According to construal level theory, people’s awareness and willingness to act on climate change should, in principle, be influenced by how psychologically close they perceive its impacts to be. If they formerly believed climate change was mainly about melting ice caps, drought in the developing world or disappearing island nations – and all those are far away in space and time – then their concern should be lower. In 2011, one psychologist referred to psychological distance as one of the “dragons of inaction” for preventing climate change.
This isn’t necessarily callous behaviour, according to psychologists. In Bruegel’s painting, the farmer has more immediate needs and priorities – perhaps he’s intent on feeding his own family – so it’s harder to notice and extend empathy towards Icarus’s suffering in the ocean far away. People’s circle of concern is often drawn near to them, meaning that they will care more about someone close to home, rather than on the opposite side of the world.
However, on reviewing the literature up to 2020, the psychologist Roberta Maiella of G. d’Annunzio University of Chieti-Pescara in Italy and colleagues found that the reality was more complex and nuanced than first appears.
There is indeed evidence that proximity to climate impacts influences people’s views. For example, in 2011 Alexa Spence of the University of Nottingham and colleagues surveyed UK residents exposed to coastal flooding, and found that they perceived greater uncertainty about the climate and more willingness to restrict energy use. And another study of participants in 24 countries showed that people with personal experience of climate change were more likely to do things like use less air conditioning in the summer.
However, not all studies have confirmed the correlation as strong, and the methodologies to study the effect differ. In one study where US participants were presented with the impact of climate change in the Maldives, researchers used cues that aimed to reduce people’s psychological distance and make the remote island nation feel nearer. This included asking them to trace the distance from Ithaca in New York to the remote island nation on a map, and watch a video about how sea level rise was affecting Maldives citizens. People given these cues judged the Maldives to be spatially closer, but crucially, this didn’t translate into increased support for climate change mitigation policies.
People’s prior political affiliation may also matter. One 2020 study of Californians’ response to nearby wildfires suggested that close exposure to damage fostered support for pro-environmental policies in Democratic areas, but not Republican ones.