Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy, Vol. 9, No. 1, 2009, pp. 205--222
The Emergency of Climate Change: Why Are We
Failing to Take Action?
Cynthia M. Frantz∗and F. Stephan Mayer
Latane and Darley developed a five-stage model to understand why people do
and do not help other people in emergency situations. We extend their five-stage
model to explore why people do and do not take action against climate change.
We identify the factors that make climate change difficult to notice and ambiguous
as an emergency; we explore barriers to taking responsibility for action; and we
discuss the issues of efficacy and costs versus benefits that make action unlikely.
The resulting analysis is useful on two levels. For educators and policy makers,
the model suggests the most efficacious approaches to galvanizing action among
U.S. citizens. For social scientists, the model provides a valuable framework for
integrating research from diverse areas of psychology and suggests fruitful avenues
for future empirical research.
In his article titled “The Moment of Truth,” Al Gore (2006) urges us to
take the threat of climate change no less seriously than the threat of the Nazis
during World War II. The scientific community makes similar pronouncements,
arguing that climate change is a worldwide threat to the human species that
needs immediate attention (see Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change re-
ports, 2001, 2007). Despite these calls to action, however, there is still little
consensus among the American public that climate change should be put at the
top of the national agenda. In fact, a poll conducted by Stanford University for
ABC News (Harder, 2008) found that only 47% of Americans consider global
warming an important issue to them personally, while 80% knew almost nothing
about the 2008 presidential candidates’ positions and policy proposals on climate
Why is this? In the face of such clarion calls to action based on scientific
evidence, why don’t Americans take united action? The present article attempts
∗Cynthia M. Frantz, Department of Psychology, 125 W. Lorain St., Oberlin College, Oberlin, OH
44074 [email: firstname.lastname@example.org].
DOI: 10.1111/j.1530-2415.2009.01180.x C
2009 The Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues
206 Frantz and Mayer
to shed light on this question by applying Latane and Darley’s (1970) model
of helping behavior in an emergency to the issue of climate change. Latane and
Darley originally developed this model to understand why people often do not help
other people in emergency situations. We have used the insights from decades of
research on helping behavior to help us understand people’s current reactions to
Although the Latane and Darley model is by no means the only psychological
model with potential to help understand inaction around climate change, there are
a number of reasons to use it. First, as we elaborate on in this article, the global
climate crisis fits the model particularly well. Second, the model provides an
integrative framework that highlights the relevance to climate change of disparate
research areas. This in turn leads to possible new lines of inquiry that would
not be otherwise apparent. Third, similar to the work by McKenzie-Mohr and
Smith (1999) on fostering sustainable behavior, the Latane and Darley model
illuminates the barriers that inhibit action, not just the factors that encourage
it. Fourth, the model speaks directly to the limits of environmentalists’ favorite
approach to behavior change: information campaigns. The model clearly specifies
that it takes a great deal more than simply informing the public or presenting
fear communications in order for meaningful action to take place. Given this,
we view their model as providing useful information for environmentalists and
for public policy decision makers wishing to encourage change. Throughout this
article, then, we will highlight the integrative, research, and policy implications
associated with framing climate change by use of this model.
The Five-Stage Model of Helping: An Overview
Latane and Darley (1970) proposed that in order for someone to help, five cri-
teria must be met. Additionally, they propose an overarching cost/benefit analysis
that impacts whether or not a person will engage in helping (cf. Piliavin, Rodin &
Piliavin, 1969; Piliavin, Dovidio, Gaertner & Clark, 1981). This cost/benefit anal-
ysis is most clearly associated with the later steps of the model, where people are
weighing whether becoming involved will result in potential reward or punishment.
According to this model, in order for helping to occur, a person needs to satisfy
the requirements of each step and reach a satisfactory conclusion regarding the
cost versus benefits of helping. Below we present a brief summary of each of
the five steps and identify the factors associated with both promoting helping and
the barriers to helping associated with each step.
The first step of the model makes the seemingly obvious point that a potential
helper must notice the event in question. Research has demonstrated, however,
that emergencies often go unnoticed, for a variety of reasons. For example, many
emergencies lack salience in our lives (Rogers, Miller, Mayer & Duval, 1982).
