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As the planet grapples with a rapidly changing climate, adaptability will be key to reducing the environmental impacts, UNSW research suggests. Adaptability is the capacity to cope with change, uncertainty, and variability.                                                                                      

Renowned UNSW educational psychologist Professor Andrew Martin has explored the link between adaptability and environmental awareness, environmental concerns, and pro-environment attitudes among a group of 2,050 high school students. He will be giving a public lecture on the topic at UNSW on Thursday 30 July.

Understanding what motivates people to be environmentally conscious will be a critical part of the human response to climate change Professor Martin says, and people’s capacity to adjust in the face of these challenges will be critical to reducing environmental threats to the planet.

His latest study of students from eight high schools in four states has found that adaptability is a powerful predictor of young people’s pro-environment attitudes; more than their personality or other factors such as age, gender, ethnicity or socio-economic status.

Students who were more adaptable had greater awareness of and concern for the environment, and held more conservationist views. They were also more likely to support actions and policies aimed at sustaining the environment. The paper was published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences, with co-author Dr Gregory Liem from the National Institute of Education in Singapore, and is part of an ARC Discovery Grant project.


More adaptability boosts results and interest in green issues ... UNSW research

“Adaptability may be one of the human attributes we need most as the planet changes,” says Professor Martin. “In the face of these changes we will need to adjust our behaviour and our thinking on climate, just as we did in the 1980s and 1990s when targeting CFCs that were harming the ozone layer.

“Because action and policy well into the future is needed, how things play out is largely dependent on our kids – hence the study’s focus on young people’s adaptability. Those who are adaptable will be more likely to recognise the challenges and respond to them,” he says.

Though there is a lot of work being done on climate change, particularly in the policy space, Professor Martin says relatively less is known about the psychological response.

“Behavioural change needs to start in the head. Changing the psychology towards climate and the environment will impact behavioural change. Our study identifies adaptability as one psychological factor that is worth attention,” he says.

One exciting possibility with adaptability is the potential to teach and develop it. Adaptability then becomes a “lifelong asset”, Professor Martin says.

“Previous research has shown that people can adjust their thinking and behaviour in the face of change – that is, they can be taught to be more adaptable. What we need to look at now are ways we can teach adaptability in the face of climate change and environmental threats.”

The work builds on Professor Martin’s earlier studies showing adaptability predicts academic success and personal well-being among high school students.