'The Greta Effect' - Talking social influences on climate action with Anandita Sabherwal
This week we’re speaking with Anandita Sabherwal, author of ‘The Greta Thunberg effect,’ about social influences on collective climate action and how to promote climate engagement across diverse communities.
Please tell us a little bit about yourself, your research and the motivation behind your work.
I'm Anandita Sabherwal. I am a social psychology PhD student at the London School of Economics. I'm also affiliated with the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment. My research focuses on environmental psychology. I think it's kind of a nebulous storm at the moment, but the way I see it, my research is about how we can understand people's perceptions, thoughts, feelings, and actions towards climate change and how we can motivate more action.
My motivation really was that I found most impactful social psychologists to be people who really cared about the issue that they were researching, be it race relations, stereotype threat, educational motivation, and achievement. Throughout my college life, I was searching for that issue, searching for something that I could really contribute to. Slowly I realized that where I come from, India, is struggling so much with climate change. Ever since I've been reading the newspaper, there have been reports of farmer suicides because of growing heat, there's been huge migration from villages to cities because ecosystems are getting destroyed and people have to find their livelihoods elsewhere, have to leave their traditional ways of living and ways of working, and I realized that climate change is a problem that binds us all globally. It obviously also affects us differentially and it so happens that it affects my part of the world very intensely. So, that was basically the motivation - to use the tools of social psychology to motivate action on this issue globally, and hopefully have a positive impact on the people and places that I come from.
I think psychology is such an impactful tool that can be applied to many different domains in society. I've done some research in the past on motivation and education and realized that a small intervention can have real impact on people's lives. I was introduced to environmental psychology when I went to Pomona College for a semester abroad in the US. In the United States [environmental psychology] is a lot more advanced than in India, or even Singapore where I was studying at the time. I realized that we don't need to reinvent the wheel altogether. There are tools that we can adapt with cultural sensitivity to study climate engagement in different contexts, and I'm hoping to do that through my PhD.
In your recent paper on the Greta effect, one of your findings was that familiarity with Greta Thunberg was linked with increased motivation to engage in collective action on climate change. Could you briefly tell us what the main findings and conclusions were from your paper?
Okay. So, I guess I have to take you back to why we even wanted to study the Greta effect, because it is kind of weird to dedicate an entire year to one person, but Greta has had such a massive impact globally and there are mini-Gretas emerging everywhere you go now. Kids, specifically, are very aware of climate change. Much more than my generation was when we were in school, and they're mobilizing and coming together a lot more. Yet, there are a lot of naysayers who think that Greta has done nothing - that she's preaching to the choir; she’s increasing anger among the public, but that nothing is happening. So, our motivation was to quantify the impact that she's had and understand the psychological mechanisms that explain why she is having an impact.
That is how we began. Using a nationally representative survey in the United States, we found, as you said, that people who were more familiar with Greta Thunberg were also more motivated to take action. Importantly, we also found that collective efficacy mediated this relationship, which means that familiarity with Greta was linked to greater feeling that, when working together with others, we can make a difference, have an impact, and that in turn then predicted motivations to take action. We called these set of associations the Greta Thunberg Effect. Though it is important to note that our study has found correlations but not tested these causally. The other moderators we looked at were age and political ideology. Interestingly, we found that, at least in the adult sample, there were no age-based differences. This means the Greta Thunberg Effect was present across people of different age groups, not just young people, as some might assume. Also, the effect was across political parties. Of course, it was stronger among liberals, which makes sense, because I think they can more closely identify with her political ideology and her social identity. However, the effect was also present among right-wing people, Republicans. So, essentially, this was an initial attempt to quantify and understand her impact.
Did you find the results surprising in terms of it affecting liberals and republicans in the same way?
I think the age moderation was especially surprising. We had hypothesized in our pre-registration that age would be an important moderator, but to see that people across different age groups felt efficacious upon being familiar with her was quite heartening to see personally, as that means that her impact wasn't just limited to one age group. That the effect was stronger among Democrats was anticipated, given that Democrats probably felt a greater sense of identification with Greta’s political identity and her demands.
We did expect the mediation with efficacy. Just reading her book or looking at her speeches, you can see that much of her emphasis is on making us believe that we can make a difference. Firstly, by simply being a role model - she's an example of how you don't need to start with much educational authority, intellectual authority or much money, but you can still make a difference, you can still be heard at the highest levels of power - be it the UN or EU summits. Secondly, in her speeches, and I closely read all her speeches and her books and everything, she's always talking collectively - she's talking about us and we: “We will clean up this mess,” “We will not back down,” which is kind of creating that feeling that we're all in this together, as opposed to her being the saviour who is here to change the game. She is appealing to that collective identity, and then of course, showing that it can be efficacious. We expected that collective efficacy would be a major factor.
