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Climate and environment

A home for environmental psychology in uncertain times

The proposers of a new British Psychological Society Section write.

17 April 2024

We live in uncertain and increasingly divisive times, with myriad socio-environmental challenges such as climate change, biodiversity loss, mass displacement of people, and increasing urbanisation. The immediacy of these challenges – which threaten physical and mental wellbeing – means the research, insight and expertise of environmental psychologists has never been of greater importance. 

Psychologists are vital in helping individuals, communities, and societies work together to address these complex global challenges. Environmental psychology, as the scientific study of the reciprocal, transactional relationships that people share with natural and built environments, is particularly well placed to address these challenges, as they are complicated by human-environment interactions. 

However, environmental psychologists do not currently have a clear 'home' within existing member networks of the British Psychological Society, despite environmental psychology being an established sub-discipline in the UK and beyond since the 1960s. 

This hinders efforts to connect with other psychologists to collectively address these global challenges. We feel it is time for environmental psychologists to be welcomed into the BPS community by establishing an Environmental Psychology Section. 

This new Section would bring a vibrant community of researchers and practitioners to the BPS, who often work on policy-relevant topics. Examples include understanding the wellbeing benefits of natural environments and nature connectedness (Richardson, 2024; Beute et al 2023), designing buildings and spaces that enable humans to thrive (Evans & McCoy, 1998; Harries et al., 2023; Placidi et al., 2024), and examining perceptions of climate change, climate policies, and climate justice (Ogunbode et al., 2023; Verfuerth et al., 2024). 

Environmental psychologists are leading research agendas and influencing practice, via ESRC-funded projects such as CAST (led by Lorraine Whitmarsh) and ACCESS (co-directed by Patrick Devine-Wright and Birgitta Gatersleben).

Environmental psychologists believe that psychological processes are always 'situated', i.e., they are place-related and place-dependent. Adopting a place-based perspective helps us understand divided and oppositional viewpoints, supporting the co-creation of community-focused solutions. For example, wind turbines or solar farms help achieve Net Zero but are marked by social controversy, including accusations of NIMBYism (not in my backyard). 

Controversy arises when place identity and place attachment are perceived to be threatened by proposed changes, impacting the acceptance of low-carbon energy infrastructure (Devine-Wright, 2009). Place-based perspectives can also help understand other divisive issues such as resettling and supporting refugees (Albers et al., 2021; Wnuk et al., 2023).

Low-traffic neighbourhoods (LTNs) are another divisive topic. LTNs are urban planning policies designed to create healthy and sustainable cities by encouraging active travel and reducing use of (and pollution and collisions from) cars (Giles-Corti et al., 2022; van Erpecum et al., 2024). 

However, such schemes can be contentious, and perceived as anti-motorist (BBC 2023). Research has highlighted environmental and psychological barriers to ditching the car (e.g. habit, emotions, infrastructure) and the need for targeted behaviour change strategies to enable different groups of people to walk or cycle (Gatersleben & Murtagh 2012; Walker & Sutton 2024). 

By centring people-place interactions in urban planning, environmental psychologists can help give people choices by making their neighbourhoods attractive, greener, and safer places to walk and cycle (Roe & McCay, 2021). 

We encourage all interested BPS Members to support the formation of an Environmental Psychology Section by stating their wish to join the new Section during the vote for President-Elect and Elected Trustee between 23 April and 28 May 2024. Please read the proposal and share with colleagues. 

Establishing this Section will raise the profile of environmental psychologists and strengthen links across the broader psychology community. Together we can build societies that are less divisive and more inclusive, equitable and sustainable for people and the planet.

Sarah Golding, Anna Bornioli, George Warren and Melissa Marselle
Environmental Psychology Research Group
University of Surrey