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Introducing Climate Psychology: facing the climate crisis
Introducing Climate Psychology: facing the climate crisis

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4.1 Responsibilisation

Arguably, the history of psychology, as a discipline, has contributed to what is called ‘responsibilisation’, that is, the expectation that individuals become responsible for activities that previously would have been the responsibility of the state. When applied to greenhouse gas emissions, this means that instead of it being the responsibility of corporations and governments to change their activities and policies, individual behaviour is targeted. In the UK, a House of Lords Committee report (October 2022) was entitled In our Hands: Behaviour change for climate and environmental goals. In its summary, the report says ‘we have identified that 32% of emissions reductions up to 2035 require decision by individuals and households …’. But if, for example, we resolve not to fly and then read of numerous aeroplanes flying empty to preserve airlines’ slots at airports, we may well feel frustration and despair at corporate and government policies that enable such destructive and dysfunctional waste.

Fossil fuel companies have an interest in promoting the emphasis on individual behaviour change: it makes it easier to continue business as usual and protects their profits. For example, guess who created the first carbon footprint calculator? British Petroleum, one of the largest oil companies in the world. If this seems surprising (why would a fossil fuel company want us to be concerned about high carbon footprints?), the answer requires a look at the discipline of psychology.

Psychology is a relatively new discipline, emerging from being a branch of philosophy in the late nineteenth century. Traditionally it has been defined as ‘the science of the individual’ and has influenced (and been influenced by) the idea that the human individual is master of his world; he is a rational agent, autonomous, separate from the rest. For traditional psychology, then, the idea that the responsibility lies with individuals to change their consumer behaviour has largely been unquestioned.

You might notice that the words ‘master’ and ‘he’ were used in the previous paragraph. This is because it was white European men that developed the roots of traditional psychology. This is beginning to change, with recognition of the powerful shaping interests from external forces, such as shareholder interests, fossil fuel lobbying and disinformation, as well as the habits that shape people’s lives (Adams, 2021).

This course takes into account the social drivers of consumption, notably the structures and technologies, language and culture that incite people, for example to want what they don’t need. These interact with the psychological processes that inhibit and facilitate change, which in their turn affect the social factors. Climate Psychology in this treatment is psycho-social, which means it looks at the relation between the social structures and how they shape and are shaped by people. Such an account enables the conclusion that it is not either/or individual or social change that needs to happen, but that both are necessary and that there are continuous interactions between them.