Climate Change: Psychological Solutions
and Strategies for Change
Susan M. Koger,
Kerry E. Leslie,
and Erica D. Hayes
Department of Psychology, Willamette University, Salem,
Department of Psychology and Social Sciences, Willamette
University and Humboldt State University, Arcata, Oregon.
Climate change is typically viewed as an ‘‘environmental’’ problem
rather than the psychological issue that it represents. Given that
barriers to proenvironmental behavior are rooted in psychological
processes, solution approaches to combating climate change must
incorporate significant psychological adaptations. Reframing climate
change as a public health problem, highlighting success stories and
health benefits, focusing on the here and now, providing specific
direction for behavior change, and acknowledging moral, ethical,
religious, and altruistic imperatives are all important components of
successfully addressing the wicked problem of climate change.
Climate change is generally considered an ‘‘environmental
problem,’’ largely relegated to the concern of a select group
of environmental scientists and members of the public who
call themselves environmentalists rather than the public at
large (Broder, 2009; Shellenberger & Nordhaus, 2004). Only about
18% of the U.S. population is actively involved and mobilized in
addressing climate change; the majority of U.S. citizens are not
directly engaged with the issue or its solutions, if they even believe it
is happening (Leiserowitz et al., 2009; see also Weber & Stern, 2011).
This situation persists because of the psychological forces that create
and maintain climate-changing behaviors, and despite myriad
opportunities to implement psychological changes necessary to ad-
dress and solve the crisis (e.g., American Psychological Association
Task Force, 2009; Gifford, 2008; Koger & Winter, 2010; Swim et al.,
Framing climate change and other forms of planetary degradation
as ‘‘environmental’’ may in fact reflect a societal defense mechanism
(Freud, 1936), protecting people from feelings of anxiety, overwhelm,
and helplessness by providing distance from or denial of the prob-
lem’s source and its solution, and minimizing personal responsibility
(Lorenzoni et al., 2007; Shellenberger & Nordhaus, 2004; Stoll-
Kleemann et al., 2001). Defense mechanisms represent a form of
emotion (as opposed to problem)focused coping, as they reduce un-
pleasant affective responses and allow one to avoid directly con-
fronting the issue (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984). However, given the
predicted widespread and catastrophic consequences [see reviews by
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), 2007; National
Research Council, 2010], it is critical that people—as individuals and
as members of social, industrial, and political systems—understand
and overcome the psychological barriers to altering behaviors related
to climate change.
Fortunately, attention to these issues is rapidly growing within the
psychological community. Researchers have recently outlined the
behavioral (consumption) causes (Stern, 2011; Swim et al., 2011a),
the predicted consequences for human wellbeing, including adverse
physical effects (Blashki et al., 2007; Centers for Disease Control and
Prevention, 2009; IPCC, 2007; Kovats et al., 2005), mental health
(Climate Institute, 2011; Doherty & Clayton, 2011; Few, 2007; Fritze
et al., 2008), and interpersonal impacts (Doherty & Clayton, 2011), as
well as response outcomes (Reser & Swim, 2011) related to climate
change. Although there are many cognitive, ideological, social,
emotional, and behavioral obstacles to addressing the risks of climate
change (e.g., Gifford, 2011; Kollmuss & Agyeman, 2002; Malka et al.,
2009; Weber & Stern, 2011), psychologists possess important, if not
the most, critical knowledge and skills for creating, executing, and
evaluating programs to address the challenges of climate change and
other forms of environmental risk (Clayton & Brook, 2005; Doherty &
Clayton, 2011; Koger & Scott, 2007; Koger & Winter, 2010; Scott &
Koger, 2012; Swim et al., 2011b). In this article, we attempt to
highlight some potential solution approaches, grounded in
DOI: 10.1089/eco.2011.0041 ªMARY ANN LIEBERT, INC. VOL. 3 NO. 4 DECEMBER 2011 ECOPSYCHOLOGY 227
psychological theory and research, to the problem of climate change
(see Table 1). This review is not intended to be exhaustive; rather, it is
our hope that it inspires further research and, more importantly,
advocacy efforts in the interest of addressing this critical and im-
Psychological Solutions and Strategies
First, it is critical to treat climate change and other environmental
challenges as originating in psychological (i.e., behavioral,cognitive,
emotional, and social)processes as opposed to viewing them as
purely scientific and technical problems (Gifford, 2011; Hoffman,
2010; Koger & Winter, 2010; Mayer & Frantz, 2008). Fortunately,
many people (61%) recognize that technological solutions are not
sufficient for addressing climate change; rather, individuals will need
to make significant lifestyle changes (Leiserowitz et al., 2010).
