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Equality, diversity and inclusion, Ethics and morality, Government and politics, Social and behavioural

Responding to the climate crisis

Samuel Finnerty on opportunities and challenges around activism.

03 January 2023

The climate and ecological crises continue unabated. The UK recorded temperatures in excess of 40 degrees this summer, smashing previous records. Yet successive intergovernmental conferences have failed to produce ambitious action commensurate with the scale of the challenge. As a psychologist, what can you do in the face of these global existential threats? For early career researchers, the challenge is to create meaningful and impactful careers that respond to the climate crisis.

As a third year PhD student in social psychology, my work examines collective action responses to climate change with a particular focus on actions by scientists and social scientists. In line with my personal convictions, I continue to explore ways in which I can participate in climate action. In April this year, I supported an XR Scientists action where scientists – including some psychologists – pasted scientific papers, and glued themselves, to the UK Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) to protest its proposal to expand oil and gas production. I draw on this experience of direct action as a possible route for psychologists to take.

A key role

The American Psychological Association’s ‘Climate Crisis Action Plan’ describes the key role psychologists of all subjects and approaches can play in addressing this crisis (Kurtzman, 2020). We have concepts, methods, and tools that can make significant impacts. Graduate students and early career researchers have a unique opportunity to create fulfilling and impactful careers that address the climate crisis and enable future progress. This includes pivoting our research to focus on the climate, improving the sustainability of our research practices, implementing solutions with communities already experiencing the adverse effects of climate change, and acting as public communicators.

As early career researchers we have a unique opportunity to develop our practice in line with current and future challenges. By participating publicly, we can play a critical part in growing social movements focused on these issues.

It is this last point that I draw attention to here. Increasingly, academics are being encouraged to step beyond their traditional roles and engage in more direct forms of advocacy and activism (Gardner et al., 2021). Faculty for a Future, a collective of academics from various disciplines, are exploring how teaching, research and public engagement might better respond to the ‘multiple interconnected environmental and social crises’ we are facing.

In March this year, XR psychologists called on readers of The Psychologist to join public actions. The APA’s report calls for psychologists to be role models and build on our potential to have a significant positive impact. I would argue that encouraging more psychologists, and social scientists more generally, to take public action is an important contribution. As early career researchers we have a unique opportunity to develop our practice in line with current and future challenges. By participating publicly, we can play a critical part in growing social movements focused on these issues. Social movements, by mobilising millions of people, can contribute to social tipping points which may play an important role in addressing climate change (Otto et al., 2020).

Coupling research and activism

My personal approach is to explore ways in which my research and activism can inform one another and draw strength from each other. Orienting my research to climate change has been a gradual process. In addition to empirical research on the relationship between identity, moral concern, and pro-environmental behaviours, I developed a research program on academic advocacy and activism. I am currently surveying and interviewing academics who express concern about climate change and biodiversity loss and who engage to greater or lesser degrees in advocacy and activism.

My participation in climate activism provides further context for my research. Motivated by my personal conviction to act, participation also helps me to better understand the contexts in which action occurs and the social experience of protest action. In line with these convictions, I have supported and participated in forms of public action including peaceful civil disobedience. Joining other scientists and social scientists on the streets of London in April was one of the richest experiences of my life. It was life-affirming to join others in collective action to draw attention to these crises.

Participating in direct action

On 13 April members of XR scientists, in an act of peaceful civil disobedience, pasted scientific papers to BEIS headquarters. Some glued their hands to the glass to highlight how the department’s proposed energy plan was scientifically illiterate. Nine scientists were arrested for their action. Among them were two psychologists, Dr Stuart Capstick, an environmental psychologist, and Prof Colin Davis, chair in cognitive psychology at Bristol University. The action was supported by Doctors for XR. I was able to help, along with others, by filming the action.

I joined other scientists and social scientists on the streets of London. It was one of the richest experiences of my life.

To some these actions might seem controversial, even radical. However, UN Secretary General António Guterres argues that “Climate activists are sometimes depicted as dangerous radicals. But the truly dangerous radicals are the countries that are increasing the production of fossil fuels.” These forms of action pose high personal risk and are not chosen lightly but serve to highlight the seriousness of the situation. Capstick told me that he had “No regrets. This has to be done. We’ve tried everything else. We are trying everything else still, we don’t give up on the other things we are trying. All the time-honoured ways of doing research, writing papers, trying to engage with policy makers, communicating to the public, communicating with the media etc., etc., etc. We keep trying those things, we keep doing those things but it’s not enough because whenever it suits the government, or those with vested interests, they disregard all of it and so this is the last resort me and twenty or so scientists feel we need to take.”

During his arrest, Davis echoed this when he said that “I am doing this because the government is lying to us. They are saying one thing and doing another. We know we can have no new oil and gas. We were told last week by the intergovernmental panel on climate change that it’s now or never and a couple of days later our government came out with their new strategy to burn oil and gas.”

This action served to draw attention to the inconsistencies in the UK government’s hosting of COP26 in late 2021, its commitment to net zero, and plans to expand oil and gas production in the next two decades. Subsequent media and social media coverage of this and other XR actions point to its efficacy in raising awareness, a central aim of protest.

Barriers to academic activism

For those who can, participating in direct action with others is an enriching experience. Finding like-minded individuals who are as concerned about these issues but who translate these fears into action is inspiring. It has prompted me to consider how I might better produce research with impact. By participating in public action, it is a clear reminder of what it means to do so. Of course, public action is not without its challenges, presenting many personal and institutional barriers. These challenges differ for each individual and may intersect with societal inequalities. Some disciplines may tolerate or even support action while others may view this as a violation of objectivity in science.

Academic institutions do not always support such advocacy. For me personally, as an early career researcher and a non-British citizen, public action has given me pause for thought. The evolving policing bill situation highlights how precarious our freedoms are. But I would argue that as researchers we are used to exploring the unknown, acquiring new skill sets, and pushing ourselves in the face of considerable challenges. For me this has been an evolving process requiring me to go beyond my comfort zone, acquire new skills, and evaluate what I can do. What I have gained is an increased confidence in my ability to act and a supportive community.

A call to action

You might be asking yourself what you can do. This can be daunting. My own case provides one such route, but there are many ways in which psychologists can act. This could involve supporting people taking action, joining public marches, joining public campaigns such as the boycott of the Science Museum due to fossil fuel sponsorship, facilitating protest by being a legal observer or a protest steward, or participating in digital actions. As an academic you could organise talks within your department, challenge your department to create more sustainable research practices, and consider creative forms of outreach that engage more members of the public.

Whatever you decide to do I suggest that you find others who you wish to support and be supported by. It is only by acting collectively that success can be achieved. I hope to see some of you on the streets soon.

About the author

Samuel Finnerty is a PhD student in social psychology in the Social Processes Lab at Lancaster University. He is researching how identity and moral norms affect pro-environmental behaviours with a particular focus on public forms of advocacy and activism. Twitter: @SamuelFinnerty

Key sources

Kurtzman, H.S. (2022). Addressing the Climate Crisis: An Action Plan for Psychologists (Summary). AMERICAN PSYCHOLOGIST. https://www.apa.org/science/about/publications/climate-crisis-action-plan.pdf

Gardner, C.J., Thierry, A., Rowlandson, W. & Steinberger, J.K. (2021). From publications to public actions. Frontiers in Sustainability, 42.

Otto, I.M., Wiedermann, M., Cremades, R., et al. (2020). Human agency in the Anthropocene. Ecological Economics, 167, 106463.

XR Psychologists (2022, March 29th). Will we be bystanders? https://www.bps.org.uk/psychologist/will-we-be-bystanders