The Emergency of Climate Change 207
The great distance, both physical and psychological, between our own lives and
the lives of starving children on some other continent makes it very easy to remain
unaware of their plight. Closer to home, abused partners and children may remain
silent, their emergency may also go undetected, and consequently, no help will be
provided. Characteristics of the helper also make a difference. A potential helper
who is in a hurry (Darley & Batson, 1973) or is highly self-absorbed (Berkowitz,
1972; Mayer, Duval, Holtz & Bowman, 1985; Rogers et al., 1982) may not notice
the distressed other.
The second step requires the potential helper to interpret the event as an
emergency situation; if it is not seen as an emergency, helping will not occur.
Emergency events are often ambiguous. Imagine a man lying on the grass with his
eyes closed on a sunny day in a downtown area. Is he resting? Has he had a heart
attack? The question may only be clarified after a period of many hours. Other
people’s reactions can also affect how we interpret the event. Given ambiguity, if
others act as if it is not an emergency situation, we may rely on the information
they provide and similarly come to perceive the event as a nonemergency (Latane
& Darley, 1968). We may also be loath to overreact because we do not want to
feel foolish in the eyes of others. Thus, our reliance on others for information and
our need for approval can both facilitate and serve as a barrier to helping.
The third step requires individuals to feel a sense of personal responsibility
to aid the distressed other. One key determinant of feeling responsible is having
a sense of “we-ness” or connectedness to the victim (Duval, Duval & Neely,
1979; Hornstein, 1982). Smaller groups (Latane & Darley, 1968), similarity of
the person to the distressed other (Miller, Kozu & Davis, 2001), and taking the
victim’s perspective (Batson, 2001; Batson & Powell, 2003) all contribute to a
sense of connection. But another key determinant of responsibility is having no
one else to rely on. Latane and Darley (1968) demonstrate that, ironically, a
person needing help is less likely to receive help when there are many people
present, as opposed to only one person. Diffusion of responsibility means that each
person in a large crowd knows that there are many other people available to help,
which results in each member feeling less responsible for the well-being of the
Knowing what to do (the fourth step) and actually deciding to act (the fifth
step) are also required before help will be given in an emergency. People will
not help if they feel that their personal resources are insufficient to effectively
cope with the emergency (Duval & Mulilis, 1999; Mulilis & Duval, 2003). In-
stead, they are likely to deny personal responsibility (Lalwani & Duval, 2000)
and, consequently, not engage in helping behavior. Thus, factors that enhance a
person’s sense of empowerment or self-efficacy tend to promote helping behavior,
as does information that provides people with effective ideas of how to address an
emergency situation (Bandura, 1977; Mulilis & Duval, 1995).
208 Frantz and Mayer
The cost/benefit analysis that overrides these stages is especially relevant
from Stages 2 through 5. For instance, we have already mentioned how a person
might not want to overreact in a potential emergency situation for fear of losing the
approval of others. Additionally, a person may not want to accept responsibility for
the distressed other due to emotional attachment and the accompanying negative
affect or possible blame if things go wrong (cf. Batson, 1987). Expanding on
the former point, forming an ill-advised idea of how to help and implementing a
flawed plan can also lead to criticism and possible condemnation. As for the latter
point, experiencing a sense of “we-ness” with a distressed other can result in the
distressed other’s pain becoming the potential helper’s pain as well. As Batson
(1987) empirically demonstrates, when the potential helper experiences negative
affect and can easily escape from the situation, that person is likely to do so.
Furthermore, the cost/benefit analysis extends not only to the helping act
itself, but also to competing behaviors in which the potential helper could be
engaged. For instance, imagine yourself on tour with a group in Italy. When a
fellow traveler experiences heart problems, do you help that person get to an
emergency room or do you follow the tour schedule and visit the Sistine Chapel?
The cost/benefit analysis in this example refers not only to the costs and benefits
of aiding the fellow traveler and escorting him/her to the emergency room, but
also to the costs and benefits of missing the tour of the Sistine Chapel.
Helping Behavior and the Environment
Latane and Darley’s work makes clear that offering help in an emergency
situation is not as assured as we might like to think. A number of psychological
processes and situational factors can combine to create barriers to helping behavior
at each of the five stages described above. In this section, we explore how these
factors that both promote helping and serve as barriers to helping apply to decisions
of U.S citizens to take action against climate change. We will also highlight how
their model helps to integrate research in this field, presents new lines of inquiry,
and provides direction for public policy.
Throughout this analysis, several themes emerge. First, the psychological pro-
cesses of each stage are inextricably intertwined and affect each other recursively.
