Environmental Psychology – Why we understand global warming, but still do nothing – Knowledge


What has to happen for us to really act in a more environmentally friendly way? An environmental psychologist gives tips.

Over the next two weeks, the member states of the Paris climate agreement in Glasgow will rack their brains over how to meet the 2-degree target that was adopted in Paris in 2015. Several analyzes are already showing that the world will warm up by 2.7 degrees by 2100, despite the climate plans.

We all know that it is high time to change our lives. Why can’t we make it? Environmental psychologist and climate researcher Gerhard Reese explains.

Gerald Reese

environmental psychologist

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Gerhard Reese is an environmental psychologist and climate researcher at the University of Koblenz-Landau and heads the “People and the Environment: Psychology, Communication, Economics” course.

SRF: Mr. Reese, what do you think is the better tactic: reward climate-friendly behavior or punish climate-damaging behavior?

Gerhard Reese: For some people it can be very motivating to be rewarded for climate-friendly behavior. It doesn’t have to be monetary: if people who come to the company by bike get an extra day of vacation, that can definitely help.

At the same time, I am convinced that prohibitions help to change behavior. Let’s take smoker protection: since 2010, there has been a ban on smoking in closed rooms throughout Switzerland. It would not have gotten this far without a law. I don’t think we will be able to avoid such bans when it comes to climate protection either.

The Paris Agreement has three objectives:

  • States have set themselves the global goal of limiting global warming to “well below” two degrees Celsius compared to the pre-industrial era, with efforts to limit it to 1.5 degrees Celsius.
  • The ability of states to adapt to climate change is to be strengthened and is to be established as an equal goal alongside the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.
  • The financial flows should be brought into line with the climate targets.

Which ones are you thinking of specifically? Flying from A to B in countries like Germany or Switzerland is absurd. A ban on domestic flights would affect few people, but it would be symbolic. Everyday mobility also needs restrictions.

It must become uncomfortable and tiring to drive a car.

It will probably be difficult to ban SUV owners from driving. The question you should ask yourself is: why do people drive SUVs at all? Because they get the message from the industry that they need such cars. Restricting advertising would therefore be a priority. SUVs also often appear aggressive. They give drivers the feeling of being able to get others out of the way. Many also feel safer in it. If more and more people drive such a car, it leads to a self-reinforcing cycle. In other words: an even fatter vehicle is needed.

How do we stop this? One solution would be: shorten the roads, massively reduce parking spaces and introduce speed limits. It must be absolutely uncomfortable and exhausting to drive a car – coupled with public transport that works.

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A line full of cars


Fewer parking spaces and narrower streets – driving has to become uncomfortable for us to change something.


Actually, it’s doable to take the S-Bahn instead of the car or to do without meat. Why do we find even the smallest sacrifice so difficult? One of the reasons for this is that we are trapped in social norms. If I grew up eating meat every day, it would take a massive life change to break that routine.

The mechanisms of our inaction

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  • From the perspective of climate psychology, the climate crisis evokes deep feelings in us such as fear, guilt, despair and shame. Because constantly dealing with it is very, very uncomfortable for us, we banish it from our consciousness.
  • Defense mechanisms help us with this. One example is dissociation, “double-entry bookkeeping”: when we dissociate, we justify our long-haul flight by saying that we do not eat meat.
  • According to a study by Berlin environmental psychologists, projection is another mechanism: We assume environmentally harmful behavior in others in order to feel better about ourselves. Many accuse Generation Z of being consumer-driven and wanting to travel – and thus undermine the credibility of Fridays for Future.
  • The fact that the coffee-to-go cup and our car have a direct effect on the climate is too abstract for us, because we don’t have the consequences in mind now – but only in the supposedly “distant future”.

When you say it like that, it sounds exhausting. Yes, it’s a cognitive effort. Changing behavior is exhausting because it takes time and I have to do it again and again. It is seldom that well-established routines change from one day to the next. Smokers know that very well.

There is a risk of lung cancer in smokers. So do we need more extreme weather events? The negative answer is yes. What would be better is a policy that conveys the urgency to the population much better. We also need to talk more about the fact that the climate crisis is also an opportunity. We need to show how great it could be to live in cities where parking lots become parks, vegetables grow and the air is clean.

Tips on how we can finally take action

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  • Set implementation intentions: In concrete terms, this means that I intend to do something different from day X. The “big points” at the individual level are vegetarian diet, not having your own car, flying behavior and heating. I put my signature under this project.
  • Have the “Plan B” ready: I also write down what I do if things go wrong on the day – what an alternative that I can still implement could look like.
  • Get others on board: It works best when I do it with a few people. The more official setting allows for greater commitment.
  • Become aware of the collective effectiveness: Alone, the thought quickly comes up: What is the point of my commitment? When it comes to climate protection, we cannot satisfy the feeling of self-efficacy, so we do not have the impression that we are really achieving our goal. Our motivation drops. We must therefore get away from the claim of having to see my contribution. In other words: don’t give up because my avoidance of plastic and meat hasn’t stopped the temperature rise yet. It is better to want to achieve the goal as a society, as a community, as a neighborhood.

Gina Buhl conducted the interview.

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