Second, it is likely that the ‘‘gloom and doom’’ tone of much media
(and scholarly articles) concerning climate change and other envi-
ronmental issues is counterproductive, as it can trigger defenses
against anxiety and threats to deep-seated belief systems. For in-
stance, many people hold fast to the idea that ‘‘the world is funda-
mentally just.fair, and stable,’’ and information that contradicts
these ‘‘just world beliefs’’ may be dismissed and actually inspire a
reduced willingness to engage in proenvironmental behaviors
(Feinberg & Willer, 2011, p. 36). In that regard, the way information is
presented or framed can significantly affect concern and subsequent
action regarding issues such as climate change (Lakoff, 2010), and
this effect seems to be moderated by political ideology (Malka et al.,
2009). Specifically, appealing to core values, utilizing simple lan-
guage, and activating emotional responses can increase public at-
tention, inspire hope, and motivate action (ecoAmerica, 2009; Lakoff,
2010). For instance, in industrial and organizational settings, uti-
lizing phrasing such as ‘‘smart building’’ or ‘‘high performance
building’’ resulted in more support for and less resistance to change
than the term ‘‘green building’’ (Hoffman, 2010). ‘‘Climate change’’
may be less politicizing than ‘‘global warming,’’ at least for certain
populations (Schuldt et al., 2011; Villar & Krosnick, 2009), and
speaking about ‘‘the air we breathe, [or] the water our children drink’’
and effects on public health is more widely engaging than the phrase
‘‘the environment’’ (ecoAmerica, 2009). In fact, framing climate
change as a public health issue may provide a particularly effective
strategy for engaging the public and offering hope for a healthier
future (Maibach et al., 2010; Nisbet & Gick, 2008).
It seems crucial to build motivation from a positive, rather than a
negative, source. Consider the civil rights movement: ‘‘Martin Luther
King Jr.’s ‘I have a dream’ speech is famous because it put forward an
inspiring, positive vision that carried a critique of the current mo-
ment within it.had King given an ‘I have a nightmare’ speech in-
stead,’’ the movement might have turned out differently
(Shellenberger & Nordhaus, 2004, p. 31). Comparably, Roszak (1994),
the father of Ecopsychology, warned about the counterproductive
‘‘green guilt and ecological overload’’ conveyed by many environ-
mental initiatives. People must have a sense of the positive impacts of
behavioral change to muster support for and cooperation with
proenvironmental actions, and to overcome the inclination for
hopelessness (i.e., ‘‘Hope Theory,’’ Snyder, 2002). It is well known that
depressive symptoms including feelings of anxiety, paralysis, and
lack of motivation occur when the causes of events are seen as un-
changeable and global (i.e., Learned Helplessness, Seligman, 1975;
cf., Hopelessness theory, Abramson et al., 1989; see also Gillham
et al., 2001); this is particularly relevant to issues of environmental
degradation (Evans & Stecker, 2004). Still, there is hope for reversing
these tendencies. Teaching individuals about problem solving skills
via participation in community volunteer organizations enhanced
people’s perception of or actual control over local environmental
Table 1. Psychological Solutions to Environmental
Challenges: Empirically and Theoretically Based
Reframe climate change and environ-
mental challenges from ‘‘environmental’’
Highlight the positive,
and inspire hope
Emphasize the immediacy and local
nature of the issues
Encourage individuals to partake in
behaviors that will be most impactful
Emphasize problem-focused coping
and enhance perceived behavioral
Provide incentives (both financial and
social) for desired behaviors and ask for
a commitment to conservation and
Encourage experiences in nature, and
emphasize health benefits of preserv-
Increase personal connectedness with
nature (‘‘ecological identity’’)
Appeal to morals, ethics, faith,
KOGER ET AL.
