How our experiences with nature affect our attitudes towards climate change

Rock climber Alex Honnold with solar panels placed by his foundation, The Honnold Foundation.

Rock climber Alex Honnold is known to most by the Oscar-winning documentary ‘Free solo’, where he ascends a 2 kilometer high cliff with no safety gear whatsoever. He also considers himself ‘90% vegan’ and donates a third of his income every year to his own foundation, the Honnold Foundation, which strives to bring solar energy to impoverished communities. 

Fellow rock climber Alex Megos, widely considered one of the best climbers in the world, created an ethically-produced t-shirt line with the slogan #carrotsforpower, in part to promote a more plant-based lifestyle. He donated 100% of proceeds in the first month to a non-profit focused on sustainable agriculture, and will continue to donate all of the proceeds to nonprofits. On his Instagram, he encourages people to only buy the shirt if they truly need a new shirt, encouraging people to live more simply and discouraging consumerism. 

When I first started climbing, almost three years ago now, I was pleasantly surprised to see how all these top athletes, and to some extent non-professional climbers as well, were much more environmentally aware than I had seen in any other sport. This lead me to wonder, is this because their sport has them spend a lot of time in nature? And how does this extend to nature experiences in general increasing environmental awareness?

Specialization

As it turns out, Megos’s and Honnold’s actions can be explained by their professions; research has shown repeatedly that individuals who are very specialized in one type of nature-based activity, such as birdwatching, fishing, and rock climbing, are more likely to undertake action to help the environment. Here, specialized means that these individuals are more experienced and skilled in the activity, spend more money on it, and consider it more important to their lifestyle than non-specialized recreationists. Honnold and Megos certainly fall in this category. 

The likely reason that specialized recreationists put more effort into combatting climate change is that the activity that is so important to them depends on natural resources, so it is in their best interest to make sure these resources continue to exist.

Different types of nature experiences

However, specialization in a nature-based activity is not the only kind of interaction with nature that predicts a high investment in environmentalism. For example, studies show that those who feel like they have benefited more from time in nature, also show increased environmental behaviours. This can go even as far as nature experiences during bad weather causing less pro-environmental behaviour than those on sunny days.

The type of activity performed in nature also matters to environmental attitude. Researchers identify three types of nature-based activity:

Consumptive: Taking something from the natural environment for your own gain (e.g. fishing, hunting)

Mechanized: Using mechanized equipment to interact with nature (e.g. driving quads in a field)

Appreciative: Enjoying the natural environment without making any changes to it (e.g. hiking, birdwatching, climbing) 

The research indicates that those who partake in appreciative activities are more likely to show pro-environmentalist behaviour, while mechanized or consumptive activities show low or even negative impact on pro-environmentalism. However, it is difficult to ascertain whether appreciative activities cause people to have a more pro-environmentalist attitude, or that those who already care a lot about climate change are more likely to partake in appreciative activities. 

Children playing in ‘wild’ nature

Childhood nature experiences

A more robust approach to measure the impact of nature experiences on environmental attitudes is to compare how experiences in childhood affect attitudes and behaviour in adulthood. One longitudinal study concluded that one of the main predictors of pro-environmental behaviours was time spent outdoors during childhood. This held true even when controlling for other variables such as parents’ attitude towards climate change. 

However, the type of interaction with nature again makes a big difference to environmental attitude later in life. Specifically, a distinction between ‘wild’ and ‘domesticated’ nature experiences can be made. Nancy Wells, a Cornell University environmental psychologist, concluded in her research that:

Although domesticated nature activities — caring for plants and gardens — also have a positive relationship to adult environment attitudes, their effects aren’t as strong as participating in such wild nature activities as camping, playing in the woods, hiking, walking, fishing and hunting,

Nancy Wells

Furthermore, participating in environmental education programs, such as the boy or girl scouts, seemed to have no effect on adult environmental attitude.

These conclusions suggest that letting children explore nature in the way they wish to, without having to listen to environmental education or follow instructions on how to garden, is very beneficial to fostering a pro-environmental attitude.

