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The Psychological Triumph of the Paris Talks


By Susan Clayton

We typically think of climate change as an environmental problem. But it can be just as accurately, and usefully, considered to be a social problem.  Not only are the consequences important to society, but the causes, also, are embedded in human behavior, economic systems and social infrastructure. Perhaps more importantly, the reasons we haven’t done more to address climate change are entirely due to human factors: perceptual biases, emotional resistance and political barriers.

This is why I’m optimistic about the agreement that was reached in Paris.  True, it’s not enough. The commitment for rich nations to provide financial aid to help developing nations is vague, and the enforcement mechanism is weak.

And yet, with the Paris agreement, the participating countries agreed to participate in this struggle to address climate change. Yes, some people are not on board, but most countries were represented, especially the ones that matter most by virtue of political influence, financial leverage and carbon emissions. That demonstrates two important human accomplishments:  consensus that there is a problem and cooperation to accomplish a shared goal.


Consensus is important. A widely recognized phenomenon in social psychology, “pluralistic ignorance,” refers to a situation in which everyone thinks that everyone else knows what is happening, but no one really does. When we confront a situation that seems like a crisis, we look to other people for guidance about what is going on and how we should respond. But because we’re all looking at each other, none of us is taking action.

In a series of experiments, researchers have shown that the presence of others can prevent people from helping when faced with an emergency. This is in part because everyone thinks that someone else will act if action is actually required, and if no one takes action then it must mean that no action is needed.

With regard to climate change, we all hear the message that it is an emergency, but we look around and see very few people doing anything. Most are going about their lives as if there were no problem. We look to see what governments are doing, and although some policies have been enacted, they are mostly contested by political opponents. Particularly in the U.S., people think there’s much more disagreement among scientists than there is, and their social groups may deny the existence of climate change.  The average person can hardly be blamed for concluding that there’s no real problem.

After Paris, this is much more difficult. Over 180 countries came together to address the problem.  Individual ignorance is still possible, but pluralistic ignorance is – how should we say? – passé.


Cooperation is also crucial. People ignore climate change in part because they feel helpless. If you feel that nothing you do will make any difference, why waste the effort? This is particularly true when we think that others will continue to exploit environmental resources, so that our own sacrifices will only serve to enable their unsustainable lifestyles. A major sticking point for climate agreements in the past has been the question of which countries would participate: Would it be only the rich countries? The countries contributing the most to the problem?  Many were unwilling to act when others were exempted.

The agreement in Paris, significantly, asked for the efforts of every country. Not only that, but it makes those efforts transparent.  The reporting process contained in the agreement requires regular updates and outside review of what each country has accomplished. When we think that everyone else has agreed to protect a common resource, and we trust them to follow through on that agreement, our individual actions seem more meaningful. We have more confidence that those actions will form part of a greater collective effort – one that might be large enough to be effective.

From the physical science perspective, the agreement reached in Paris leaves much to be desired. But from a social science perspective, it was momentous.

To me, as a conservation psychologist, it underscored the critical role for psychological science in addressing the issue of climate change as well as many of society’s other pressing challenges, from health and wellness to environmental conservation. Carbon emissions may not yet have changed course, but perceptions of the problem are heading in a more sustainable direction.

Image credit: COP21 Paris

Susan Clayton is president of the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues and a professor of psychology at the College of Wooster. She is also a featured psychologist in the American Psychological Association’s, “Psychology: Science in Action” campaign, aimed at showcasing the variety of settings in which psychologists work.

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