Call for Action: The Power of Neuroscience to fight against Climate Change

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C: Kimberly Doell / Midjourney
C: Kimberly Doell / Midjourney

Scientists develop new perspectives for leveraging brain sciences to combat global warming

Today an international research team, including scientists from the University of Vienna’s Environment and Climate Hub, introduces a unique approach in fighting the climate crisis. Kimberly Doell and colleagues provide a framework for using neuroscience as an ally in the fight against climate change. This new perspective has now been published in the prestigious journal Nature Climate Change - and also presents a call for neuroscientists to join this critical fight.

Humans are influenced and shaped by their surroundings - and in turn influence their environment through their ways of living and their behavior. This phenomenon has been the subject of extensive research in a variety of scientific fields. Indeed, neuroscience has shown that environmental conditions affect not only our minds, but also our brains. This fundamental concept of a reciprocal relationship between humans and the environment already has a long tradition - but using brain science to help tackle the climate crisis is a relatively new idea. In their paper, the research team discusses two interconnected pathways - from the environment to the brain and vice versa - and also raises relevant research questions that neuroscientists can help to address.

Climate change influences the human brain

This novel model emphasizes the relationships between the environmental changes that are already occurring and the human brain. "In the first pathway", explains lead author Kimberly Doell, Faculty of Psychology, University of Vienna, "we propose that neuroscience can assess and quantify how the different consequences of climate change affect the brain. We suggest leveraging this knowledge to develop strategies to protect the brain or make it more resilient to these adverse effects." As climate change exacerbates extreme weather events, there is an urgent need to understand how such negative factors affect the brain, mental health and well-being is urgently needed.

Human decisions affect the environment

The second pathway - from the brain to the environment - suggests leveraging research approaches that explore the neural basis of cognitive and emotional processes that lead to either pro-environmental or environmentally harmful behaviors. Indeed, many decisions related to climate change are influenced by psychological barriers, cognitive biases, and heuristics that are not necessarily accessible to conscious introspection. Kimberly Doell comments: "Neuroscience approaches have the potential to uncover these processes and help identify barriers that prevent people from engaging in pro-environmental behaviors. Drawing on fields such as neuroeconomics and social neuroscience, we need to identify the neural mechanisms leading to human decisions that positively or negatively impact the environment."

The study concludes with a call for action: Targeted and impactful research, international collaboration, and interdisciplinary integration are needed to make significant progress in tackling climate change. Bridging levels of analysis - from neurons to societal actions - is crucial in solving these existential challenges.

Publication in Nature Climate Change:

"Leveraging neuroscience for climate change research", Kimberly C. Doell, Marc G. Berman, Gregory N. Bratman, Brian Knutson, Simone Kühn, Claus Lamm, Sabine Pahl, Nik Sawe, Jay J. Van Bavel, Mathew P. White, & Tobias Brosch