I often find myself upset and frustrated by other people’s reaction, or lack of reaction, to climate change. When the topic is brought up in the lunchroom or over dinner, I can see the eyes glazing over and sense the complete lack of engagement with this issue. It seems as though there is no ‘appropriate’ setting to discuss climate change - it’s always deemed too serious or depressing. This makes me feel reluctant to bring it up at all, and leaves us all ignoring the issue, pretending it’s not there.
All the people in my life are good people. They are educated, intelligent and have morals. But it never fails to amaze me how these same people refuse to connect on a meaningful level with issues such as climate change. They don’t talk about it, and if they do, it’s quickly brushed off as someone else’s problem. Worse still, displaying any ‘eco behaviours’ in front of them often leads to comments which discount the value of that behaviour, branding it as pointless.
It’s not as though the facts aren’t there for us all to see: the global scientific community has been warning us for years about the potentially catastrophic impacts of climate change, which are linked to our intensive use of fossil fuels. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has warned of “severe, widespread, and irreversible impacts” if carbon emissions are not halted fast.
This has left me confused to say the least. For example, how can an intelligent, kind-hearted person continue to buy into fast fashion and support unethical retailers who are destroying the planet? Why won’t they reduce their meat consumption for the sake of reducing greenhouse gas emissions? I have wondered about these questions for some time, so I decided to do some investigating and find out why the majority of people just don’t seem to connect with climate change related issues.
The mysterious ways of the human brain
It turns out we humans are pretty much hardwired not to care much about a problem such as climate change. From an evolutionary perspective, it’s difficult for our brains to take future threats as seriously as immediate ones. Nobel prize-winning Daniel Kahneman has highlighted this issue through his work and first coined the term ‘loss aversion’. Loss aversion describes how people are far more sensitive to losses than equivalent gains. In other words, they are more sensitive to the loses they would have to endure now, than they are to the potential future gains of climate action. He regards climate change as the perfect cognitive dilemma: "a distant problem that requires sacrifices now to avoid uncertain losses far in the future. This combination is exceptionally hard for us to accept." Furthermore, the way people form their views is incredibly complex, and involves a range of biases, affective reasoning and external influences. As George Marshall puts it: "The amorphous nature of climate change creates the ideal conditions for human denial and cognitive bias to come to the fore."
With that in mind, let’s look more closely at some of the most common reasons people don’t engage with climate change:
It's someone else’s problem - someone else will solve it
Many people feel that climate change cannot be solved through individual action, and ultimately it is up to someone else (namely, government and corporations) to solve the climate crisis. Therefore, why should I spend my time thinking about it any more than I have to? This is also tied into the idea that one person alone cannot make a difference, and an overall lack of empowerment around this issue. If I can’t make a difference, I might as well not bother trying to do anything.
It won’t affect me
This is a big one for those of us living in the Global North. Rising sea levels? I don’t live on the coast. Heat waves? Yes please! Because many of us are not on the frontline of climate disasters, experiencing it and seeing it with our own eyes, it can be hard to relate to. While most people, when presented with the hardships of millions of people suffering from weather related disasters, will feel empathy, it’s not enough to foster a meaningful change in opinion or consciousness. For most of us, climate change is something going on somewhere far away, and this month’s rent payment takes priority.
It involves sacrifices I’m not willing to make
Self-control is a huge issue for people, whether it’s saving money, healthy eating or refraining from making a mindless purchase. It’s especially hard when we are part of a society which constantly promotes consumerism and instant-gratification. The sacrifices that are involved in becoming an environmentalist require putting other people and living things, before your own gratification. For some people with an inherently strong sense of justice, that’s easy, for others, it’s more challenging. Some people would rather avoid thinking about climate change altogether, than make the decision to eat less meat, give up their car or stop buying fast fashion. As I mentioned earlier, we are programmed to be loss averse, and associate a bigger cost with giving something up than we do an equivalent gain.
It’s too scary / overwhelming / depressing
Ok, this one is understandable. Most of the media coverage of climate change thus far has been framed with a doomsday message. The fact of the matter is, climate change is incredibly scary and its potential consequences are overwhelming to process. Many people automatically switch off when faced with such overwhelming and scary facts.
I don’t completely understand it
Climate change is open to different interpretations. The climate discussion can therefore seem intimidating and unwelcoming. The science is complex and varied, the messaging around it changes everyday and international policy is not clear. The more uncertainty that comes along (for example, if the climate change ‘tipping point’ is 2C degrees of warming or 6C) the less we are able to act on what we know for certain. George Marshall describes this phenomenon perfectly: “It [climate change] provides us with no defining qualities that would give it a clear identity: no deadlines, no geographic location, no single cause or solution and, critically, no obvious enemy. Our brains scan it for the usual cues that we use to process and evaluate information about the world, but find none. And so we impose our own.”
I live in a city
Finally, urbanisation has contributed to our lack of action around climate change. There is a great disconnect between nature and the way we now live our lives. Most of us live in cities, far away from the natural world and the places where climate change is evident. Unlike our ancestors and the few remaining indigenous communities, a great number of us have never lived off the land and are accustomed to city living. This may have resulted in decreasing levels of care for the natural world.
So how do we get through to them?
Clearly this is a complex issue. We are all actively engaged in a system which is contributing to climate change, and it is incredibly confronting to accept and then change this. So, given what we now know about the way humans form opinions, how can we foster changes in attitude around climate change?
For most of the environmentalists I know, there was some point in their life where things aligned and this allowed them to experience a shift in consciousness. This ‘ah-ha’ moment varies greatly from person to person, and is triggered by a range of ideas. For me, it was the revelation of the damage the animal agriculture industry is causing to the planet which allowed me to experience a significant shift in consciousness. For others it might be witnessing a climate change related disaster first hand or an enlightening conversation with a friend. For those people who are already on the left (politically), the climate change argument lines up closely with their beliefs and the narrative fits in with their existing criticisms of industry and growth.
Climate change, framed differently
Experts in this field believe that, in order for it to resonate, climate change communication must be framed by the values of the audience. It must come from a trusted person, who embodies their values and worldview. We also need to create spaces where people feel comfortable to talk about it, and are not intimidated by the scientific or political aspects of climate change.
A good example of this is Sir David Attenborough’s recent campaign against single use plastic, through the broadcasting of Blue Planet 2. The much loved British icon has used his platform to raise awareness of the devastating impact plastic pollution is having on our oceans, and the response has been astonishing. All over the UK people are waking up to the issue and changing their behaviour as a result.
Another key point is to promote positive climate change stories, rather than negative ones. We know from psychology that the best mix to create engagement and creativity is a ratio of one to three in negative to positive stories. We need to create new narratives, such as green growth opportunities, better quality of life, increased equality, reduction in corporate power and greater connection with nature. The more people start believing we can create a better society while tackling climate change, the sooner they can start taking action. After all, a better world is possible, if we act fast.