Although we tend to think of the model as a one-way, linear process, for dealing
with emergencies that unfold over time, it is clear that what happens at later stages
of the model can influence earlier stages. Second, society-level structural (policy)
changes beget individual-level psychological changes, which then make further
structural changes possible. These two levels of analysis are also inextricably in-
tertwined. Third, the key to successful action is collective action, at nearly every
stage and at both the societal and the psychological level.
The Emergency of Climate Change 209
Stage 1: Noticing the Event
Many environmental problems are not particularly noticeable, and climate
change is no exception. For example, rising CO2levels in the atmosphere is one of
the root causes of climate change. However, changes in the atmosphere of 50–75
parts per million CO2over the last 50 years are undetectable to our senses. If
we could all see or otherwise personally detect carbon levels rising, reactions to
climate change likely would be very different.
Even when comparing temperatures across time, the yearly variability of
temperature makes it difficult to notice a degree or two Fahrenheit change during
the past 50–100 years, particularly against the backdrop of natural climatic shifts
that are not the result of human behavior. In fact, only sophisticated scientific
modeling of the CO2and temperature changes can definitively detect the unique
contribution of humans to climate fluctuations.
Additionally, climate changes are not spread equally over the globe; the most
dramatic changes are occurring in more remote and distant areas, such as the arctic
regions, where there are very few people to notice the effects. A recent poll of
residents in Alaska supports the idea that being closer to an emergency makes
a difference: 71% of Alaskans believe that global warming is a serious threat
to Alaska as a whole and to the United States (Leiserowitz & Craciun, 2006),
compared to only 41% of U.S. citizens in the lower 48 states who view it as a very
serious problem (Pew Foundation Poll, July, 2006).
Other factors of modern life make people less likely to notice the effects of
climate change. People in modern industrial societies like the United States spend
up to 90% of their time indoors in artificial, temperature-controlled environments
(Evans & McCoy, 1998). This lessened connection between humans and their
natural world is not unlike the psychological distance and lesser connection that
exists between Westerners and starving children in Africa. Further, most people in
the modern industrial world do not depend directly on nature for their livelihoods,
and many have jobs that require moving from place to place. As a result, people
are less likely to be deeply rooted in a specific environment and, consequently,
less likely to notice subtle changes occurring within it. In other words, there are
societal costs associated with frequent relocations and jobs structured in ways that
disconnect people from the natural world.
People who are intimately tied to the environment do tend to notice the
environmental changes that are taking place. Informal observations and formal
analysis of decades of records kept by regional maple sugar producers in New
England and Canada reveal that the maple sugar season starts and ends earlier
than a generation ago (Proctor Maple Research Center, 2006). Records kept by
bird watchers and other naturalists paint a similar picture: the flight of the butterfly,
the song of the frog, and the flowering of cherry blossoms in Kyoto have all been
altered by climate change (Parmesan, 2006; Price & Glick, 2002). Those who
carefully follow these patterns sense it; the rest of us do not.
210 Frantz and Mayer
Given that the changes are often subtle, occur over relatively long periods,
and are most noticeable in remote areas of the world, policy makers, educators,
and scientists need to make special efforts to help everyday people in the United
States take note of the changes. The presentation of photos from different periods
has been used to good effect to dramatize the climate changes that have taken
place. For instance, images of snow loss from Mount Kilimanjaro from 1970 to
present or the reduction of the size of the glaciers in Glacier National Park provide
excellent examples of how to make people aware of the substantial changes that
have occurred over time.
Taking steps to psychologically decrease the distance between the potential
helper and the emergency may also help people to notice climate change. Most
North Americans may not pay much heed to rising sea levels in far off lands, but
should their own city begin to flood, it would catch their attention. Documenting
more proximate changes, such as forecasted flooding in New York and Washington
D.C. might prove useful, as might images that link climate change to the increased
frequency and strength of hurricane damage, tornado damage, flood, drought, and
People can also be taught to see global environmental change on a more
everyday level. In his book Bringing the Biosphere Home, Thomashow (2002)
argues for the importance of learning how to observe and interpret the ecological
patterns happening around us, and connecting these observations to the broader
picture of the biosphere. Experiential evidence of climate change is available to
people living everywhere, if they know how to look for it. Science education, both
formal and informal, can help build a population of people who know how to
The above observations suggest several new lines of research. Given that
people who spend more time in the environment as naturalists or laborers are
more likely to notice the effects of climate change, the concept of place attachment
(Kyle et al., 2004) might be an interesting avenue of study; people who are strongly
attached to a specific natural setting may very well be the most likely to notice
changes occurring in that setting. Similarly, people who view themselves as being
an egalitarian member of the natural world (i.e., score relatively high on the
Connectedness to Nature Scale, Mayer & Frantz, 2004) or whose identity is tied
to the environment (Environmental Identity Scale, Clayton & Opotow, 2003) may
not only be more likely to notice changes in their environment, but may be more
likely to seek out information relevant to potential environmental changes. These
lines of inquiry seem very promising.
