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Environmental psychology joins the fight against climate change

19 June 2020

Climate change is one of the major threats facing humanity. Urgent actions are needed to stop global warming. Environmental psychologists aim to understand the interactions between humans and the environment, as well as the psychological dimensions of climate change and climate change policies.

Text: Henrietta Doe, Communications Office, University of Groningen

‘Behavioural changes are needed to mitigate and adapt to environmental challenges, as climate change is caused by human actions and because governments cannot fully protect populations against the effects of climate change.’ (Photo: Reyer Boxem)
‘Behavioural changes are needed to mitigate and adapt to environmental challenges, as climate change is caused by human actions and because governments cannot fully protect populations against the effects of climate change.’ (Photo: Reyer Boxem)

Behavioural changes are needed

Until now, psychology has mostly been left out of the fight against climate change, but interest in the field is increasing rapidly. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has called on environmental psychologists to participate in their assessments to address climate change and facilitate behavioural change. Behavioural changes are needed to mitigate and adapt to environmental challenges, as climate change is caused by human actions and because governments cannot fully protect populations against the effects of climate change, says Linda Steg, one of the leading researchers in this field and a professor at the University of Groningen’s Faculty of Behavioural and Social Sciences.

Intrinsic motivation

Steg is a pioneer and a well-respected world leader in the ongoing struggle to improve pro-environmental behaviour as well as to incorporate a social sciences perspective into what has always been a very technology-driven approach, says Kees Aarts, Dean of the Faculty of Behavioural and Social Sciences at the University of Groningen. According to Aarts, Steg’s research for the past two decades has had a significant societal impact, as it addresses people’s intrinsic pro-environmental motivation. Her research shows that intrinsic motivation is an important driver for pro-environmental behaviour. And as policies to improve pro-environmental behaviour among citizens have kept falling short, new technologies have failed to get picked up and the situation being sketched in climate reports has become more urgent, the research and reputation of Professor Steg has become more widely known. Nowadays, practically nobody questions the prominent role that the social sciences have to play in the successful energy transition, and Prof. Aarts acknowledges that this is in large part due to Professor Steg.

Influencing our response to climate change

As lead author of an IPCC report on the impact of global warming and a member of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW), Professor Steg has played a vital role in understanding, addressing and influencing our response to climate change. Her research demonstrates how specific concepts and theories from environmental psychology can contribute to the effectiveness and acceptance of strategies aimed at promoting sustainable behaviour, the effective mitigation of and adaptation to climate change and the acceptance of technology and system changes.

Fair procedures

Professor Steg is currently researching what motivates people to engage in climate-friendly actions and whether people are willing to change their behaviour and lifestyle as required for a sustainable energy transition. Understanding people’s motivations in joining the fight against climate change provides critical insights into which factors could best be targeted to promote climate actions among different groups. Steg’s research shows that when people feel that they are being treated equally and that fair procedures have been followed, they are generally more open to substantial policy changes, and backlashes such as that of the ‘yellow vest’ movement in France can be avoided.

Stevin prize

The NWO announced today that Professor Steg has been awarded the Stevin Prize, which means that she will receive € 2.5 million to spend on scientific research. The Stevin Prize is the most prestigious award in the Dutch science world, primarily honouring researchers whose work has played a significant role in the area of knowledge exchange and that has made an impact on society. Together with her colleagues and other relevant partners within and outside the world of academia, Steg intends to use the € 2.5 million from the Stevin Prize to further her research. She wants to integrate knowledge about people’s motivations and behaviours into climate models in order to develop realistic scenarios for combatting climate change that have sufficient public support.

Social acceptability of policies

The social acceptability of policies is critical, as system changes will be needed to bring about sustainability. Many people realize that a pro-environmental attitude will not make their lives miserable but can even enhance their wellbeing and health, says Professor Steg. Understanding people’s psychological responses to climate change is a key step in the transition to a sustainable society. For this transition to be successful, interdisciplinary scientific efforts to facilitate behavioural change are needed.

Last modified:25 August 2020 1.41 p.m.
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