Understanding the relationship between humans and the environment could propel the adoption of green technologies

Professor Sean Duffy
Sean Duffy, associate professor of psychology

The science around climate change is clear: Since the 1800s, human activities, notably the burning of fossil fuels like coal and gas, have been the main driver of rising temperatures and extreme weather. 

“We’ve known about climate change for a long time,” said Sean Duffy, an associate professor of psychology at Rutgers University in Camden, whose research includes the relatively new area of environmental psychology. “If we stay the course, sea levels will rise to a point that the familiar New Jersey shore towns will be underwater.”

Yet, even as the world’s population wrestles with the consequences of a warming planet and increasingly extreme weather, some are still skeptical of scientific claims and reluctant to adopt green technology. This resistance has led some environmental advocates to try a psychological approach.

“Environmental psychology is an applied branch of the discipline that examines the relationship between humans and their physical context, whether nature or constructed environments,” said Duffy. “It aims to understand how humans are affected by the physical contexts in which they live.”

The Rutgers Offshore Wind Energy Collaborative invited Duffy to develop a series of lectures exploring how psychology and perception can affect the acceptance of green initiatives. According to a recent New York Times article, while Americans broadly support renewable energy, polls show they are less enthusiastic about having it in their backyards. A 2021 survey found that only 24 percent of Americans were willing to live within a mile of a solar farm; the number was just 17 percent for wind farms.

The concept of “attachment to place" could lead people to oppose green infrastructure projects near their homes, even if they support the idea of green development generally,” said Duffy. In other words, people develop feelings about their towns and cities that create emotional bonds and make them resistant to change.

Another reason people might resist green energy lies in the concept of “future discounting,” or the preference for immediate rewards over long-term benefits. Duffy also cites the tendency for individuals to believe that they have already done their part in supporting a given cause.

In some cases, opposition to green energy development is grounded in genuine concern for the potential consequences, not all of which are positive. Duffy believes it is important for environmental psychologists to leave space for good-faith debate when considering how best to change hearts and minds.

“I think the term ‘NIMBY’ [not in my backyard] denigrates people's genuine fears about massive infrastructure projects,” Duffy said. “For example, people who live near the shore have a right to raise concerns over the installation of wind farms.”

The bridge between proposing change and adopting change may be as simple–and as complicated–as incorporating an understanding of human nature into the planning of future projects and combining that with meaningful community engagement.

“As researchers, we need to understand how communities perceive green technology developments," said Duffy. "Sharing our understanding of psychology could improve communication with the public and decrease opposition to positive change for the planet."