Stage 2: Interpreting the Event as an Emergency
Once people take note of the changes taking place around them, they must
realize that these changes indeed indicate an emergency. This may seem like the
The Emergency of Climate Change 211
simplest part: present people with the facts. Yet for many years, there was not a
consensus on whether climate change was a real phenomenon, making it easy for
people not to define the event as an emergency. Even today, some still describe
climate change as “the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people”
(U.S. Senator James Inhofe, 2005). How can people conclude this in the face of
It is because humans are not objective and impassive processors of informa-
tion; their fears, desires, and goals influence strongly how they evaluate and weigh
evidence (Baumeister & Newman, 1994; Kunda, 1990; see Fiske & Taylor, 2007,
for a summary of this literature). It is not hard to see why U.S. citizens would be
motivated to deny that climate change is an emergency.
First, a host of psychological studies demonstrate that human beings are very
skilled at denying that which is inconvenient. This is particularly likely to happen
when people are made afraid. Early social psychological work on attitude change
found that communications designed to motivate action through fear (The end
is near!) often backfire (Janis & Feshbach, 1953). That is, instead of producing
attitude change toward the communication, the communication can lead people
to feel anxious and motivated to avoid thinking about the distressing information.
This surprising finding led social psychologists to conduct research investigating
the conditions under which fear-arousing communications were most likely to pro-
duce the desired change in attitudes. They discovered that in order to be effective,
fear communications must provide highly specific recommendations regarding
the behavior that needs to be performed in order to avoid the unwanted outcome
(Leventhal, 1970; Rogers & Mewborn, 1976; Leventhal, Meyer & Nerenz, 1980).
In the language of Latane and Darley, these appeals must pave the way for passing
through the other stages of decision making that lead to action.
Many environmental communications try to dramatize the importance of the
environmental threat so that people will view it as an emergency; they are classic
fear communications. For example, Al Gore warns in his Vanity Fair article, “The
Moment of Truth,” that there are “dire warnings that the worst catastrophe in
the history of human civilization is bearing down on us, gathering strength as it
comes.” Kolbert (2006) in her celebrated book Field Notes from a Catastrophe,
states at the very end: “It may seem impossible to imagine that a technologically
advanced society could choose, in essence, to destroy itself, but that is what we
are now in the process of doing.”
The research on fear appeals tells us that these messages should not end with
a crescendo of fear, but rather with a message that helps people move through the
later stages of the model. Getting people to notice an event is worthless if they
are so distraught that they deny its reality (Stage 2), deny responsibility (Stage 3),
and have no idea what to do (Stage 4). Presenting a clear path forward may make
it more emotionally palatable to acknowledge the emergency situation in the first
212 Frantz and Mayer
In addition to people’s motivation to refute inconvenient messages, the gen-
eral public’s skepticism of science presents another barrier to recognizing climate
change as an emergency. Various authors have discussed the general anti-
intellectualism that is present in the United States (Hofstadter, 1964; Sachs, 2008;
Jacoby, 2009). Antiscience skepticism is one of the major factors that needs to be
addressed through education and leadership. As Sachs states, besides addressing
our educational system and “aggressive fundamentalism” in the United States
that “denies modern science... we need scientifically literate politicians adept at
evidence-based critical thinking to translate these findings and recommendations
into policy and international agreements.”
Third, as stated when we introduced Latane and Darley’s model, individuals
are impacted by the way others react in an emergency situation; they rely on others
for information. In the environmental literature, numerous studies illustrate how
norms can be made salient by actually viewing the behavior of another person
(Aronson & O’Leary, 1982–1983) or inferring the actions of others (Cialdini,
Reno & Kallgren, 1990). Thus, actually seeing others make efforts to reduce their
carbon footprint (or even inferring that others are engaging in these actions) may
prove to be effective in helping to establish that the threat of climate change
requires immediate action.