How can we use this information?

Knowing what we know now about experiences with nature and environmentalism, one might ask how we can use this to foster a more environmentally-aware mindset. 

Most importantly, we know childhood experiences have a significant impact on adult environment attitudes, and we know that ‘wild’ nature experiences are most beneficial for this. Therefore, increasing wild nature activities with children, and letting children explore nature on their own, are strategies that are likely to increase environmental awareness when these children grow up. Environmental education, where given, should ideally flow from childrens’ own curiosity, instead of being direct instructions or planned lessons.

But the effect of these strategies will not be seen until years later, when the children grow up. What can we do to increase pro-environmental attitudes and behaviours in adults right now?

As seen in rock climbers, being specialised in a nature-based activity can help. However, not everyone wants to be a highly specialised nature-based recreationist, so this might be difficult to realise.

We also learned that the type of experience matters, and that encouraging appreciative nature experiences may help. One study done by Stanford University gives further insight: they used VR to simulate a nature experience, and after letting participants appreciate the environment for a bit, they asked them to cut down a tree. Participants who had to cut down the virtual tree had a measurable change in pro-environmental behaviours, which researchers think will last for a long time. In contrast, those who had simply read about tree cutting barely changed their behaviour at all.

This study showed that even in adulthood, nature experiences (or virtual nature experiences), can lead to an increase in pro-environmentalist behaviour. In this case, people first performed an appreciative activity, and then had to destroy the environment with their own hands. It would be interesting to explore how this type of set-up could be implemented further.

In conclusion, encouraging adults and children to go out and appreciate nature will lead them to care much more about what climate change is doing to that nature. So I hereby encourage you to go out and hike, climb, and forage with all of your friends and family, to enjoy nature and perhaps convince some to do more to stop climate change from destroying it.

14 thoughts on “How our experiences with nature affect our attitudes towards climate change

  1. Thank you for the interesting blog post! I found it particularly interesting that you mention using virtual nature experiences as a means to increase pro-environmental behaviour (PEB), as real life experiences in our current world are less frequent due to urbanisation and digitalization.
    However, I came across this article from Klein & Hilbig (see below), who found that virtual exposure to nature on itself is insufficient to foster PEB. Their experiments imply that what is really required to stimulate PEB is increased salience for the need for environmental protection. In other words, whereas exploring ‘intact’ nature and all its beauty in real life increases PEB, virtual experiences must include images of destroyed nature in order to have the same effect.
    Moreover, they concluded that PEB increased at the expense of cooperation, rather than selfish behaviour. This means that virtual experiences of destroyed nature did not encourage selfish people to become less selfish, but rather stimulated non-selfish people to prioritize PEB over cooperation (for example donate more money to environmental organizations while at the same time showing a decreased willingness to donate to homeless people). I think this article nicely illustrates that sometimes simplicity is the ultimate sophistication and that human technology has a hard time to deliver the same results as a simple hike or climb in ‘good old nature’, like you say. Let me know what you think!

    Klein, S., & Hilbig, B. (2018). How virtual nature experiences can promote pro-environmental behavior. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 60, 41–47. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jenvp.2018.10.001

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  2. Wow, super interesting. I always had this feeling myself, since when I was very small, I lived in Spain where we have ample untouched nature areas, which are (relatively) available for all independent of income. I do wonder whether one of the main drivers is Urbanization- meaning, in a city, you enter a sort of space that seems to be created independently from nature, therefore people may have lost their sense of belonging to nature, or their dependency. What do you think?

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  3. Thank you for this interesting blog post Johanna! I was wondering the same thing as Carola. More and more ‘wild’ nature is disappearing, so it will become harder and harder to easily form pro-environmental behaviour (PEB) in the future. Especially in areas whit urbanisation or for people who do not have the means to travel to ‘wild’ nature, forming PEB can become very problematic. I like that you mentioned that virtual experiences can help. So even if more ‘wild’ nature is lost, people will still be able to form PEB, taking Noor’s remarks about the virtual experiences into account.
    Your post also made me wonder how I formed my PEB. I grew up in Amsterdam, so in my daily life I did not encounter any ‘wild’ nature. My family would always joke that in the Netherlands, all nature is man-made. So for the ‘wild’ nature experience, I would have been dependent on vacations abroad. However, I wonder how often you need to have a wild nature experience for it to be long lasting. Are just one or two a few vacations enough? Or should you repeatedly have those experiences?