228 ECOPSYCHOLOGY DECEMBER 2011
conditions and consequent feelings of empowerment (i.e., ‘‘Theory of
Learned Hopefulness,’’ Zimmerman, 1990).
The nascent Transition Town movement represents an example of
such positive visioning in addressing the difficulties posed by climate
change and peak oil at the local community level. Following the
motto, ‘‘from oil dependency to local resilience’’ (Hopkins, 2008),
groups in various international communities are adapting institu-
tional-based systems largely dependent on fossil fuels, including
methods of energy and food production, transportation, material
consumption, and economic structures to locally based, alternative
energy systems. The success of Transition Towns may be attributed in
part to the approach of such behavioral adaptation as an ‘‘opportu-
nity’’ to make a positive personal change, through the recovery of
personal and community-based power over issues like oil depen-
dency and climate change, rather than as a ‘‘threat’’ to current life-
styles, which are maintained by the institutional petroleum-based
systems (Hopkins & Lipman, 2009). The Transition approach is
comparable to that of the Voluntary Simplicity movement, wherein
individuals consciously shift their lifestyle from one based on ma-
terialism and consumption toward a focus on community, compas-
sion, and personally meaningful pursuits (Elgin, 1998). Research
suggests that not only are such individuals happier, but they are also
more likely to engage in proenvironmental behaviors (e.g., Brown &
An emphasis on local issues also addresses the third issue with
respect to confronting climate change: people generally respond only
to crises that are visually apparent, physically and psychologically
close by (i.e., happening here, now, to me), and unambiguous (Gattig
& Hendrickx, 2007; Ornstein & Ehrlich, 2000; Weber, 2006); all
characteristics that climate change generally lacks (Frantz & Mayer,
2009), and will likely lack for some time (Weber & Stern, 2011). Thus,
when recruiting support for individual behavior change, it is im-
portant to highlight the here and now: local and regional impacts of
climate change are already occurring, and there is a high probability
of adverse effects to all of us. Public appeals should therefore include
concrete details, images, and stories of the impacts on individual
people, places, economies, cultures, and ecosystems. People are much
more likely to engage in behavior change when they are presented
with evidence of environmental risks that directly appeal to their
beliefs and values (Stern, 2000; Werner & Adams, 2001) and when
consequences are specific and personal. For instance, most people
react more strongly to environmental and other threats after reading
a story about one, personally salient individual rather than statistics
concerning thousands or a million potential victims (Slovic, 2007;
Slovic & Slovic, 2004–2005). In contrast to this ‘‘identifiable victim
effect’’ ( Jenni & Loewenstein, 1997), abstract discussion of envi-
ronmental issues is largely ineffective in enacting change (Chawla &
Cushing, 2007; Hungerford & Volk, 1990).
Public concern about risks like climate change will likely increase
as its impacts occur more locally and immediately and thus become
more salient; for instance, as severe weather events such as hurri-
canes become more common and their relationship to climate change
is emphasized (Sunstein, 2006). Visceral fear and stress responses
mobilize people to respond to threats, ideally by changing the
external situation (solving the problem). Activating emotional re-
actions relative to the danger of climate change and other environ-
mental threats will therefore be critical for garnering individual and
collective responses (Weber, 2006), while also providing specific
actions people can take to reduce feelings of being overwhelmed.
That is, it is important to emphasize problem-focused (vs. emotion-
focused) coping in which evaluating alternative solutions, problem
solving, and behavioral actions are utilized to alleviate the stress
associated with a given threat (e.g., Homburg & Stolberg, 2006;
Lazarus & Folkman, 1984; Spedden, 1998). For instance, perceived
behavioral control (belief in one’s ability to perform a particular
action and belief in its success), as identified in the Theory of Planned
Behavior (Ajzen, 1991), is an important contributor to proenviron-
mental behaviors (Bamberg & Mo
¨ser, 2007; Kollmuss & Agyeman,
2002) including behaviors related to addressing climate change
(Lorenzoni et al., 2007).
