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SPSSI Policy Statement:
SPSSI and Global Climate Change

Authors: Janet Swim, Susan Clayton


The expertise of SPSSI members provides an important perspective on global climate change. SPSSI members who focus on topics such as health psychology, program evaluation, immigration, intergroup relations, predictors of support for public policies, and behavioral interventions can utilize their knowledge to assist in attempts to mitigate climate change or its effects.  With this statement, we hope to inform and remind groups such as funding agencies, policy makers, and activist groups, as well as SPSSI members, of the contribution that SPSSI and its members can make to this topic, and to encourage initiatives that will promote and publicize these contributions. 

SPSSI and Global Climate Change

The Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues (SPSSI) has long promoted psychological research that is relevant to social issues and the Society is well known for its focus on the application of research to address and ameliorate social problems. The purpose of the present statement is to bring attention to the contributions that SPSSI and its members can make to understanding the connections between psychology and climate change and to initiate dialogue and encourage collaborative efforts to address this social and ecological issue.  By doing so, we hope to encourage funding agencies to promote and develop connections between psychological expertise and climate change, encourage SPSSI and its members to see the connection between their research and climate change, and encourage SPSSI, its members, and others from a variety of fields to develop collaborative work on this increasingly important topic. 

In addressing social problems, SPSSI has always transcended national boundaries to focus on issues of global significance. Climate change is arguably the current issue that will have the greatest impact on people across the globe. The physical characteristics of climate change are  defined in terms of changes in means and variability of, for instance, temperature, precipitation, and wind over the course of an extended period of time (decades or longer; Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [IPCC], 2007). However, it is important to recognize that the impacts of climate change extend beyond these physical changes.  Climate change also involves, for instance, imbalances in ecosystems, threats to public health, alterations to community structures, and impairment of individual psychological well-being (Doherty & Clayton, 2010; Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [IPCC], 2001;  Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (2005; WHO | Climate change and human health,” 2010). There are also interrelations among these consequences (Swim et al., 2009).  These impacts then evoke individual, social, and policy responses.  SPSSI’s core interests in poverty, prejudice, and peace and the application of its work to public policy are extremely pertinent to understanding psychological, behavioral, and social responses to the vast array of ecological and human impacts of climate change. 

Psychological and social impacts of global climate change.

Although policymakers and the general public increasingly recognize that psychology is relevant to climate change, this recognition is often limited to what psychologists have to say about denial of climate change, environmentally destructive behaviors, and attempts to change human behavior. Less well appreciated, perhaps, are the implications that climate change has for psychological functioning and well-being, and intergroup relations. In addition, psychological responses such as assessments of justice, attributions of responsibility, and fears about one’s own vulnerability and status, will likely impact reactions to climate change policies.

Global climate change is projected to have a wide range of effects on human populations. Direct impacts may include extreme weather events, depletion of food and water, and exposure to vector-borne diseases.  There are also direct psychological and social impacts, for instance, stress and anxiety from concern about current and projected environmental changes and trauma experienced after extreme weather events, which could include shock or denial immediately after the event or flashbacks or strains in relationships years later (Doherty & Clayton, 2010; APA, 2010)

Second-order impacts may follow due to repercussions of efforts directed at mitigation (attempts to reduce the amount of change) and adaptation (attempts to adjust to change). These impacts include effects on community structure and stability and intergroup relations.  For instance, mitigation may involve restrictions on energy use, with consequent perceived decline in standard of living. As part of adaptation, insufficient water available to sustain a local population can result in local cultures changing or even leaving their traditional homeland, in a process called ecomigration (Reuveny, 2007). At the individual level, the disruption to place attachment may have profound though subtle effects on mental health (Fullilove, 1996). Moreover, these displaced communities may not be welcomed by the inhabitants of the areas they move to, as competition over environmental resources and clashes in cultural traditions lead to intergroup tension and possible conflict.

