Things are heating up—literally. Over the past 40 years, the earth’s climate has warmed. In the contiguous United States, 2012 was the warmest year on record (dating back to 1895). While seemingly small, this upward trend brings with it potential for large-scale social and environmental disruption. A changing climate means more severe weather events, like massive hurricanes, drought, and heat waves. It also means disruption to regional habitats, a rising sea level due to melting polar icecaps, and a host of other impacts. 

Importantly, we are to blame for the rising temperatures and changing climate. The largest contributor to climate change is carbon emissions (CO2), which accumulate in the atmosphere and create a heat-trapping blanket around the earth. This carbon comes from many sources, but primarily from burning fossil fuels like coal and gas to make electricity or power our cars.

Fortunately, we can do something. On the one hand, we will need to adapt. While projections for the severity of the effects vary widely, climate scientists widely agree that change is coming and we need to prepare. Locally, we can anticipate accelerated coastal erosion resulting from a rising ocean; less coastal fog; more frequent Santa Ana winds; more severe fire seasons; and reduced availability (and increased cost) for fresh water; among other effects.

In addition to preparing for the change, we can also take major steps toward preventing it. This can happen by encouraging, incenting, requiring, or otherwise cajoling individuals to reduce their carbon emissions. This is the focus of my research (encouraging, not cajoling). At CSUSM, my students and I have conducted numerous studies in which we identify critical psychological barriers that can prevent a behavioral response, and then experimentally study ways to encourage change.

Three of these barriers are centered on social norms, connectedness with nature and cognitive bias.

Social Norms: Humans are social animals, and we use the behavior of others as a guide for interpreting events or choosing a course of action. Indeed, there is strong pressure to conform to the norms of our local context. But in many instances, environmental behavior is at odds with past practice. The environmental choice is often new, unusual, or deviant. Here in San Marcos, riding a bike to work might seem out of place, as would removing the small grass patch in front of our homes. But such behaviors can have an extremely positive environmental impact.

As part of a grant from the National Science Foundation, I am collaborating with Dr. Mica Estrada (research faculty at CSUSM), Joey Schmitt (a graduate student in our Master’s program), Baylee Moore (also a graduate student in our MA program), and several undergraduate psychology majors to explore how social norms influence conservation decisions. One of our experiments involves providing North County residents with feedback about the amount of electricity they consume in their homes, compared to the norm of their community. The first study is currently underway, in partnership with San Diego Gas and Electric.

Connectedness with Nature: For many people, the 21st century lifestyle is devoid of nature. We move from our homes, through our garages, into our cars, to an indoor workplace, and home again. In fact, children today spend far less time outside than they did just 50 years ago (often as little as a few minutes each day). This lifestyle is associated with less knowledge about nature and less connectedness with nature—both of which have been found to inhibit conservation behavior.

Cognitive Bias: Ask yourself, how serious are environmental problems? Take the issue of climate change. On a scale from 0 – 10, how serious are the consequences in the San Diego region? And what about nationally, how serious are the consequences of climate change. And finally, how about globally? In our research, we consistently find a bias toward perceiving environmental problems as worse elsewhere than locally. And in cross-cultural studies, we find that this bias is ubiquitous. Even in places where environmental problems are readily apparent (e.g., China or Pakistan), individuals perceive that it is worse elsewhere. This bias mean that environmental problems are viewed as distant, and not personally relevant—and as a result, they are seen as less critical, compared to more salient problems like traffic congestion or the price of gasoline.

Environmental problems like climate change are real and they pose a substantial threat to the quality of life on this planet. These problems are the direct result of human behavior, and any solution will require that humans do things differently. Research by social and behavioral scientists can play a critical role in identifying the barriers for pro-environmental behavior and thereby inform efforts to address these problems and promote a more sustainable future.

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Super STEM Saturday

Saturday, March 16 | 10 a.m. - 4 p.m.
Kicking off the San Diego Festival of Science and Engineering, CSUSM hosts Super STEM Saturday, an interactive festival for all ages featuring fun, hands-on demonstrations, scientist chats, eco tours, a lively Rubik's Cube competition, e-Recycling collection and more. This year's Super STEM Saturday will focus on sustainability in conjunction with the countywide Common Read of Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring." The event is free and open to the public, and is co-sponsored by The Classical Academy.

This guest editorial is part of a new monthly series showcasing the insight and expertise of CSUSM’s distinguished faculty.

Dr. Wesley Schultz is Professor of Psychology at CSUSM.
 
A renowned expert on conservation behavior and social marketing, Schultz’s extensive research has been widely published in leading national and international journals. His work has garnered over $7 million in grant support, including his latest $1.2 million sub-award, funded by the National Science Foundation, with fellow principal investigator and CSUSM faculty member, Dr. Mica Estrada. His work has been featured in numerous media outlets, including the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, National Public Radio and the BBC, among others.  

Schultz’s work involves the application of social psychological theory and methods to the understanding and solution of social problems. Since coming to CSUSM in 1997, he has conducted research on a range of topics, including recycling, littering, water and energy conservation, cross-cultural research on environmental attitudes, and most recently climate change. His most widely cited research focuses on social norms, and the role of role norms in fostering (or impeding) conservation behaviors.