Why people don't act on climate change  

Posted by Big Gav in

New Scientist has an article on global warming awareness raising - Why people don't act on climate change.

AT A recent dinner at the University of Oxford, a senior researcher in atmospheric physics was telling me about his coming holiday in Thailand. I asked him whether he was concerned that his trip would make a contribution to climate change - we had, after all, just sat through a two-hour presentation on the topic. "Of course," he said blithely. "And I'm sure the government will make long-haul flights illegal at some point."

I had deliberately steered our conversation this way as part of an informal research project that I am conducting - one you are welcome to join. My participants so far include a senior adviser to a leading UK climate policy expert who flies regularly to South Africa ("my offsets help set a price in the carbon market"), a member of the British Antarctic Survey who makes several long-haul skiing trips a year ("my job is stressful"), a national media environment correspondent who took his family to Sri Lanka ("I can't see much hope") and a Greenpeace climate campaigner just back from scuba diving in the Pacific ("it was a great trip!").

Intriguing as their dissonance may be, what is especially revealing is that each has a career predicated on the assumption that information is sufficient to generate change. It is an assumption that a moment's introspection would show them was deeply flawed.

It is now 44 years since US president Lyndon Johnson's scientific advisory council warned that our greenhouse gas emissions could generate "marked changes in climate". That's 44 years of research costing, by one estimate, $3 billion per year, symposia, conferences, documentaries, articles and now 80 million references on the internet. Despite all this information, opinion polls over the years have shown that 40 per cent of people in the UK and over 50 per cent in the US resolutely refuse to accept that our emissions are changing the climate. Scarcely 10 per cent of Britons regard climate change as a major problem.

I do not accept that this continuing rejection of the science is a reflection of media distortion or scientific illiteracy. Rather, I see it as proof of our society's failure to construct a shared belief in climate change.

I use the word "belief" in full knowledge that climate scientists dislike it. Vicky Pope, head of the Met Office Hadley Centre for Climate Change in Exeter, UK, wrote in The Guardian earlier this year: "We are increasingly asked whether we 'believe in climate change'. Quite simply it is not a matter of belief. Our concerns about climate change arise from the scientific evidence."

I could not disagree more. People's attitudes towards climate change, even Pope's, are belief systems constructed through social interactions within peer groups. People then select the storylines that accord best with their personal world view. In Pope's case and in my own this is a world view that respects scientists and empirical evidence.

But listen to what others say. Most regard climate change as an unsettled technical issue still hotly debated by eggheads. Many reject personal responsibility by shifting blame elsewhere - the rich, the poor, the Americans, the Chinese - or they suspect the issue is a Trojan horse built by hair-shirted environmentalists who want to spoil their fun.

The climate specialists in my informal experiment are no less immune to the power of their belief systems. They may be immersed in the scientific evidence, yet they have nonetheless developed ingenious storylines to justify their long-haul holidays.

How, then, should we go about generating a shared belief in the reality of climate change? What should change about the way we present the evidence for climate change?

For one thing, we should become far more concerned about the communicators and how trustworthy they appear. Trustworthiness is a complex bundle of qualities: authority and expertise are among them, but so too are honesty, confidence, charm, humour and outspokenness.

Many of the maverick, self-promoting climate sceptics play this game well, which is one reason they exercise such disproportionate influence over public opinion. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), on the other hand, plays it badly. Rather than let loose its most presentable participants to tell the world how it achieves consensus on an unprecedented scale, it fails even to provide a list of the people involved in the process. It has no human face at all: the only images on its website are the palace or beach resort where it will hold its next meeting.

Since people tend to put most trust in those who appear to share their values and understand their needs, it is crucial we widen the range of voices speaking on climate change - even if this means climate experts relinquishing some control and encouraging others who are better communicators to speak for them.


Thanks for posting this article directly after my comment about the need to be more politically savvy when arguing about climate change. I still think that new scientists misses the point however. It doesn't matter who the science community get as their speaker, no one is going to sacrifice their preferred lifestyle while they have a choice not to. Humans have evolved as inventors guided by the invisible hand of self profit (and I mean profit in a general sense), not as sacrificing creatures who choose to live in a cave to benefit their fellow brethren and the world generally. I think most people believe in climate change but feel powerless to do anything about it. They put faint hope in the chance that we will invent ourselves out of the situation and if this occurs, how silly will you feel sacrificing all those lovely skiing holidays. Science needs to come up with sexy ways of people en masse contributing to the solution even if that solution is a demand management solution.

I think it so unlikely that a significant portion of the population will radically change their lifestyle, especially if it costs them money.

But I'm not convinced that people need to spend or make major changes to how they live.

We can fix a terribly large portion of the problem with simple conservation. California, for example, uses half the electricity per person as do many other states. And we live just fine.

Room to save there.

And just to pick another little example - used to be that if one was attempting to cut down on their electricity usage they needed to put their "power bricks" on switchable plug strips. The last three bricks that I've tested with my Kill-A-Watt pulled zero watts when nothing was being charged.

Then switching away from fossil fuels.

We're already switching away from coal. Coal fell from 50% to 46% of our grid supply last year. Wind rose to 2%. Notice any resulting changes in your lifestyle?

We should get usable electric vehicles in the next two/few years. If your next car is quicker, quieter, requires much less maintenance and cost 25% as much to fuel will you suffer a pain in lifestyle?

Lovely skiing holidays (and my annual winter in Asia) can be flown. Just not with sequestered carbon, but freshly recycled carbon via biofuels. We've already done the proof of concept test flights.

We're a short way into working hard on the solutions. I'm impressed with what we've done so far and expect progress to greatly accelerate.

We could fix the problem with the technology we have at hand right now. And likely have to make little to no changes in our lifestyle.

Future developments are likely to make life even more convenient and less expensive.

Robert, don't forget to mention that the next car also needs to refuel as quickly as the current one, and goes nearly as far.

Also, I am not sure how you figure CA is the basis for energy consumption bar that everyone should look too. CA has a 70degF climate for most of the year, and even when that rule is violated, the excursions aren't that massive.

I work in CA occasionally as a guest of my company, and the weather is nice, but you guys trade way too much away for great weather, IMO :)

Here in my state, its currently hot & humid. Without A/C, most people are going to be in a unpleasant mood. A/C is the great painkiller for our summers. On the other hand, if you are prepared to be outside, the warm humid weather is perfect.

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