The impacts on humans will be not uniform.  The most vulnerable individuals and families will be those without social and financial resources to withstand climate change impacts; that is, the poorest and those who are socially marginalized, including women, the elderly, and certain racial and ethnic groups.  Internationally, the poorest countries will be some of the hardest hit, due in part to their lack of resources to prepare for and cope with emerging changes.  Their attempts to cope and efforts to help them cope will impact other countries. Variability in impacts will be apparent within countries as well, including within the United States.  As an example of the impacts of projected increases in extreme weather, the immediate and current differential impacts of Hurricane Katrina on African Americans as compared to White Americans illustrate this.  The differential exposure to impacts highlights social justice concerns.  Awareness of the intergroup disparities in impacts, particularly when coupled with the differences in responsibilities for climate change, may also exacerbate hostility between nations and between ethnic groups (Agyeman, Bullard, & Evans, 2003). 

Relevance of expertise within SPSSI

Attempts to address climate change need to attend to cognitive, affective, behavioral, and social processes and impacts in order to fully comprehend the variety of ways that humans understand climate change, to address the causes, and to arrive at an effective response to our environmental crises.   If policy makers do not attend to these psychological and social processes, they and their resultant policies may overlook or misconstrue social dynamics necessary for ameliorating the problems.  SPSSI members have expertise and skills that can help them be effective members of teams that address climate change.

 Programs and policies designed to address human and psychological impacts of climate change can be improved by including psychological expertise.  Members of SPSSI have expertise that will aid in these efforts.  Psychologists can help define and measure the psychological and social impacts of climate change.  Psychologists with expertise on trauma and various types of stressors can help design programs that assist individuals cope with the effects of climate change (e.g., Monat, Lazarus, & Reevy, 2007). Psychologists can help improve the presentation of information to avoid unproductive emotional responses, such as reactance (, retrieved December 21, 2009). 

Members of SPSSI have expertise in intergroup relations that can be of assistance when considering effects on communities, willingness of the public to help the vulnerable, and understanding how to assist with consequences from ecomigration.  Understanding intergroup relations includes understanding how to construct contexts to improve the quality of intergroup contact.  For instance, there will likely be a need for more integration in school settings as a result of ecomigration.  Psychological research indicates that cooperative learning programs can be useful for improving academic performance and developing better intergroup relations (, retrieved 12-21-2009).  In addition, members of SPSSI are knowledgeable about many different forms of prejudice and discrimination against a number of different groups (e.g., Nelson, 2009).  Knowledge about these prejudices, when and how they emerge in intergroup settings, and how to eliminate or reduce their impact can be of great importance. 

Policy efforts will need public support but different constituents will likely have different responses to these policies.   Lack of support for policies will likely emerge when constituents believe the policies are irrelevant to them.  Many people, for example, believe that the impacts of climate change are something that will happen to other people and at a later time (Gifford, et al., 2009).  This tendency to feel insulated is true across the globe and potentially reflects both cognitive and motivational biases in processing information.  Lack of support for policies can also emerge when policies are perceived to threaten oneself or groups with whom they identify.  For instance, responses to policies in other areas suggest that certain individuals will react against policies that they believe threaten the status quo.  Resistance will happen when they perceive the status quo to be fair and the status quo allows them and their groups to maintain a higher status (Napier, Mandisodza, Andersen, & Jost, 2006; Rabinowitz, 1999).  Research examining ideologies and environmental issues and policies suggest that this research would apply to the domain of climate change.  For example, those who endorse system justifying beliefs that indicate the value of the status quo are less likely to prioritize economic development over environmental protection (Feygina, Goldsmith & Jost, in press) and those who are high in social dominance orientation tend to be less supportive of pro-environmental policies (Clayton, 2008; Pratto, Sidanius, Stallworth, & Malle, 1994).  These types of beliefs would likely influence perceptions and reactions to unequal distribution of harms across social groups and groups’ contributions to climate change, setting target levels for greenhouse gas concentrations, acceptability of different degrees of risk, and other climate change relevant ethical issues (Brown et al., 2010).  Further, emotional defenses may lead people to support the status quo rather than adjusting to the changes in policy that are necessary to cope with climate change (Vess & Arndt, 2008). 

