The Climate Crisis: Interview with Social Psychologist Kelly Fielding

July 14, 2021

Kelly Fielding is a social and environmental psychologist and Professor in the School of Communication and Arts at The University of Queensland, Australia. Her research has included a focus on trying to understand climate change beliefs and identifying ways to address climate change skepticism and inaction. The interview took plce 7 July, 2021.

AA: What are your thoughts and feelings about the climate crisis?

KF: I feel a lot of despair. Part of me thinks I’m not supposed to feel that, because I have PhD students working in this area, for example I’ve got a PhD student working on eco-anxiety. Probably like most people who work in this space and really care about this issue, I experience a range of feelings. Those range from, yes we will make it happen to wanting to throw up my hands in the air. A lot of the research on emotions and climate change has focused on the role of hope and the role of fear, and anger and despair and frustration. I feel all of these things in relation to climate change. You know, one of my PhD students did a meta-analysis of all the recent media articles on eco-anxiety. It was interesting that the media articles mainly focus on children and young people. I think that’s because, as an adult, you’re probably better at compartmentalizing. You say to yourself, there is a scary thing over here, climate change, but meanwhile I need to get on with these other things. 

AA: You have done much to characterize the underlying attitudes, vested interests and ideologies that relate to skepticism about human-caused climate change. Is that work complete, or is there more to understand? 

KF: I don’t feel compelled to do more research on that. I think we should focus more on how we convince people to support action. We’ve got this window of time in which we need to make these serious and dramatic changes to our systems in order to prevent runaway climate change. The data are very clear in Australia – almost everybody believes that the climate is changing. So it comes down to do they think it’s anthropogenic or is it natural? About one third of Australians think it’s natural fluctuations. So where do we focus our time? Try to persuade those specific people? Or spend our time focusing on getting support for mitigation and adaptation? 

AA: But in Australia you still don’t have Federal climate policy right? Coal mining continues rampantly. So isn’t it key to get that one third? If they believed it was human-caused would that lead to a political shift or not?

KF: The climate policy landscape in Australia is incredibly complex and very frustrating and I’m not a policy expert. So I’m very much looking at it as a lay person in this space. The thing is that we are a fossil-fuel dependent economy. Our 25 nation survey study looking at the relationship between ideology and skepticism about climate change showed the US is an outlier. But Australia was up there too. And one explanation for that is the dependence on fossil fuels. Consider the UK – it’s much easier for them to talk about reducing emissions. They have a finance-based economy. But Australia has this huge dependence on fossil fuels. Another thing is that you have conservative politicians who genuinely do not believe in anthropogenic climate change. We’ve studied them with surveys, where they were guaranteed anonymity. But more importantly, you’ve got these marginal seats that represent coal-dependent communities. So what you’ve got within the political parties in Australia is these factions of politicians who don’t believe in climate change, whose political careers depend on being reelected by coal-dependent communities, and they are the ones who are really preventing progress on climate policy. 

About those rural coal-mining communities – I’ve been told anecdotally that if you go out and talk to people, then you shouldn’t mention climate change. If you leave that out, they will talk to you about what’s happening in their communities and what the future is, and that the writing is on the wall, coal is on the way out. But the moment you mention climate change, it becomes a very different kind of conversation.

AA: So how do you propose to communicate solutions to people in the rural areas and the wider population? 

KF: Of course, it would be a much easier sell to persuade people of the need for emissions reductions if they believe climate change is anthropogenic. But let me explain where I’m coming from when I say let’s focus on convincing people of the importance of solutions. A lot of those solutions, such as changing our energy systems, they’re pretty appealing across the board. The data this year show that almost 91% of Australians support government subsidies for the development of renewable energy. That’s huge. So, what some people would say is, don’t talk about climate change, try to frame solutions towards energy-independence, reducing air-pollution. This way you don’t get stuck back on the idea that everyone needs to agree that the climate is changing and humans are causing it. The problem with being stuck back at that stage is that you’re not addressing the critical point which is that we need policy right now that changes our energy systems. 

