Phoebe E. Hemmerling

The Role of Personal Decision-Making in Countering Climate Change: A Coastal Louisiana Case Study

Presented by: Phoebe E. Hemmerling
Faculty Advisor: Dr. Benjamin Wagner, Associate Professor of Psychology    


Climate change is a phenomenon in which carbon emissions enter the atmosphere and cause significant changes in temperatures and weather patterns, many of which can be hazardous to human health and wellbeing. Anthropogenic activities are a major contributor to these emissions. Despite the urgency to take action to combat global climate change, people may still find it difficult to make environmentally beneficial changes in their daily routines. A review of psychological literature and qualitative research revealed three main reasons for this disconnect: climate change helplessness, moral licensing, and a perceived distance between themselves and others. Climate change helplessness, based on the concept of learned helplessness, focuses on the belief that climate change is beyond personal control and therefore actions are not beneficial. Another factor that may prevent people from reducing harmful activities arises from moral licensing, a form of psychological bargaining where humans find irresponsible behaviors less immoral if they balance them out with good deeds. However, this principle has detrimental effects on the environment, as damage cannot instantly be reversed by another act. The final issue examined was perceived distance. By perceiving oneself as distant from others geographically or temporally, they are less likely to empathize with them. These obstacles to changing behavior are largely psychological but can be countered by taking many personal, small-scale actions. By communicating with others distant from oneself, targeting positive emotions in the marketing of pro-environmental products, and showing the positive impacts of personal decisions, individuals can help prevent the worsening of climate change.