Fourth, cognitive dissonance is a psychological force working against the
recognition of climate change as an emergency. Cognitive dissonance is the in-
herently unpleasant tension we feel when we act in a manner that is inconsistent
with our self-concept (Festinger, 1957). One of the major tenets of cognitive dis-
sonance theory is that to relieve the tension that arises from being inconsistent,
people will often change their beliefs, attitudes, and self-concept to fall in line
with their actions. Stated differently, when people freely engage in an action, they
become committed to that action (i.e., the action becomes resistant to change).
Given the resistance of this action to change, people are then thought to adjust
their beliefs and self-concept to be consistent with their acts. Thus, what people
do influences what they believe and how they see themselves.
Presently, the way our society is structured makes it easiest for people to
do things that exacerbate climate change. Most people cannot easily avoid the
production of greenhouse gases in their everyday actions—from buying produce
shipped from distant places to using shampoo in plastic bottles to driving to work.
Given this, to avoid psychic tension associated with cognitive dissonance, people
may adjust their beliefs and self-concepts to be consistent with these actions.
Consequently, they may come to believe that climate change is not a priority and
develop self-concepts that are not particularly pro-environmental.
Overcoming the psychological force of cognitive dissonance requires struc-
tural changes in our society to facilitate behavior change. People need to be
provided with real options for reducing their carbon footprint so that they are not
inevitably channeled into inaction. Policy makers should seek programs that make
The Emergency of Climate Change 213
it easier for people to do pro-environmental actions; this in turn paves the way for
pro-environmental beliefs and self-concepts, which in turn creates a public that is
ready for further policy change. For example, public transportation in most of the
United States is notoriously poor and inconvenient, or in many cases, nonexistent.
City planners and government need to provide transportation options that are more
climate neutral (Register, 2006), and employers could allow greater flexibility for
people to telecommute. As another example, the fuel efficiency of cars available
to Americans lags far behind the fuel efficiency of cars readily available in Europe
and Japan. Raising CAF ´
E standards would motivate car makers to provide con-
sumers with real choices for fighting climate change. Not only would this have
the substantive and obvious impact of reducing carbon emissions in the United
States, cognitive dissonance theory suggests that it would also help change peo-
ple’s perceptions of climate change as an emergency requiring immediate action,
paving the way for even greater behavior change.
Optimism is another factor that can lead people to fail to perceive an event like
climate change as an emergency. Optimism is typically highlighted as a positive
trait, a healthy sign of successful development. Generally speaking, people do not
think that negative things will happen to them; this belief helps them get through
the day. Thus an optimistic individual, when faced with a threat that will unfold
over a long period and be influenced by many factors, has lots of leeway to make
optimistic predictions. In responding to climate change, people can believe that
scientists will come up with a technological breakthrough or that the problems may
never fully materialize. Certainly, the optimism that characterizes the American
spirit has been held up as a defining positive characteristic of the American people
(Allport, 1937; Mezulis, Abramson, Hyde & Hankin, 2004). But in this instance,
if it leads to inaction, it may be anything but a characteristic to rejoice about. How
do we direct this optimistic spirit into action against climate change? We will
return to this question momentarily.
Lastly, educational organizations in general, and the National Park system in
particular, could play a critical role in educating people about climate change and
helping them define it as an emergency. Millions of people visit national parks
each year, viewing introductory films to each park, and participating in ranger-led
educational programs. This is a wonderful opportunity to inform the public about
the crisis nature of climate change as it relates to the nation’s most beautiful natural
Stage 3: Feeling Personally Responsible to Act
Once the emergency is recognized, potential helpers must feel personally
responsible to do something. Unfortunately, responsibility is subjectively defined.
All cultures have a responsibility norm: an understanding about who and what we
are responsible for. Modern U.S. culture defines that norm more narrowly than
214 Frantz and Mayer
most cultures. Psychologically speaking, it is relatively easy for U.S. citizens not
to feel responsible for taking action to help. Further, because the emergency of
climate change is influenced by so many parties, there are many potential agents
who can be construed as responsible. These two factors—a narrowly defined norm
of responsibility and the involvement of many parties—provide ideal conditions
for diffusion of responsibility to occur. Each individual is free to assume that it is
someone else’s job to take action.