An example of structured problem-focused coping is the inno-
vative approach instantiated at the Environmental Health Clinic at
New York University. Analogous to other university health clinics,
‘‘impatients’’ (people who are tired of waiting for legislative action)
make appointments to discuss environmental health concerns and
receive ‘‘prescriptions’’ for actions they may take, such as opportu-
nities to engage in local data collection and projects aimed to im-
prove environmental health. The goal of the clinic is to convert
people’s anxiety and concern about environmental issues into spe-
cific, measurable, and significant actions (Schaffer, 2008).
In that regard, behavioral interventions are much more likely to
succeed when people are given instructions for specific and do-able
actions (Grundy & Osbaldiston, 2006; McKenzie-Mohr & Smith,
1999) or information that is tailored to the individual’s particular
situation (Daamen et al., 2001; Lorenzoni, et al., 2007). Fortunately,
there are several organizations that have published Internet guides to
help consumers reduce their own climate-changing emissions, al-
though it may be more effective to promote one-time purchases of
energy-efficient vehicles, appliances, and home insulation or solar
power systems rather than trying to alter habitual behaviors (Gardner
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& Stern, 2008; Stern, 2000; see also Dietz et al., 2009, for an extended
list of highly impactful behaviors).
There also exists an important positive feedback loop regarding
behavioral change: if one participates in a small action, he/she often
feels empowered by the perception of control over the situation and
becomes more likely to engage in more and larger actions (i.e., en-
hanced self-efficacy; Bandura, 1977). Consequently, acting at the
individual/household level can evolve into community action and
ultimately efforts to lobby legislators or industry for change. Readers
may recognize this phenomenon as resembling the classic Foot-in-
the-door, described by social psychologists (Freedman & Fraser,
1966). Overall, constructive action that betters the ecological and
social climate fosters participants’ personal growth and sense of ef-
ficacy, and greater feelings of empowerment lead to more environ-
mental and social change (Schusler et al., 2009; but see Power &
Mont, 2010). Notably, however, the individual’s motivation for
performing the behavior is an important variable, and ‘‘rebound ef-
fects’’ may occur, where engaging in some environmentally friendly
behaviors may actually reduce one’s incentive to perform others (e.g.,
‘‘I recycle, so I don’t have to worry about reducing my consumption’’
or ‘‘I can drive more because my car gets such great gas mileage’’)
(e.g., Kurz, 2002; Thøgersen & Crompton, 2009). More research is
needed to determine the conditions that produce foot-in-the-door as
opposed to rebound effects.
It is widely recognized that short-term costs or benefits often
outweigh the long term in decision making (i.e., contingency traps,
Baum, 1994; proximal cognition, Bjo
¨rkman, 1984; subjective discount
rates, Howard, 2000, 2002). This is particularly true in situations
where longer term costs and benefits are uncertain ( Mischel &
Grusec, 1967), as is the case in many of the decisions that must be
made concerning environmental issues. Consequently, another ap-
proach to initiating environmentally related behavior change is to
provide monetary and/or social incentives; that is, policies or gov-
ernmental regulations that make environmentally harmful behaviors
more costly initially or make proenvironmental behaviors more
immediately lucrative. For example, the American Recovery and
Reinvestment Act of 2009 provides tax credit incentives to individ-
uals and businesses who upgrade to energy-efficient appliances,
utilize energy-efficient building products, install renewable energy
systems on their property, or purchase alternative-fuel vehicles (U.S.
Department of Energy, n.d.). Comparably, discussions concerning the
implementation of a carbon tax have become more prevalent among
policy makers around the world. A carbon tax is a fee on fossil fuel
use or production based on how much carbon these processes emit; in
effect, a carbon tax is a tax on electricity, natural gas, or oil. By
making ‘‘dirty’’ fuels more expensive and alternative energy sources
more cost competitive, a carbon tax is intended to encourage busi-
nesses, as well as individuals, to become ‘‘cleaner’’ consumers
(Dowdey, 2007). Yet these same consumers may quickly adapt to
these price changes; over time, punishers like the carbon tax might
become ever more bearable, requiring ever increasing price changes
to maintain greener behaviors over the long term (Low & Heinen,
1993). It may thus be important to implement a strategy wherein
people are required to make a commitment to efficient goods and
practices in advance (Keren & Roelofsma, 1995). Under such cir-
cumstances they will often choose the larger, longer term benefit over
a smaller, more immediate reward (i.e., ‘‘self-control,’’ Rachlin, 1991;
see also McKenzie-Mohr & Smith, 1999, regarding the role of com-
mitting to proenvironmental behaviors).