AA: You want to hasten the collapse of coal by making this other thing happen faster, and the way to do that is not to confront people on climate change beliefs, where it’s a hot-button polarized thing in coal-dependent communities, but frame it with the co-benefits of renewable energy?

 KF: Exactly. There’s less air pollution, it’s clean, people can have solar panels on their roofs and pay less for their electricity bill. There’s pretty much no opposition to renewable energy in Australia, as far as I can see. It’s pretty hard to get somebody to kind of go oh I don’t think renewable energy is a good idea. 

AA: I want to shift to the issue of how to increase the number of people who are engaged in collective action. Would you agree that one of the most important questions in social science now is understanding how to get more people engaged in that? 

 KT: Yes, definitely. But it’s not a simple problem. Most of the focus in social psychology has been on intentions, i.e. people’s intention to join action. And then there’s the much trickier issue of studying how they maintain their engagement. And for long-term activists, how do they contend with failure when most of the things they try to do don’t work. What enables them to stay in it? 

AA: I go backwards and forwards in my own mind about whether academic psychology can really elucidate this question of collective action on climate, or whether it’s more a topic of the skill of real-world organizers, such as earlier struggles around class, labor and justice were?

 KF: I hear you. The real world is messy. But if we want to understand something, we have to simplify it. And there will always be random factors that influence outcomes. But the positivist in me says that, for a social context, we can always identify specific factors that do matter.

AA: I’m thinking about an expert organizer for the climate group 350.org. She spends hours per day, for years, figuring out how to motivate volunteers, and fit them into the activist structure. She has huge psychological insight. But it’s not codified in the language of academic psychology. How can we know that our academic endeavor would provide useful insight over and above what someone like her knows to do?

KF: You have the great benefit of knowing someone who is really good at it. But I’ve been told that a lot of the activists don’t necessarily know the research or the evidence for what works or not and they are relying on what they’ve done before. I think our mandate should be translating what we know into a language that is useful for organizers and activists. For example, creating information and motivational videos. There are also examples from other areas of psychology. For example, academic research on social norms has been beautifully applied to encourage people to reduce household energy use – i.e. when people are given information about what their neighbors are doing.

AA: Most of the social psychology studies looking at collective action rely on surveys of attitudes and intentions, what people say they will do, without verifying their behavior. Of course it would be hard to do field studies, but not impossible. Why so few? 

 KF: I think it’s something about the disciplinary norms of our field. You can advance your career by not having to do those difficult field studies. They are expensive. You won’t publish as fast. But it is important. And there are fields where this is being done – for example the social norm work, going out and looking at what people actually do. Amongst other things, I do water-related research. And we can link survey results with people’s actual water use. We’ve worked with engineers to install water meters. You have to have the appetite to collaborate. You could think of experience-sampling studies, tracking where people go. Provided you can deal with the ethical issues.

AA: I want to ask about the wider engagement of our field of research. We’re facing a disruption to organized human existence, probably in our lifetimes. But I look around the major psychology departments in the United States and I can count on two hands the people who are focused on the climate and ecological crisis. Even the social psychologists.

KF: Part of it is that the social psychologists who focus on climate change start labeling themselves environmental psychologists, and go to different conferences. Many environmental psychologists are in Europe. There are far fewer in the US and Australia. The other thing is that psychologists are like most people – they don’t have a visceral feeling of climate change. It doesn’t seem quite real to them. You know, there is research showing that people have greater belief about climate change on really hot days. I think our brains haven’t developed to deal with something as big and long term as climate change. 

AA: But it seems like a colossal failure from a systems point of view. Here the science funding agencies are quite attuned to what is seen as human welfare. Researchers get multi-million dollar grants to look at the impact of exercise on aging and myriad other issues. Yet the system hasn’t allocated resources to look at the behavioral implications underpinning a disruption to organized human existence!

KF: It might be because people don’t think it’s going to come to pass, or they think that technology will save us. There is a huge amount of techno-optimism.