In fact, cognitive dissonance theory would suggest that people are not merely
free, but motivated, to perceive that it is someone else’s job; individuals can
resolve the dissonance induced by daily engaging in carbon-emitting behaviors by
reducing their perception of choice in the matter. In effect, they can say, “Ican’t
do anything; it’s someone else’s job” or, “The government is already taking care
Besides diffusion of responsibility, individuals face other psychological bar-
riers to feeling responsible to act. As stated earlier, when the magnitude of the
emergency is greater than the personal resources available to an individual, the
potential helper is likely to engage in defensive attribution and not accept respon-
sibility for the emergency (see Kaplan, 2000, for a similar argument). Climate
change is a huge problem. Clearly, no one person has the personal resources to
have anything but a tiny impact, or the cost of having an impact may be perceived
as far too great. Thus, scientific and environmental messages that emphasize the
magnitude of climate change, which may have the desired effects of making peo-
ple notice the event and interpret it as an emergency, may ironically have the
undesired effect of making people feel less responsible.
The stress and coping literature has studied this phenomenon extensively.
Lazarus and Folkman (1984) discuss two broad coping strategies: problem-focused
versus emotion-focused coping. Problem-focused coping refers to taking direct
action to confront a threat (moving forward through the stages of the model),
whereas emotion-focused coping involves ignoring and/or denying the threat (get-
ting stuck in the early stages of the model). When do people engage in one
form of coping or the other? A major determinant is individuals’ perception
of control. Given control, individuals are more likely to engage in problem-
focused coping, while with little perceived control, emotion-focused coping may
McKenzie-Mohr and Smith (1999) argue that when tackling global issues,
a sense of perceived control is largely impacted by our sense of community—of
people working in concert with others. By acting in concert with others, people
can experience a greater sense of self-efficacy or personal control and, conse-
quently, be less likely to engage in emotion-focused coping and defensive denial
of responsibility (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984). Gardner (2006) points out that envi-
ronmentalists and churches share many commonalities, and a partnership between
the two could create meaningful collective change. For instance, both groups ar-
gue for less consumption and materialism, simpler lifestyles and, in essence, a
The Emergency of Climate Change 215
smaller ecological footprint. But churches have other resources that make them
ideal venues for collective action. Churches have strong communities. They also
often have strong leadership, broad organizational ties, wealth, land holdings, and
a moral voice that can inspire people to change their lifestyles and take action.
Combining the prophetic voice, leadership, organization, financial capital, and
voting strength of churches with environmental tactics for positive change could
produce the concerted social movement that is required.
Another potential strategy to increase feelings of responsibility is to increase
U.S. citizens’ sense of connection to nature. Research on prosocial behavior con-
sistently demonstrates that feeling connected to others increases willingness to
help. Our research extends this pattern to the natural world: feeling a sense of
connectedness to nature is associated with environmentally responsible behavior
(Mayer & Frantz, 2004; Trostle, 2008). Connection to nature can be increased by
spending time outdoors (even as little as 15 minutes), by looking out a window
onto a natural area (F.S. Mayer and C.M. Frantz, unpublished data), by spend-
ing time in a greenhouse (F.S. Mayer and C.M. Frantz, unpublished data), or by
looking at videos of natural environments (Mayer, Frantz, Bruehlman-Senecal
& Dolliver, 2008). The “nature” that people are exposed to does not have to be
expansive and pristine, either. City dwellers can benefit from having a tree live
outside their window (Kaplan, 2001).
Furthermore, our work points out that increasing individuals’ knowledge
about an issue, although intuitively appealing, is not likely to increase a sense
of responsibility. We have tested this idea in our research by contrasting peo-
ple’s beliefs and attitudes about the ecological crisis (using the New Ecological
Paradigm, or NEP, Dunlap, Van Liere, Mertig & Jones, 2000) to their experiential
sense of being a part of the natural world (using our Connectedness to Nature
Scale, or CNS, Mayer & Frantz, 2004). The CNS and the NEP both related to
environmentally responsible behavior, r=.44, p<.01, and r=.20, p<.05,
respectively. However, when we statistically controlled for the CNS, the NEP was
no longer significantly related to these acts. When controlling for the NEP, the
CNS remained significantly correlated with the pro-environmental acts, r=.42,
p<.01. These data suggest that the general beliefs and knowledge do not predict
behavior as well as the personal feeling of being connected to nature.
