Attitude counts for the environment

- Tara Sharpe

Are you feeling pessimistic about the future of our global environment? Do you think twice about drinking that glass of water, let alone deciding if it looks half full or half empty? University of Victoria psychology and environmental studies professor Robert Gifford is convinced a good measure of optimism needs to be poured into the public discourse about climate change and action.

The recently announced Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions is a vote of confidence that UVic and BC’s other research-intensive universities can lead the way through some of the most critical questions of our time. Gifford’s research on public attitudes about the present and future state of the environment indicates that social scientists and psychologists must also play a key role.

“Decision makers must consider people’s attitudes about the environment,” says Gifford, “or otherwise risk pushing the public over the edge into helplessness and hopelessness.”

Gifford and two psychology master’s students—Leila Scannell and Christine Kormos—have just wrapped up a research project spanning 18 countries and involving 3,330 survey subjects. The survey’s 20 questions cover such topics as the effects of greenhouse gases; quality of air; availability of fresh drinking water; state of forests, wilderness, rivers and lakes; management of garbage, etc. University research associates in the 18 countries—from Australia and Brazil to Finland and India—helped collect the data.

Typically in most traditional North American attitude studies, respondents are overly optimistic about themselves and their abilities—particularly in comparison to others. For instance, someone might think “I will live 10 years longer than average” or “I am better at doing [whatever].” Overestimating one’s capabilities is common. However, when asked about themselves and the environment, survey respondents in this study were pronouncedly pessimistic.

These results demonstrate that empowering appeals are necessary. “Now is the time for social scientists to help find solutions to the many human problems caused by climate change, because together we can figure out how best to communicate crucial environmental messages and create successful policies,” says Gifford.

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Keywords: environment, climate change, water, research

People: Robert Gifford

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