AA: I want to ask you about the kind of person, say a colleague of mine, who knows climate change is happening, that the impacts are bad and are going to get much worse. And he has young children. He’ll make minor changes, put solar panels on his roof, but he won’t advocate, he won’t spend the time with the grassroots. He’ll work on his career, care for his family, fly them to Hawaii for a vacation for a week. How is he able to, mentally, separate his knowledge that something so enormous is coming at us, from carrying on with everyday life and not responding to it? He doesn’t seem to experience eco-anxiety. What other psychological consequences are there? Doesn’t it seem irrational? 

KF: First, it sounds like he has low efficacy beliefs. He doesn’t believe he can make a difference. I also think we human beings are really good at compartmentalizing. We’re able to know something intellectually, but not feel it. It’s not visceral for him, what’s coming at him and his kids. You know what that feels like, when you embody something viscerally, you can’t ignore it? Maybe for him, it’s a set of risk perceptions just sitting cognitively in his head?

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AA: How can we make more people embody it?

KF: People are social creatures. We use the people around us to tell us what we should be worried about. People around us are going on their international holidays, sending their kids across the country, living in big houses, driving their cars. They’re not worried about it, so why should I be? The social cues are not there. We’re not getting them from the elites. The social cues are coming from, what might seem like to some, lone voices. If almost everyone was talking from the same hymn sheets, and if everyone was saying this stuff, and if the descriptive norms showed us that people were changing their lives, then it would be very difficult for us to ignore it. Your friend would be more likely to embody his risk perceptions viscerally.

AA: I think it’s a very important point. As you said, it relates to elite cues, and also to the cues of climate scientists themselves. Every time a major climate scientist jumps on an airplane and flies to an American Geophysical Union meeting he or she is being an ambassador of what not to do. We need people to instantiate in their own behavior, the social norms we need. Part of the discussions we had in my own (psychology) department about trying to reduce conference related flying, immediately ran into professors saying, it doesn’t matter what we do, our reducing a few flights doesn’t matter in the wider scheme, all those business people are taking the flights. People don’t seem to understand, and this is strange, since they are psychologists, that if we instantiate a social norm we will be doing something important. Someone has to get this rolling.

KF: Yes. Absolutely. And the Europeans are doing it. But it’s much easier for them. They can just take trains. If you’re in Australia, or where you are, and you want to go to an international conference, it’s hard.

AA: Would you agree that another huge factor is that to really start taking this seriously, to be a serious advocate for collective action, requires change in your own life? You can’t carry on with the high intensity carbon lifestyle. You have to be willing to curtail. And people’s resistance to do this is one of the main reasons why they take on beliefs and views that don’t require them to get there, such as their saying reducing flying doesn’t make a difference, or their saying that it’s pointless cutting emissions in the US when China now emits more overall?

KF: Absolutely. 

AA: Is extreme weather going to help?

KF: The data don’t show it. Including a major meta-analysis that we conducted. Think of the Australian Bush Fires of 2019. We were being called climate ground-zero for a while. It brought it to people’s minds, but only temporarily. There’s a part of me, the pessimistic part, that thinks we’re not going to get it together until these things are coming at us left and right, heat waves, bush fires, floods. And people will be like, this is it. We can’t ignore it. But it will be late in the day for mitigation.

AA: The proportion of people ringing the alarm bells is so miniscule. But this brings us back to the relevance of psychology. We need to understand how to get more people there right?

KF: Yes. Despite the rhetoric about too many doom and gloom messages, I think people aren’t worried enough. We probably don’t talk about it enough with our family, friends, and colleagues. We don’t want to depress people or get into a conflictual conversation. There is also research in Australia that people don’t feel confident enough that they have the information to have those conversations. But, my experience is that when we are in a crisis – a flood, a pandemic – that we rarely talk about anything else. It becomes the focus of our lives. Of course we need economic, political and other system change, but I think we have to also believe that we, individuals, have a role to play too, and to do whatever we can to address this looming climate crisis.  


Teaser photo credit: By Raginginsanity – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=85894101

Adam Aron

Adam Aron is a Professor of Psychology at the University of California. He has done research on cognitive neuroscience, and also, more recently the climate crisis. He teaches about the climate crisis and is also an activist/organizer.