Why We Feel the Way We Do About Climate Change and the Environment

One of the biggest challenges local leaders and policymakers face is understanding what’s most important to the majority of their diverse constituents and stakeholders. As reported by The Washington Post’s Chris Mooney, a number of recent studies help us to better understand why different people respond differently to issues concerning the environmental impacts of climate change. Interestingly, the research has found that “emotional empathy”, or a heightened sensitivity to the suffering of other people, drives pro-environmental attitudes, along with personality-based “openness” to experiencing new things in life, thinking abstractly, challenging the status quo, and changing one’s mind.

While these findings may reinforce stereotypes about “tree huggers”, they also suggest that peoples’ feelings (and thoughts) about environmental issues may simply be outside of conscious control. Likewise, “moral foundations” studies have examined how deep-seated values drive differences in peoples’ politics, finding that conservatives more favor concerns about loyalty and following authority, while liberals tend to more heavily emphasize “care/harm” values.

Ultimately, deeper insight into Americans’ attitudes and values enable us to more effectively communicate about climate change, helping us to put ourselves in our constituent’s shoes and connect local climate impacts (and solutions) to issues that matter most to them. Hopefully, we will find that good communication, like compassion, is infectious.

The surprising psychology behind why some people become environmentalists

By Chris MooneyWashington Post | March 19, 2015

The environment — and especially the subject of climate change — is one of the most polarizing topics in American politics. This fact is obvious and indisputable — but what is the root reason behind it?

Psychologists are beginning to probe that question using the tools of their trade — surveys, questionnaires and correlations. For instance, a study that we reported on here in January found that the personality trait “Openness to Experience” — wanting to try out new things and new experiences in life — was linked to green tendencies. And now, another paper has found another emotional and personality-based driver of environmental attitudes: namely, a heightened sensitivity to the suffering of other people.

The study, published recently in the journal Environment and Behavior, is by Stefan Pfattheicher of Ulm University in Germany and two colleagues. With a sample of over 2,000 individuals, including college students, along with citizens of the Netherlands, the researchers asked about people’s environmental behaviors and values but also a series of questions designed to measure “emotional empathy.” One example: an item in which individuals are asked how much they agree with the following statement: “It makes me sad to see a lonely stranger in a group.”

It may not seem immediately apparent why empathy for other humans translates into concern for the environment, where issues (like air pollution) often affect humans but other times focus on animals, plants or nature itself. Empathy for a tree and empathy for a person do not initially seem as though they would be the same thing.

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