Given this, climate scientists, environmental activists, parents, and educators
who wish to promote change need to do more than simply create an informed
public. To be effective, programs must also instill a sense of connection between
people and the natural world. The work of Kals, Schumacher, and Montada (1999)
shows that for children, early experiences in nature with a loved one, such as a
parent, help to foster a child’s love of nature later in life (see also Louv, 2008).
The National Park system can also play a valuable role. A well-designed park
facilitates connection with the natural environment for wide swaths of American
society (e.g., paved paths make it possible for the wheelchair-bound to experience
nature). Further, educational programs that discuss climate change may pack an
216 Frantz and Mayer
even more powerful punch in a context in which people are seeking out and
connecting with the most beautiful natural environments in our nation.
Stage 4: Knowing What to Do
It is noteworthy that this relatively later stage of Latane and Darley’s model
is the best articulated. Many writers and organizations provide information about
how to minimize our carbon footprint: recycling, buying locally grown foods,
replacing incandescent light bulbs with compact fluorescents, insulating one’s
home, carpooling—the list goes on and on. Thus, much of the information and
technology is out there; the harder part is motivating people to seek it out (discussed
above) and to actually act on it (discussed further below).
There is debate, however, as to whether these lists of behaviors are actually the
ones that ought to be encouraged. A growing concern among environmentalists is
that the focus on behavior change at the individual or household level is misplaced;
change at the level of government and industry is in fact far more urgent. From
this perspective, the helping behaviors that individuals should be encouraged to
perform are things like lobbying their elected representatives, putting pressure on
corporations, and making climate change a top priority during elections. Parallel
to the discussion above about raising CAF´
E standards, these behaviors are not
only effective because of the direct structural changes that this kind of political
pressure could create. They also pave the way for individual changes in attitude
and behavior as societal structure makes low-carbon living more feasible.
In addition, focusing on these more collectively oriented behaviors has the im-
portant benefit of increasing individuals’ sense of efficacy, and by extension, their
willingness to act. Activists are just beginning to tap the possibilities afforded by
high-speed communication for networking and mobilizing large numbers of like-
minded individuals to put pressure on elected officials. New organizations are also
springing up, connecting people across space via the Internet. For example, the Al-
liance for Climate Protection’s We Campaign (http://www.wecansolveit.org) and
the Center for a New American Dream’s Carbon Conscious Communities project
(http://www.newdream.org/c3/index.php) connect like-minded citizens with each
other, and seek to make visible to the individual the significant effect that their
actions can have when aggregated across many people. Beyond the immediate
benefits such networking brings, it also creates an environment in which individu-
als are psychologically better able to respond to the emergency of climate change
over the long run.
Stage 5: Implementing the Required Acts
Once potential helpers have passed through the previous four stages—noticing
climate change, interpreting it as an emergency, feeling responsible to do
The Emergency of Climate Change 217
something, and knowing what to do—all that is left is to act. However, people
often do not act. Sometimes people do not act because it is structurally impossible
(there is no public transportation one can take to work), sometimes because it is
inconvenient (see below). But habit and norms also play an important role.
Given that acting to fight climate change involves in part the repetitive per-
formance of everyday behaviors (turning off the lights, shunning produce shipped
from Chile in the grocery store), individuals who have successfully passed through
the first four stages may simply forget to take the appropriate action. Research on
prompts (McKenzie-Mohr & Smith, 1999) suggests that reminders—if noticeable,
self-explanatory, and placed temporally and spatially near the targeted behavior—
are effective in making potential actions cognitively accessible. For example, a
sign above a light switch to turn off the light when you leave the room makes it
more likely that an individual will actually turn off the light.
Norms can play a similar role. Norms not only provide information but serve
as unspoken guidelines for behavior; they are “what people do.” Once established,
norms for environmentally friendly actions will guide behavior without any ex-
plicit effort on the part of policy makers or activists. Policy can lay the ground-
work for behavior; once it becomes normative, the formalized policy becomes less
The Overarching Cost/Benefit Analysis
We have discussed how the overarching cost/benefit analysis affects Stages 2
and 3. We now reflect on how it impacts the later stages of this model. Historically,
many of the ideas (Stage 4) and actions (Stage 5) associated with environmentally
responsible behavior have been associated with sacrifice. From President Jimmy
Carter’s presidential address where he discussed “tightening or belts” to calls for
less consumption of material goods and smaller houses, environmental messages
are for many associated with having less. A great deal of research has established
a very powerful psychological principle: we are very averse to loss (Kahneman
& Tversky, 1996). As others have before us (Kaplan, 2000), we argue that the
association between environmentally responsible behavior and loss presents a
formidable psychological barrier to lifestyle change.