    Do you feel like climbing improved your PEB? Did you mostly climb inside or also outside? If you climbed outside, was it on a man-made bouldering wall like the one in front of Universum or on an actual rock (hard to find in the Netherlands though)?

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  4. Super interesting blog! Something that confused me a bit was the fact that Nancy Well’s “wild nature activities” also include consumptive activities. Nancy Well mentions fishing and hunting as activities that promote a connection to nature. This is in contrast with the research mentioned earlier. They indicate fishing and hunting are “activities [that] show low or even negative impact on pro-environmentalism.”. I was wondering whether you know what could have led to this contradiction in their findings?

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  5. Very cool topic Johanna, never thought about this before! It actually makes a lot of sense now that I’ve heard about it. What concerns me is the same thing Carola commented – how does city life influence our connection to nature? Especially with close to 70% of the world’s population living in cities by 2050 (according to the UN), this is quite an urgent issue to reflect upon. I came across this really interesting term called “extinction of experience”, coined by Robert Pyle in 1978. It basically suggests the idea of a positive feedback loop; local extinctions of common species (in the urban environment, for instance) equate to an extinction of opportunity to experience nature, which further disconnects us from nature, which then removes interest in nature and allows for more destruction and extinction, and less pro-environmental behaviour, and so forth. In the end, humans are completely disconnected from nature. Pyle also did empirical research and found that in the most urbanized of cities, opportunities to experience nature have declined the most.
    There are people who contest his findings (see https://besjournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1002/pan3.10148) but I think Pyle makes a very good point, and it makes a lot of sense, also given the things you said regarding the relationship between environmental awareness and experiences in nature. I think this further highlights the importance of having greenery within the city in as many forms as possible, not only to preserve biodiversity but also to promote a connection to nature.

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  6. Hey Noor, that’s a really interesting article! I hadn’t come across it when researching for this post, since I didn’t focus on VR very much. It’s definitely interesting that VR only works if participants see destroyed nature, and I think it somewhat makes sense, as I find it hard to believe VR could truly replicate an actual nature experience accurately. Therefore, it makes sense that its effects would also be different, and the destruction might be more necessary to drive the message home.
    I actually hadn’t considered the affect of real-life nature experiences on cooperation, but it seems to be the case that they do increase it (https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jenvp.2015.01.005). This certainly suggests that real-life experience is preferred for improving both pro-environmental behaviour and cooperation. The distinction between selfish and non-selfish people is also very interesting, I wonder if similar conclusions would hold for real life nature experiences. I can’t find any research on it, but I hope this angle will also be considered in the future.
    In conclusion, I would agree with you that real life nature experiences would probably be most beneficial!

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  7. Hey Carola, I definitely think this could play into it! I did actually come across an article that concluded that children who grew up in rural areas were likely to display more pro-environmental behaviour as adults, though I can’t find that article right now. I definitely think this could also go for adults, as you’re quite unlikely to interact much with (wild) nature if you live in a city, especially if you don’t actively search for it.

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  8. Hey ‘carecs’ (won’t put your name here, in case you didn’t want it on the internet), it’s important to take into account that nature experiences are far from the only factor that increase pro-environmental behaviour. For example, if your parents care a lot about the environment, you’re more likely to care too. As for your question about whether a few vacations would be enough, it’s hard to answer that. As far as I can tell, there hasn’t really been any research on how the spread of your nature experiences over your life would affect pro-environmental behaviour (i.e. if 1 day of nature experience every month would affect you differently than one 12-day holiday a year), but this would certainly be interesting to research!
    As for your climbing question, I unfortunately only had one opportunity to go on an outdoor climbing trip (one weekend) before the pandemic started. I haven’t left the country since, which meant I couldn’t climb on real rock, since the Netherlands has no natural outside climbing areas. I don’t think the one climbing trip I went on made that much of a difference, but it was a very short one, so a longer one might have had a different effect!

