells us what does not. And in that regard, groups trying to promote action to fight global warming could pay closer attention to what the psychologists are saying. Environmental groups have already learned some obvious lessons: no one likes to be hectored, and preachiness is not a winning tactic. Positive campaigns like "We can solve the climate crisis", run by Al Gore's Alliance for Climate Protection, are a better idea. Meanwhile, other research suggests that human nature need not be as rapacious and short-sighted as it sometimes appears: we are surprisingly ready to act in the interests of others and the natural world (see "Triumph of the commons").
But other tricks are still being missed. The website of the "We can solve the climate crisis" campaign features a video by Will.i.am of the hip-hop group Black Eyed Peas. As a backdrop to his song Take Our Planet Back, it shows images of environmental degradation coupled with statements like "Every American generates 2000 pounds of trash each year".
Approaches like this can be counterproductive, reinforcing the idea that heavy consumption is the societal norm and promoting a sense of helplessness in the face of an apparently insurmountable problem. Like it or not, most of us go with the herd. Show people this video and they will find little motivation not to carry on generating trash and burning oil like there's no tomorrow. But tell them about the steps their peers are taking to make things better, and they may just follow suit.
Over at the Earth Day Network site, it gets worse. There you can find out how many planets it would take to support your lifestyle if everyone on Earth lived the same way. It's hard to find any positive messages: a vegan who doesn't own a car, never flies, takes public transport to work and shares a tiny apartment in a US city would still be told that their lifestyle requires 3.3 Earths. It is hard to see what this is going to achieve, other than disillusioning people who are already doing their bit and telling everyone else that it isn't worth the bother.Psychology, often denigrated as a "soft science", has a vital role to play as humankind grapples with a truly vexing problem. Better to employ its findings now than to turn to psychologists only when we need help in dealing with the distress of occupying a world that has passed some dangerous climate tipping points.
The full report is available from http://www.apa.org/releases/climate-change.pdf
The clear inference is that positive messages tend to work whilst negative ones tend to fail yet most environmental climate change campaigning relies on reinforcing entirely negative messages about forthcoming catastrophe. Therefore, we might want to consider changing our tactic.