In general, financial incentives are limited in efficacy and can
undermine intrinsic motives such as relationships, community
membership, and personal growth that are more sustainable over the
long term (Crompton & Kasser, 2010; Kasser & Ryan, 1996; Power &
Mont, 2010). It is thus unlikely that governmental regulation alone
will be effective in enacting lasting and mainstream proenviron-
mental behaviors. Rather, to effectively make human behaviors more
sustainable, it is necessary for all ‘‘sustainability science players’’ (i.e.,
climate scientists, economists, technologists, climate modelers, pol-
icy makers, and psychologists) to work collaboratively (Gifford,
Equally if not more important than this collective effort of
scientists and professionals is the sound engagement of citizens in
local sustainability movements. In fact, the most progress in ad-
dressing climate change and related risks will probably need to occur
at the level of the individual (Clayton & Brook, 2005; Gifford, 2008;
Koger & Winter, 2010). Although financial incentives such as rebates
can help motivate energy efficient construction and appliance
purchases, social reinforcers (such as those communicated by so-
cial norms) are perhaps even more powerful (e.g., Stern, 1992).
Community-based projects to install wind-power (Nevin, 2010) and
collaborations between friends and neighbors to research and pur-
chase solar panels (Neuringer & Oleson, 2010) reflect the power of
social engagement to inspire and foster the maintenance of proen-
As previously described, one of the current challenges is that
people often do not engage in behavior change unless they view a risk
as personally relevant. Yet, if people feel a deep connection to places,
wilderness, and other species, then threats to these others are much
more likely to be viewed as personal issues (Besthorn, 2001; Mayer &
Frantz, 2004). In essence, we care for what we love. Positive
KOGER ET AL.
230 ECOPSYCHOLOGY DECEMBER 2011
experiences in nature foster stronger personal investment in envi-
ronmental issues, especially when those experiences occur during
one’s childhood (Chawla, 1998; Palmer, 1993). This connection to
and appreciation for the natural environment and concern for its
health is an essential part of developing an ecological identity
(Clayton, 2003; Clayton & Myers, 2009).
Communicating the public health benefits of experiencing and
preserving nature may also be an important solution approach to
combating psychological barriers to climate change and other en-
vironmental health risks (reviewed in Koger & Winter, 2010). While
experiences in nature foster personal investment in environmental
health and stewardship, they also promote physical, emotional, and
spiritual health (e.g., Frumkin, 2001; Maller et al., 2006; Miles, 1987).
Natural environments possess restorative properties for attention and
fatigue (Kaplan, 1995), alleviate stress and its adverse consequences
(e.g., Cooper Marcus & Barnes, 1999; Frumkin, 2001, 2003; Ulrich,
1999), and wilderness therapy represents a successful means of
providing mental health counseling for at-risk youth (e.g., Hill, 2007;
Werhan & Groff, 2005). ‘‘Green exercise,’’ even for short durations,
has a beneficial effect on mood and self-esteem, especially in indi-
viduals suffering from mental illness (Barton & Pretty, 2010). Com-
parably, many planet-friendly behaviors are also beneficial to one’s
mental and physical health: for instance, walking or biking instead of
driving; eating fewer animal-based products; buying local, fresh
produce; spending time in nature; and engaging in community-
based restoration projects rather than participating in the consumer
culture. Such choices also confer economic benefits to the individual,
either directly (spending less money on gas for one’s car and material
purchases) or indirectly (reduced health care costs; e.g., Macera,
Addressing global climate change and fostering overall environ-
mental stewardship is becoming a focus of some mainstream and
alternative educational institutions (Curry et al., 2002; Tudor &
Dvornich, 2001), business and industry (Dechant & Altman, 1994;
Hart & Milstein, 2003), and local community efforts. Many colleges
and universities that are now requiring courses on environmental
literacy, social responsibility, and sustainability report that upon
completion of these courses, students are less apathetic, care more
about future societies, are more willing to engage in social and en-
vironmental problem solving, and feel more capable of making a
positive impact (Rowe, 2002). On a community-wide level, some
cities have begun utilizing high-albedo roofs and surfaces on
buildings, as well as increasing urban vegetation as a means of
cooling and reducing energy use (and therefore CO
local community ‘‘heat islands’’ (Akbari et al., 2001).