Policy support can also vary due to cultural background, which influences perceptions of what is fair.   For instance, those from individualistic cultures, which value self-reliance and individualism, are likely to view personal responsibility for one’s condition as central to whether to allocate assistance to someone.  In contrast, those from collectivistic societies, that value in-group harmony and fulfilling social norms and duties, are more likely to view an individual’s contribution to society as central to this decision (Mullen & Skitka, 2009).   Attempts to implement policies need to be conscious of the way in which they fit within the existing social structure and individuals reactions based upon their place in social structures and world views.
The apparent inevitability of climate change suggests that attention to impacts and adaptation is needed. Yet, it is also important to consider what psychology has to say about attempts to mitigate climate change, for example, by reducing the level of carbon emissions. Human behavioral changes now can still make a big difference in the amount of climate change that we experience (e.g., Dietz, Gardner, Gilligan, Stern, & Vandenbergh, 2009). Psychologists have decades of experience in creating behavior change that can be applied in this context (for reviews see, Abrahamse, Steg, Vlek, & Rothengatter, 2005;  Crompton, 2008; Crompton & Kasser, 2009; Darnton, 2009; Stern, 2010; Van Vugt, 2009; Zelezny, 1999).  This includes understanding when and how to manipulate external factors, such as prompts, feedback and incentives. Research suggests that all of these can be effective, within limits (Clayton & Myers, 2009). 

Psychology can be particularly useful in understanding the ways in which environmentally significant behavior is subject to more subtle influences; the way reactance, for example, can lead a heavy-handed intervention to backfire, or the way a public service announcement can inadvertently establish an environmentally destructive social norm (Cialdini, 2003). Recently, social norms have been very effectively utilized to encourage more sustainable behavior (e.g., Nolan et al., 2008).  Internal factors such as perceived efficacy, perceived responsibility, and values are key determinants of the ways in which people use or protect environmental resources. Increasingly, social psychologists are examining the relevance of abstract constructs like identity and consumerism to environmental behavior (e.g., Crompton & Kasser, 2009).   More needs to be done to experimentally test the application of general principles of pro-environmental behavioral change to the specific domain of climate change and to understand how to potentially adjust or adapt basic strategies to specific communities which could potentially, for instance, have different prescriptive and descriptive norms for ecologically relevant behaviors (Ecblad, 1996).   Psychologists, who understand the complex personal, social, and cultural influences on individual behavior and the limitations on human rationality, are needed to join teams of others in designing effective behavioral change approaches.


SPSSI has a history of attention to environmental issues, with a number of special issues of the Journal of Social Issues devoted to the topic, and key papers appearing in the newer Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy. In this way, SPSSI has anticipated the current awareness of the importance of the psychological aspects of environmental problems, including psychological and social consequences as well as the psychological and social influences that contribute to unsustainable behavior (see Clayton & Myers, 2009; Swim et al., 2009).  More can usefully be done by expanding programs of research to address climate change, involving more SPSSI members in the topic, and working collaboratively with researchers in other fields and with policy makers.

Therefore, be it resolved that SPSSI:

1. Encourages funding agencies to support research and applied work by social scientists addressed toward understanding psychological and social impacts of global climate change and ways to effectively develop adaptation and mitigation strategies.

2.   Encourages public and private organizations working on responses to global climate change to solicit assistance from psychological experts.

3.    Calls attention to the psychological and social implications of the direct and indirect impacts of global climate change, with particular concern for those who are most vulnerable and least resilient to these impacts.

4.    Calls upon its members to utilize their expertise and become more fully involved in, and provide greater assistance to, those addressing impacts of, human contributions to, and attempts to mitigate global climate change.

This statement is intended to represent the members of the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues, Division 9 of the American Psychological Association. It does not necessarily represent the American Psychological Association as a whole or any of its other subsidiary groups.

Author order was determined by the flip of a coin.