top of page

The Psychological Distance of Climate Change

Updated: Oct 16, 2023

By Roberto Razeto

A Deep Dive into China's Heat Crisis and Global Implications

As the sun blazed down on Beijing's bustling streets, the sweltering heat became more than just an inconvenience. It became a symbol. A symbol of a world grappling with the realities of climate change, and a poignant reminder of the psychological distances we often place between ourselves and the planet's most pressing issues. The term "psychological distance" might sound like something from a therapist's office, but in the context of global crises like climate change, it's a concept that demands our attention. Rooted in Trope and Liberman's Construal Level Theory (CLT), psychological distance refers to how removed individuals feel from a particular event or phenomenon. It's not just about physical space; it's about time, relationships, and the hypothetical scenarios we construct in our minds. For many, climate change has often felt like a distant thunderstorm on the horizon — concerning, but not immediately touching their lives. This "psychological distance" makes it easy to perceive the issue as one that might only affect future generations or people in far-off places. However, as China's streets sizzle and its citizens seek respite from the oppressive heat, the reality of the issue is brought closer to home.

China, being a major global player, is not immune to the effects of climate change, and seeing such a powerhouse face these challenges brings a sense of immediacy. But it's worth noting, as some of our readers have rightly pointed out, that not everyone may relate to or feel the direct impact of events in China. Therefore, while China's situation serves as a potent reminder, it's crucial to recognize that the tangible effects of climate change are manifesting in various ways across the globe, touching different communities and individuals in unique manners. The key takeaway is that no matter where we live, the consequences of climate change are increasingly becoming a shared reality.

Here are some examples of heatwaves that have occurred around the world in August 2023: In China, temperatures have reached record highs, with some areas experiencing temperatures over 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit). The heat wave has caused widespread power outages and transportation disruptions, and has led to the deaths of dozens of people.

In Europe, a heatwave has been affecting much of the continent, with temperatures over 40 degrees Celsius (95 degrees Fahrenheit). The heat wave has caused wildfires in Spain and Portugal, and has led to the deaths of several people.

In North America, a heatwave has been affecting the western United States, with temperatures reaching up to 45 degrees Celsius (113 degrees Fahrenheit). The heat wave has caused wildfires in California and Oregon, and has led to the deaths of several people.

In South America, a heatwave has been affecting much of the continent, with temperatures reaching up to 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit). The heat wave has caused power outages in Argentina and Brazil, and has led to the deaths of several people.

Why do some still feel removed from climate change, even in the face of these extreme weather events? The intricacies of psychological distance in the context of environmental issues are multifaceted. Factors such as lack of exposure, limited knowledge, temporal differences, and physical separation can all create a chasm between individuals and the reality of climate change. This chasm, or distance, influences how we perceive the importance of an event. The greater the distance, the less urgency we feel. For example, someone who lives in a region that has never experienced a heatwave may be less likely to feel the urgency of climate change than someone who has seen firsthand the devastating effects of a heat wave. Similarly, someone who has limited knowledge about climate change may be less likely to take action to address it. How can we bridge the gap between ourselves and climate change? The Construal Level Theory offers a lens through which we can understand these perceptions. It suggests that the closer we are to an issue, either physically or emotionally, the more importance we place on it. Conversely, the more distant we feel, the less likely we are to act. So, how can we bridge this gap? How can we make the abstract concrete and the distant immediate? The key lies in localization and relevance. By making climate change a localized issue, by highlighting its immediate impacts on communities and individuals, we can begin to reduce the psychological distance that many feel. Policies and goals that are clear, specific, and actionable can also play a pivotal role. They provide a roadmap, a tangible path forward in the face of a seemingly insurmountable challenge. The heatwave in China is a stark reminder of the interconnectedness of our world. Climate change is not someone else's problem; it's everyone's. And as the world grows hotter, the need to bridge the psychological distance and come together as a global community becomes ever more urgent. In the words of John Kerry, President Biden’s climate envoy, who has been considering with Beijing on the urgency of climate action amidst the heat crisis, "We are all in this together." And together, armed with understanding and a sense of urgency, we can begin to make a difference.


bottom of page