APA & Climate Change: What psychology can do

I sat down Monday morning to write this week’s blog post. I was intent upon writing about American Psychological Association’s (APA) recent report on climate change and what the psychology community can do about it. I had previously glanced at the executive summary of the report and was excited to learn what the entire report recommended. Unfortunately, I must have been a bit too tired when I started out in my reading. I was only on page three when my eyes glazed over.

I do have a history with APA; I have been a member for 30 years. I joined as soon as I was eligible after completing my Ph.D. In the early 1990’s I served on two different committees within APA—the Public Information Committee and the Committee for the Advancement of Professional Practice. I have read more than my share of scholarly papers and APA organizational documents. Since retiring from the practice of psychology in 1993 and moving to full-time involvement in the business of psychology billing and clinical record software, I have become more removed from scholarly work and more involved in the action orientation of the business world.

Psychology and Global Climate Change: Addressing a Multi-faceted Phenomenon and Set of Challenges, while perhaps intended to be a call to action, is actually a carefully written and documented organizational treatise on the psychological phenomena involved in this crisis, the psychological research and knowledge which are applicable to these events, and recommendations for the role APA as an organization and psychologists as professionals and individuals can and should play as this crisis unfolds. It is what I should have expected, but not what I hoped it would be.

In order to make this document useful, I believe it needs to be broken down into parts and digested in that fashion. Accordingly, over the next few months, I am going to take each section of the report and tell you about what is in that section. I hope this will have the result of helping us glean the recommendations of the APA and determining what constructive actions individual mental health professionals and behavioral health community organizations can take.

The APA Climate Change Task Force considered six questions:

  1. How do people understand the risks imposed by climate change?
  2. What are the human behavioral contributions to climate change and the psychological and contextual drivers of these contributions?
  3. What are the psychosocial impacts of climate change?
  4. How do people adapt to and cope with the perceived threat and unfolding impacts of climate change?
  5. Which psychological barriers limit climate change action?
  6. How can psychologists assist in limiting climate change?

In examining these questions, they reviewed the psychological literature to focus areas in which additional research might be useful and in which current data might enhance the work of climate scientists.  By way of this report, the task force attempted to create bridges between the climate science community and the psychological community.

It is also clear from these questions that the authors were considerably concerned about what the psychosocial effects of climate change might be. Since those of us who work with individuals, families and communities about various emotional and behavioral health concerns will undoubtedly need to address these impacts, it behooves us to be prepared…at least with knowledge.

Finally, the task force recommended that specialists in behavioral and psychological research adopt the following principles in an attempt to maximize the value and use of psychological principles in climate change work:

  1. Use the shared language and concepts of the climate research community where possible and explain differences in use of language between psychology and this community.
  2. Make connections to research and concepts from other social, engineering, and natural science fields.
  3. Present psychological insights in terms of missing pieces in climate change analysis.
  4. Present the contributions of psychology in relation [to] important challenges to climate change and climate response.
  5. Prioritize issues and behaviors recognized as important climate changes causes, consequences, or responses. 
  6. Be cognizant of the possibility that psychological phenomena are context dependent.
  7. Be explicit about whether psychological principles and best practices have been established in climate-relevant contexts.
  8. Be mindful of social disparities and ethical and justice issues that interface with climate change.

If climate change continues and has even some of the potential impacts that are predicted, mental health and behavioral specialists will be deluged with people caught in and reacting to those impacts. What can you and your organization do to prepare for addressing the fallout of some of these impacts? What would be the result of a Katrina-equivalent in your community? What knowledge and expertise do you need to gain?

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