By Grant Hilary Brenner
Given the growing threat from climate change and the related risk of escalating disasters including extreme weather events, immediate risks of destruction and exacerbation of poverty, disease, food insecurity, and human displacement, it becomes more imperative each day to better understand the psychology of human action and inaction in order to foster behavioral changes to secure greater safety and predictability.
There are several factors that underlie climate change denial, including politics and stance toward authority, and how we approach sustainability.
Recent research (Hurst et al., 2022) on fomenting sustainability shows that having conversations about sustainability and working with collaborative partners facilitates commitment to change through psychological safety. It’s harder to feel safe, however, in an environment of political and social polarization where expressing strong opinions is likely to be met with hostility, regardless of your position.
Given the impact of climate change not only on physical health and safety, but also mental health and well-being, continuing to study how we approach climate change is a matter of basic utility. As grim as the situation is, the human capacity to confront and transcend challenges is formidable.
Developing the Climate Change Transilience Scale
Environmental psychologists Nasi, Jans, and Steg (2022), in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, ask the titular question, “Can we do more than ‘bounce back’?”, proposing the concept of “transilience.” Transilience goes beyond resilience to include not only the capacity to avoid negative outcomes and accommodate change, but also to “persist, adapt flexibly, and positively transform in the face of climate change risks.” Over the course of four studies, they proposed and tested a three-factor “Climate Change Transilience Scale” (CCTS), grounded in three candidate factors:
1. Persistence. The perceived capacity to persist in the face of climate change risks, capturing core elements of resilience and calling out the importance of persistence, a trait generally associated with success in the face of adversity.
2. Adaptability. The perceived capacity to adapt flexibly to climate change risks, looking at how well people are able to see a range of potential responses, rather than becoming narrowly focused. Seeing more possibilities in response to a challenge, referred to as “divergent thinking,” is a hallmark of creative problem-solving.
3. Transformability. The perceived capacity to positively transform by adapting to climate change risks. This factor parallels the concept of post-traumatic growth (PTG), a way people respond to adversity with positive growth, leveraging self-efficacy and community to get to a better place in response to difficult challenges. This includes both making positive concrete changes as well as finding new meaning, and has received increased attention as we contend with the COVID-19 pandemic.
Across the four studies (which included basic testing of the questionnaire as well as testing for correlations with well-being and health, and indicators of intention and behavior in the face of climate threats, such as the desire to engage in individual behaviors, as well as collective political action, such as advocating for policy change), the authors developed a final working model for future testing, incorporating participants from the U.S., U.K. and the Netherlands, and including actual threats faced when possible (e.g., the very real risk of flooding in the Netherlands) for real-world relevance.
The final set of questions in the CCTS, tweaked for clarity and ease of use over the four studies, is as follows:
- I can be brave in the face of climate change risks.
- I can be persistent when faced with climate change risks.
- I can stay determined in the face of climate change risks.
- No matter what climate change brings about, I can remain strong-willed.
- I think I can take different actions to deal with climate change risks.
- I think I have several options to deal with climate change risks.
- I believe I can find multiple means to deal with climate change risks.
- There are different ways in which I can cope with climate change risks.
- Coping with the stress caused by climate change risks can strengthen me.
- There can be advantages for me in dealing with climate change risks.
- Dealing with climate change risks can make me grow as a person.
- I can learn something good from dealing with climate change risks.
Validity of the Transilience Construct and the Climate Change Transilience Scale
Statistically speaking, study authors showed that the CCTS, through the three subfactors, reliability reflected the construct of transilience. Responses clustered around midrange scores, suggesting that, on average, people see themselves as being able to respond effectively to climate change risks, anticipating being able to effect change in the face of challenge.
In addition, higher CCTS scores were associated with greater self-reported capacity to adapt and respond. For instance, with higher transilience scores, participants endorsed a greater sense of personal empowerment (self-efficacy) and more positive attitudes about change, less negative feelings regarding climate risk, and greater resilience. At the same time, CCTS stats were sufficiently non-overlapping with other measures (e.g., resilience), supporting the hypothesis of transilience as a unique and useful construct.
Across the four studies, transilience was also associated with enhanced individual “climate-adaptive behaviors,” higher intention to engage in climate-adaptive behavior (e.g., recycling, using less water), greater support for climate change policies, and higher intention to get involved with collective action. Exploratory measures suggested that higher transilience is also correlated with greater general well-being and openness to experiencing positive change in the face of climate risk.
Future Directions for Transilience in Response to Climate Crisis
While climate change negatively impacts health and well-being on individual and collective levels, study authors point out that that in addition to the detrimental impact of climate change, there are opportunities for people to respond with a growth mindset:
“Our results generally seem to indicate that transilience does not imply that climate change is no longer seen as an adversity; it also seems that, although people may feel negative affect about climate change, they may still feel that they can do something about it (i.e., they feel less impaired). Altogether, our research allows to broaden and bring a positive angle on the psychological responses to climate change.”
Future research is needed to validate further the CCTS, test it across a broader range of cultures, look for connections with other models of growth and adaptation (e.g. PTG), and further look at relationships between transilience, health, and behavior, and hopefully understand how to use this knowledge to facilitate more effective action locally and globally.