Moral, ethical, religious, and altruistic appeals may also serve as
important solution approaches to environmental behavior change on
their own, as well as by influencing environmental identity, stew-
ardship, and a personal connection to nature (Moore & Nelson, 2010).
The Catholic Coalition on Climate Change (2006), the Unitarian
Universalist Association of Congregations (2006), and other faith-
based groups encourage consideration of the moral implications of
climate change and constructive action to mitigate its impacts.
Surveys from over 150 Georgian Presbyterian churches revealed that
the vast majority of ministers supported environmental stewardship
(over ‘‘domination of nature’’), and their personal proenvironmental
behaviors had a significant influence on the behaviors and beliefs of
the members of their congregation (Holland & Carter, 2005). Such
‘‘liberal’’ religion and the sanctification of nature (as opposed to
‘‘theological conservativism’’) encourage both leaders and followers
to become more ethically involved in environmental issues and adopt
more proenvironmental behaviors (Beyer, 2004; Tarakeshwar et al.,
It is clearly an understatement to say that confronting the chal-
lenges posed by climate change is a highly stressful proposition; it is
considered a ‘‘wicked problem’’ in its complexity and resistance to
resolution (e.g., Australian Public Service Commission, 2007), and
interdisciplinary collaborations are urgently needed (Smith et al.,
2009; Swim et al., 2011a). However, given the wide-ranging and
adverse consequences expected to undermine both human and
planetary health, it is critical that we begin recognizing and over-
coming the psychological obstacles to immediate and global human
Reframing how climate change is communicated to the public as
well as policy makers is a critical first step. Fortunately, think tanks
are emerging to focus attention on effective communication ap-
proaches, for example, the Center for Climate Change Communication
at George Mason University (www.climatechangecommunication.
org/), the Climate Communication project of the Aspen Global Change
Institute (http://climatecommunication.org/), the Center for Research
on Environmental Decisions at Columbia University (http://cred
.columbia.edu/), and the Yale Project on Climate Change Commu-
nication (http://environment.yale.edu/climate/) (see also Moser &
Second, both individual and social barriers to change must be
addressed, particularly to the extent that they reflect denial of one’s
own contributions and responsibility, or the possibility of effecting
change at an individual level (Lorenzoni et al., 2007). Coincidentally,
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ªMARY ANN LIEBERT, INC. VOL. 3 NO. 4 DECEMBER 2011 ECOPSYCHOLOGY 231
developing solutions to climate change and other ‘‘environmental’’
problems can concomitantly reduce personal experiences of stress
and its adverse health impacts (Homburg & Stolberg, 2006). Civic
engagement and proenvironmental behaviors also promote a sense of
empowerment and optimism, and provide more opportunities for
social connections, thereby reducing adverse physical and mental
health impacts while mitigating the threat of global climate change
(reviewed in Doherty & Clayton, 2011).
Clearly, many questions remain in the search for identifying the
most effective strategies and solution approaches for addressing the
issue of climate change (e.g., Doherty & Clayton, 2011; Stern, 2011).
Our hope, however, is that this review empowers readers to act in
order to curb the threats associated with a changing climate.
The authors are very grateful for the comments and suggestions
from two anonymous reviewers.
Author Disclosure Statement
No competing financial interests exist.
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Address correspondence to:
Dr. Susan Koger
Department of Psychology
900 State Street
Salem, OR 97301
Received: September 8, 2011
Accepted: November 29, 2011
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