And how to change the way we think

Marcus Arcanjo

climate change

Photo by Joshua Earle on Unsplash

We’re constantly being told that we’re living in the end of days, that we have until 2030 to reverse our emissions trajectory before shit really hits the fan. But, we still react with the relaxed ‘we’ll worry about that later’ attitude.

Why do we choose to ignore it?

It’s Too Heavy

We have a problem with talking about negative things. We hate it. It’s why we avoid confrontations in relationships, ignore depressing news headlines and try to remove ourselves from mood-killing conversations, even when they’re important. Instead, we withdraw to thinking about topics that make us feel happier — our comfort zone.

We’re afflicted with probability biases. Our inability to think rationally about the likelihood of negative events happening — such as the consequences of extreme weather — leads us to be grossly underprepared when they do.

We see it all too often. People on the news that lose their homes in flooding or wildfires and can’t rebuild because they don’t have insurance.

“We never thought it would happen to us.” And then it does.

These people aren’t alone in their thinking. A UCLA psychologist — Per Espen Stoknes — found that as the depth and accuracy of climate science increased, the level of concern in rich Western democracies fell.

He identified five common barriers that hinder climate action: distance, doom, dissonance, denial and identity. I’ll focus on two — distance and dissonance.

Distance — in both proximity and time — is vital to how we view climate change. Most of us live a long way away from the melting glaciers we hear about. Sure, we all want to save the penguins but they don’t impact our everyday life. Climate models also predict a long way into the future, often with estimates for 2050 or 2100. In 2100, I’ll be 106 years old — or, in other words, dead. It’s difficult to feel connected to something so far away.

We must change this narrative. Climate change isn’t a thing of the future, it’s happening now.

Dissonance is the disparity between doing what we know we should do and the reality of our every day actions. It’s the feeling of hypocrisy we get when we’re discussing the sea level rising over some burgers. This can feed into despair, doom or denial.

Nonetheless, these five barriers are avoidable.

Changing How We Think

To successfully influence our behavioral approach to climate change we need to alter how it is communicated. Science is boring to most people. It’s vital in understanding the threats but unless you’re an expert or researcher, it’s unengaging.

Psychologist George Marshall — author of Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change — says that humans are more inclined to believe information presented in a narratively satisfying way. It appeals to our ‘emotional brain’ and engages us to think about climate change in a more personal and relatable way.

We need to cultivate positive emotions associated with climate actions rather than negative emotions coming from climate impacts.

Feelings of fear intertwined with guilt are not conducive to active engagement. That’s the reason aggressive veganism has hindered progress to influence environmental impact.

I’m not sure if you’ve noticed, but people don’t like to have their lifestyle criticised by strangers on the internet.

Instead, explaining the environmental benefits of eating less meat and the positive health impacts of fruit and vegetables gets a better response. People feel as though they’re choosing something in their own best interest rather than feeling forced to change to do you a favor.

Incentives fuel the motivation required to change behavior and it’s essential we get the incentives right.

Research found that different messaging yielded varied results in energy consumption over a year. Some people were sent messages that gave insights into how much money could be saved, others were sent messages about the impact of energy usage on the environment and children’s health.

Those that received messages about money consumed the same amount of energy. Meanwhile, households that got messages about how the pollutants from energy consumption could lead to respiratory illness in kids reduced their consumption by 8% and even up to 19% for households with kids.

Another approach was to publicly post the energy consumption of individual apartments within a building and rank them. Natural competitiveness along with the idea that rank reflects social standing resulted in significant reductions.

Messaging is key.

If we make people feel personally attached to climate change, we will see a rapid shift in attitude. Ditching the scientific narrative and making it engaging — which is a lot easier said than done — will empower people to take action.

It’s possible, and it’s going to have to be done. The penguins can’t save themselves.