Rachel Eyles dives into the phenomenon of climate change inaction to find out why so little is happening to save our biosphere.
As an environmentalist, there’s nothing I love more than a juicy climate change discussion (preferably complete with PowerPoint slides splattered with facts, figures and the quintessential polar-bear-on-a-shrinking-iceberg pic). As an undergrad, I naively assumed that if you presented people with the science, they would naturally reach the conclusion of 98% of climate scientists – that climate change is happening and is caused by humans. I also thought that apocalyptic news concerning sea level rise, droughts and hurricanes would eventually invoke some innate desire to act.
I was wrong on both accounts.
In the UK, acceptance of humanity’s impact on climate is on the rise. In 2015, only around 13% of the population believed that climate change was not caused by humans, as opposed to 21% in 2011. However, although most of us acknowledge it, we don’t really care. Only around one-fifth of the UK are “very concerned” about climate change (the global median is approximately 50%). Psychological barriers obstructing us from activity are increasingly being researched and are often termed the figurative “dragons of inaction”.
One of the most vicious dragons is our limited cognition. Human brains haven’t changed much in thousands of years and like our ancestors, we are still only really aware of imminent dangers, such as that lion over there licking his chops in a bush. Concerning ourselves over a slowly-evolving issue, usually distant in time and space, that isn’t an immediate threat to us or our significant others is not naturally built into our psyche. A lack of understanding about the issue, either by not knowing the problem exists or not knowing specifically how to take action, is also a common psychological barrier.
Ironically, we also hear about climate change too much. Research shows that seeing the same advertisement over and over again actually decreases its effectiveness, and in the case of climate change, we are numbed to its impacts. Related to this are consequences of the fear technique. Some studies have shown that thrusting doom and gloom imagery into people’s faces only usually works on those already identified as climate-concerned. Instead of creating hope, it can induce guilt and, in time, a sense of passivity. Feelings of guilt and hypocrisy constitute another psychological barrier, which can lead to social comparisons and in some cases, climate change denial. If my knowledge of the problem is not matched by sufficient action, I feel guilty. I counteract this by comparing myself to others, highlighting my achievements and by shifting guilt: “I only flew five times last year when she flew seven”, “I drove today instead of walking but it’s okay as I’ll recycle better next week”, “the corporations are at fault and I can’t do anything until they do”. The next stage is apprehension. If I identify with the doubtful and their arguments, I don’t have to feel guilty. The last stage is complete denial, which is commonly acknowledged as an inherent part of humanity and a way to defend ourselves from attack.
Climate change denial is rarely about science. Instead, it stems from a worldview or social identity. Conservatives are more likely than liberals to be climate change denialists, for instance, because climate change mitigation can involve stringent government interventions in the marketplace. People subconsciously resist information that doesn’t fit in with a political view or social discord, leading to a psychological barrier.
So how can we reframe this conversation? Make it personal and connect over a shared experience. I’m concerned because I despised that blistering hot summer we had last year and I don’t want heatwaves to become more frequent. I love coffee and chocolate, but their supply is threatened by a changing climate. If you’re talking to someone concerned about the economic repercussions of climate mitigation, highlight positives that will resonate with that person, such as the creation of green jobs and a smarter, more efficient energy system. Climate change is unjust because countries contributing the least fuel to the fire will be disproportionately affected. Maybe we care because of this reason – we have a moral duty to be stewards of our home and all of its future inhabitants.
When it comes down to it, it doesn’t matter why you care about climate change, it just matters that you do.