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  9. Hey Rosalie, I’m not sure why this is. It could be that the difference between appreciative and consumptive activities don’t change the results as much for children as for adults. It could also have to do with the set-up of Wells’s study, where it doesn’t seem like they distinguished between appreciative and consumptive wild nature activities. If they had made this distinction, they might have found that appreciative wild nature activities increase pro-environmental behaviour more than consumptive ones.

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  10. Hey Nicky, that’s very interesting! I definitely agree that it makes sense that there would be some kind of positive feedback with this. Thank you for you contribution!

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  11. I loved this post! Thank you.

    I do think that there is another side of the coin to this. I have been writing my Capstone about the impacts of development projects on local communities in Northern Kenya. What I have found interesting is that the care and interest in the environment given our interaction with it is almost entirely cultural. For the indigenous tribes of Northern Kenya, their land is, for lack of a better word, sacred. However, their interests in the land and its preservation have little to do with climate change. Their resistance to development projects is actually partially about green energy projects, in particular, a wind farm and a hydroelectricity dam. They are some of the most impacted groups worldwide by climate change having suffered intense increases in drought and pestilence. It is only interesting because there is this push and pull between green energy development and leaving the land as is. Yet the damage they are suffering is because of degrading practices outside their vicinity that they do not know about. The process of building these projects is a whole other issue with its own environmental costs.

    Is there more merit in leaving the land untouched for the communities to continue as they have been living for, well some of the oldest human remains and drawings were found there, so basically for as long as, as a species, have existed? Or to utilize space with enough wind power to power most of Kenya off renewable energy? In an instance such as this can it be argued that the relationship with nature is actually creating an issue for the rest of the nation? Or that the pursuit of green development, in the interest of climate change, is encroaching on the very people who are defending their land? It makes you wonder. I am biased because I think people should leave the communities alone.

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  12. Great article! We are often disconnected from nature in cities (as Nicky said), so I immediately started to think about how we could encourage appreciative activities within cities. I think urban agriculture has as great potential to reinvigorate human’s relationship with nature. For those who haven’t hear of urban agriculture, it is a garden, usually on a rooftop or an allotment, which is available to communities for growing food. Besides connecting food production to communities and shortening food chains, I think it can teach people how to take care of nature. For anyone who’s interested, there are a lot of urban agriculture initiatives in Amsterdam which you can join or support! https://maps.amsterdam.nl/stadslandbouw/?LANG=en

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  13. Very interesting point you are making, and I see where you are coming from!
    I think that this is a classic example where a good balance is needed – If you are solely exposed to destroyed nature, it’s hard to fall in love with an ecosystem. You need to somewhat have a connection to nature to feel the need to protect it. However, like you said, being only exposed to more or less pristine nature will not create enough awareness and urgency to increase PEB. So from the perspective of, for example, documentary making, I think it is useful to a) create a connection between the audience and the ecosystem, and b) show that protection and action is needed, by exposing the audience to a “before and after” sort of imagery.

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  14. Very nice and interesting post! You wrote that “Most importantly, we know childhood experiences have a significant impact on adult environment attitudes, and we know that ‘wild’ nature experiences are most beneficial for this. Therefore, increasing wild nature activities with children, and letting children explore nature on their own, are strategies that are likely to increase environmental awareness when these children grow up. Environmental education, where given, should ideally flow from childrens’ own curiosity, instead of being direct instructions or planned lessons.” Does this mean you do not think incorporating elements stimulating PEB into education would be efficient? Because I can imagine, tying into previous comments, it is very difficult for children growing up in urban environments to get sufficient stimulation and develop PEB independently. Especially for children that grow up in areas of the city that are less green or whose families do not have the means to have frequent trips to nature areas, I am not sure what other ways but education there are. What are your thoughts about this?

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