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Contemplating Climate Change: What Motivates Individuals to Act?

This weekend marks the end of the first week of climate change discussions in Copenhagen, Denmark. Leaders from around the world have congregated to discuss their goals for lowering emissions and to pledge financial assistance for developing countries to adapt to the consequences of climate change. While national leaders are negotiating their commitments, what changes are possible at an individual level?

In a recent study, Frantz and Mayer apply a popular model of helping to the issue of climate change and hypothesize as to what motivates individuals to take action (or not). Their model outlines where change can be encouraged and where barriers to change often exist at the individual and organizational level. For example, their findings suggest that the sheer magnitude of the climate change problem — and the fact that the personal resources of individuals pale in comparison — is one of the factors that leads individuals to “engage in defensive attribution” and thus deflect responsibility. They go on to suggest ways of engaging individuals with nature as well as helping them see ways they can participate in collective actions that increase their overall sense of efficacy.

In short, climate change is a complex issue to address — one that will require the efforts of nations, organizations and individuals. Social psychology has much to offer activists and organizers who need to consider the ways in which individuals rationalize action and/or inaction.

Frantz and Mayer, 2009, The Emergency of Climate Change: Why Are We Failing to Take Action?

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