Thank you. A really important study with interesting findings that are very relevant to my next and final question - Climate activist groups in the UK often reflect a lack of diversity. There is a sense that they are failing to effectively represent groups that are disproportionately affected by the climate crisis, such as ethnic minorities. Climate activism is certainly stereotyped as a white, middle-class movement. Drawing from your research, what insights can you share that could help young people of colour who are trying to mobilize collective action within ethnic minority communities?
I think that's a very insightful question so thank you so much for it. I think, as you said, it's a very common perception and being from “the global South”, I think the perception exists here as well, that the people who are mobilizing are upper class, more educated, and have higher socioeconomic status (SES). In different contexts, minorities are seen as lagging behind when it comes to taking charge. A lot of the time, the reasons given for this are that there's a finite pool of worry and people who are ethnic minorities, or from lower SES backgrounds, are also often already so busy with the daily struggles of life and poverty and health that they don't have time to think about something as seemingly distant in the future as climate change. But this might be more of an issue with how we're measuring concern towards climate change and measuring mobilization, than minorities actually not caring about climate change. A collaborator of mine co-authored a paper that looks at the conceptualisation of environmental issues in the United States among ethnic minorities. They found that ethnic minorities, particularly Black and Hispanic individuals, conceive a wider variety of issues as “environmental” than do Whites.
Issues like poverty, access to grocery stores, access to healthcare, health, pollution, things like that. Issues that we might think of as just social issues. People from ethnic minorities and lower SES backgrounds see them as environmental. So, I think what is environmental, and environmentally connected, is conceptualized very differently among minorities due to their lived experiences, as opposed to people who have more privilege in society. I would count myself as having a lot of privilege given that, in India, I’m upper class and high SES. We have that privilege of compartmentalizing social issues and thinking, “Okay- even if the environment is bad, I'm still going to get healthcare, I'm not going to have a food shortage and I can just go to my grocery store and buy food.” So, I think that the first step in understanding ethnic minorities’ engagement with climate change is to measure engagement and issue conceptualization more broadly and in a more bottom-up way. To engage with communities and understand how they view climate change - what are the words they use for climate change? - Rather than impose ideas of what it means to be [pro-]environmental onto ethnic minorities.
I've recently co-authored an opinion piece with a fellow researcher, Ondrej Kácha, who is from the Czech Republic. We both consider our countries to be non-Western. It was very interesting to see that, in our countries, climate change isn't really a buzzword as much as in the West. For example, talking to researchers who work in very unique ecosystems in India, like the Sundarbans or very small farming, agricultural villages, I learnt that farmers in India use very different terms to understand climate change. They look at migratory bird patterns, harvest, rainfall, as tangible indicators of climate change. When they're mobilizing, they're mobilizing to deal with these day-to-day effects of climate change, as opposed to climate change as an issue. The broad concept isn't very prevalent in small communities, but the effects are very much understood and there's a lot of mobilization around that. These are called climate proxies. I think it's a word that a lot of scientists have adopted, and it reflects the concrete concepts or words people use to understand climate change. It’s really important to understand what a community's proxies are before labelling them as concerned or less concerned, mobilized or less mobilized on climate change. Our instruments need to be a lot more sensitive to this diversity and these different proxies.
Coming to the idea of mobilizing people in general, my research highlights the importance of social identity. If you can identify with your leader, you're more likely to be motivated, right? So even with Greta, the fact that we see political ideology as such an important moderator - we use social identity theory to justify that. People who have the same political ideology as her can more strongly see themselves in her, identify with her policies, her perspective. This was true especially in the US where political ideology is such an important tenet of people's social identity. So, I think being able to identify with climate activists, being able to identify with people who are already in the movement is an important precursor to mobilization. It's kind of like a catch 22, the more diversity in the movement, the more diversity we attract because of that. That's one. The other, I would say is the role of affect. I have a paper in the pipeline which shows that witnessing public anger towards climate inaction motivates people a lot and makes them think that action is coming. It provides hope that there will be action. For example, although some might view protestors as just disruptors causing problems, research shows that observing climate marches makes them feel a sense of collective efficacy, as if they can take action to limit climate change. Why is this? It could be because anger is a motivating emotion – around us, we can spot many examples of someone’s anger leading to action. Well, our upcoming paper shows that this link between anger and action is also perceived at the group level. We found that simply learning that many members of the public are feeling angry about climate change enhanced people’s expectations that collective climate action will be taken. Moreover, this information increased people’s own support for climate action. So, examples of public anger, be it in online campaigns or on-ground demonstrations, can motivate people to take action. Therefore, I think affective messages may be effective in motivating action and could also have a wider appeal unlike some arguments that might be more Western-centric or may serve people of privilege more than lower SES status or lower income people.
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