Thus, policy makers and activists would do well to reflect on how to rewrite
the cost-benefit equation in favor of environmentally responsible behavior. This
can be done in several ways. One approach is to increase the cost of our current
behavior, in a direct and experiential way. Policies that make visible the real costs
of our behaviors (e.g., carbon taxes) are one potential avenue (Brown, 2001).
Another approach is to highlight the benefits associated with switching from a
consumerist lifestyle to a sustainable lifestyle. Decades of work demonstrates that
money and happiness become unrelated to one another once basic needs are met
(Myers, 2000). This message needs to be convincingly spread.
218 Frantz and Mayer
Hand in hand with this communication, however, should be a message that
focuses people on what really matters. When you ask the general public what
leads to a happy and fulfilling life, they correctly identify the same factors that
psychological research identifies (Frantz, 2008; Jhally, 1997). The main predictors
of happiness have less to do with material goods than with the quality of our
marriages, personal friendships, and the social support we experience. A sense of
meaning and purpose—through work, faith communities, or other activities—also
contributes to well-being. Additionally, a burgeoning body of work documents
that nature is a source of happiness (Kaplan, 2001; Mayer, Frantz, Bruehlman-
Senecal & Dolliver, in press; van den Berg, Koole & van der Wulp, 2003), mental
health (Honeyman, 1992), and physical health (Kaplan, 1992, 1993; Moore, 1981;
Yet a culture of consumption saturated with advertising for products often
leads people away from focusing on these contributors to life satisfaction. As the
final pieces of this puzzle, then, people still need to view their lives as imbued
with meaning, purpose, and at least the chance of reaching a positive end state.
Educators and activists need to find ways to convince the American public that an
environmental lifestyle is a more viable route to this end than the path they have
We have argued that there are many psychological forces that explain why
U.S. citizens are not acting to curb climate change: climate change is difficult
to notice and controversial as an emergency (despite the overwhelming scientific
evidence). Individuals and organizations can easily conclude that someone else
is responsible for acting, and that individual actions are inadequate to the task.
Finally, doing something about climate change is, as Al Gore puts it, inconvenient.
We have also argued that there are many places in which policy could help
mitigate these forces. Educational policy can encourage critical, unbiased assess-
ment of the scientific evidence for climate change, and can help youth develop
a perceptive, connected relationship with the natural world. Economic and envi-
ronmental policy could create a societal infrastructure that supports individuals
in their efforts to make responsible choices, and thus dramatically change expe-
riences of cognitive dissonance and the cost-benefit analysis of climate neutral
choices. Perhaps most important is fostering programs that emphasize the efficacy
of individuals acting in concert.
Additionally, we argue for a positive message to motivate people to engage in
environmentally responsible behavior. A more carbon-neutral path can be a more
rewarding and fulfilling path, to the extent that it focuses our attention on the
things that are truly associated with well-being. That this lifestyle also protects the
environment is an added benefit that we hope will motivate people to take action
to rectify the environmental challenges of our day.
The Emergency of Climate Change 219
As a last point, we argue that sound policy is based on sound theory. Latane and
Darley’s model of helping provides an effective model that helps researchers and
policy makers alike frame the issue of climate change broadly. As we have shown,
the model provides among other things, a framework that organizes the research on
normative behavior, communication, commitment, cognitive dissonance, coping
behavior, and prompts. It also identifies not only the motivators of action, but the
barriers to action, and the relationship between how considerations at one stage
can impact effectiveness at another stage. We hope our suggestions for research
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CYNTHIA McPHERSON FRANTZ is an Associate Professor of Psychology
at Oberlin College. She received her BA from Williams College, and her PhD
from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. In collaboration with Stephan
Mayer, her research focuses on the psychological aspects that lead people to
222 Frantz and Mayer
feel more or less connected to nature (CN), the impact that CN has on pro-
environmental behavior, and the relationship between CN and positive health-
related psychological characteristics.
F. STEPHEN MAYER is the Norman D. Henderson Professor of Psychology,
Chair of the Psychology Department, and Chair of the Peace and Conflict Studies
Program at Oberlin College. He has a PhD and a BA from the University of
Southern California. In addition to his collaborative research with Dr. Frantz, Dr.
Mayer has authored a textbook on personality.