A Delve into the Psychology of Climate Change

Why does Climate Change not feel dangerous?

You may be thinking that climate change does feel dangerous, but in reality, it is taking a long time to stir us into adequate action. We are starting to make strives forward and momentum is building, but we have a long way to go before humanity is sustainable. Logically, when we think about it, we realise that climate change is one of the biggest challenges that humanity has indeed ever faced. The question however, is whether climate change feels dangerous. This is best answered through a story.

A few years ago a mobile phone mast was granted planning permission for installation on a pub in Oxford. The pub was in a residential area, near a school. The surrounding area was inhabited by young liberal professionals. Within a few weeks the concerned locals had spurred into action with petitions, meetings and so on…even some individuals set on lying in front of the installation van if necessary.

There are apparent similarities between the possible threat of radiation from a telephone mast and climate change; firstly the impacts are fairly uncertain and secondly, the effects are drawn out long into the future. The most significant difference may in fact be that telephone masts have been proven to be relatively harmless, unfortunately climate change is going the other way – seventy thousand masts would be required to cause any real damage to our health. However, climate change has in many ways failed to stir the same emotional response. If feels like things are changing – the climate protests were an incredible statement of intent and togetherness. Naturally though, with anything on a global scale, changing the inertia will take longer. The way we affect our climate is so multi-faceted – the problem is too big to fit into even the most intelligent brains in its entirety – a true meta-problem.

Why do we not wake up to the threat?

One way of looking at this question is through evolution. Our evolutionary journey has equipped us with a toolkit for interpreting threat, which we use to counteract the danger. However, climate change has undoubtedly poor traits to bring about change.

As said before, climate change is a slow-moving process, incremental. Investment is needed now for uncertain gains in the future – something I have repeated in the previous posts, but this problem with an uncertain future dampens our response. This problem is enhanced by the typical ‘future’ framing of climate change. Politicians almost always frame the issue in the future. Not that climate change isn’t a problem for the future, but it is without doubt a problem for now too. We seem to be waiting for a big flashpoint, or the moment climate change really kicks in – climate change is incremental. Are the UK’s 2050 climate targets conveniently far away in the future, so we can extract the last of the economically recoverable reserves in the North Sea and deal with climate change later?

It is also hard to gain a sense of scale. There is a climatic zone called the coffee belt, which as expected produces the world’s coffee beans. Climate change is currently altering this climatic zone. Notice how framing the coffee belt issue as a problem occurring now can elicit a far greater emotional response. It is extremely hard to predict exactly how the belt is changing. This is one example of many, many changes that are developing all over the world. Questions obviously follow. How fast is this change happening? How is this affecting the coffee industry? How will the nation’s economies be effected? Answering these questions is incredibly hard, but the answers need to be known.

Why can’t international politics take the reins?

Negotiations are making slow, but definite progress. However, the solutions under debate and those that will be brought to the table in the future will undoubtedly require, firstly a shared responsibility, and secondly a divvying up of emission allowances. Who’s entitled to what and how much? A political minefield…I’m sure you get the picture. In addition, us humans are incredibly good at keeping track of debts and arrears – fairness is a big deal, which is causing stagnation and huge friction at the global climate talks.

What is behind the psychology of climate change?

The psychology behind climate change is incredibly layered and obstacles arise almost everywhere. An oddity that psychologists have identified about parents, a group that should logically care about future change seem to care even less. Our desire to protect against immediate threats increases when we have children and we seem to generally pay less attention issues that are seen as uncertain and less immediate. Additionally, a way of life we associate with the comfort and the protection of, our families and one we all typically aspire to is now classed as a menace.

 What can I do?

It is widely recognised that our actions thus far have not been adequate to mitigate some pretty big changes, some argue even the the hopeful 2°C threshold will condemn Africa to desert. There is definitely growing energy, which should be undoubtedly celebrated. Efforts are taking effect towards a low-carbon system. However, to tackle a problem on this scale requires a huge mobilisation of resource, innovation and most importantly activity. We naturally follow the jury of our peers and the people around us. The cogs are turning and we are on the path, but we need leaders to take action. This vacuum needs to be filled by all of us. Corporations, investors and political figureheads undeniably have very important roles, but teachers, children, you and me, have to take the reins. Our individual choices have ripples…we are sardines pushing against a runaway oil tanker – everyone has to push!

Sources:

George Marshall’s ‘Don’t Even Think About It!’

Mike Burners-Lee & Duncan Clark‘s ‘A Burning Question.’

Max Leighton, Communications Volunteer (2014-2015)

max@swlen.org.uk