Ella May McNiece , Ms
Australian National University
I am an emerging scholar who wants to make an impact in fighting climate change. I began my degree at the ANU to study law, with the hope that practicing law would enable me to better understand the legislative framework within which environmental policy was made. However, as I neared the end of my degree and gained further experience in the legal space, it became increasingly apparent to me that I was more interested in the cognitive and social biases underlying environmental inaction, as I believe environmental inaction to be the greatest barrier to access to environmental justice.
Following my admission to the legal practice in Australia, embarked on an Honours year with Dr Eryn Newman whose research investigated the cognitive biases behind perceptions of climate change truth judgments. I thoroughly enjoyed my year with Eryn and was inspired to take up my Clinical PhD under Dr Platow’s supervision with the hope of contributing to a broader understanding of the barriers we must overcome as humans in the face of the (at times) seemingly insurmountable problem of human-made climate change.
How the public may bring about such radical action to avert a climate catastrophe, and within such limited time, is one of the biggest challenges facing human rights today. Yet, with several technological solutions currently available to help mitigate the crisis, the greatest obstacle to achieving this action appears political, rather than technological, in nature. Charging for carbon emissions, removing fossil fuel subsidies, remodelling agriculture and funding rapid reforestation, all requires government intervention. However, as history suggests, such radical government intervention will only occur in response to intense public pressure.
Legislative and political change needs to be explored from a psychological perspective to better understand social processes and what ignites sustained collective action. My PhD research examines the social-psychological understandings of how self-concept and group membership processes become operative and impact our truth judgments of climate change claims. In this context, I will be examining hypotheses that people judge claims as true when those claims align with the normative content of their salient social identities, rather than relying on well-established or widely agreed upon means for determining truth. Numerous studies have indicated what is considered ‘truth’ can arise from a myriad of factors such as perceived familiarity, expertise, or social cues. Of these influences, social identity is known to have a strong impact on a range of attitudes and behaviours. Building upon other recently published research (Wang, Platow & Newman, 2022), I am proposing that identity determines relevant epistemology, and epistemology subsequently determines (subjective) truth. That is, I am proposing that what is taken as truth regarding climate change is determined, at least in part, by people’s social self-concepts – particularly those related to “environmental” or “green” social identities (or, even, “climate change sceptic” social identities). Recognising, observing, and measuring these processes are important, as they shed light on why and how simply providing scientific “evidence” of climate change can have no impact on some individuals, but a substantive impact on others.
Whilst current literature has explored how social identities are linked to attitudes about climate change, so far there hasn’t been an extensive model tested that incorporates social identity theory, social norms, climate change truth beliefs, environmental and political self-efficacy, and eco-anxiety. In fact, there are numerous components of my model that make it novel and provide suggestions regarding the most robust predictors of sustained collective action. On the one hand, I am proposing that social identity will guide truth judgements on climate change, and that these judgements may have positively correlate with self-reported eco-anxiety: that a “pro-environmental” identity can enhance eco-anxiety. On the other hand, I predict that the degree to which an individual experiences eco-anxiety will be mediated by environmental self-efficacy (an individual’s beliefs in their capabilities to produce desired effects in the environment by their own actions). I hypothesise that lower environmental self-efficacy will be correlated with greater eco-anxiety and an unwillingness to engage in pro-environmental behaviour. From my research thus far, I predict environmental self-efficacy to have the greatest influence in an individual’s eco-anxiety and subsequent propensity to engage in pro-environmental behaviour, independent of how highly the individual identifies with the broader environmental social movement. Overall, this is a multifaceted and complex model of environmental behaviour that has never previously been proposed or examined. I envisage my research will lead to a better understanding of the numerous cognitive and social mechanisms that contribute to an individual’s confidence in overcoming barriers to pro-environmental behaviour. I hope my research will shed light on how climate change information is understood and the barriers to pro-environmental behavioural change, ultimately contributing to collective social action for a more sustainable relationship with the natural world. That is, my research seeks to establish the factors that facilitate and inhibit positive, collective behaviour change.