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 beginning to make real strives forward and momentum is definitely building, but we have a long way to go before humanity can be deemed sustainable. Logically, when we think about it, many of us do realise that climate change is one of the biggest challenges that humanity has ever faced. The question this article is trying to answer however, is whether climate change feels dangerous? This is a good time for a story.

A few years ago a mobile phone mast was granted planning permission to be installed on the side of 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 and meetings and I’m sure you get the picture…some individuals adamant on stopping the installation van by lying across the road.

There are apparent similarities between this telephone mast silently emitting radiation 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 scientific research on telephone masts has evidenced them to be relatively harmless – seventy thousand masts would be required to cause any real damage to our health. Unfortunately science does not say the same for our indulgence in fossil fuels. Despite the scientific consensus, climate change has in many ways failed to stir a significant emotional response. If does feel as though the tide is changing however – the worldwide climate protests in September, 2014 were an incredible statement of intent and togetherness. Naturally though, with anything on a global scale, changing the inertia takes a long time. The way we affect our climate is so multi-faceted – the problem is made of so many compounding problems – a true meta-problem.

Why do we not wake up to the threat?

One way of answering this question is looking at evolutionary research. Our evolutionary journey has equipped us with a toolkit for interpreting threat, which we use to counteract the danger we are faced with. However, climate change has undoubtedly poor characteristics to evoke a significant response.

As said before, climate change is a slow-moving process, incremental and on a scale that is hard to imagine. Investment is needed now for uncertain gains in the future – something I have said previously in the other articles, but this seems to have a large dampening effect on our threat radar. This problem is compounded 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 and for some around the world it really has kicked in. Whilst on politics, it seems a good time to ask a question…are the UK’s 2050 climate targets conveniently far away in the future, so we can go on extracting the last drops in the North Sea and then deal with climate change after?

As well as the framing of the problem, it is also hard to grasp the scale of it. 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. Firstly, notice how framing the coffee belt issue as a problem occurring now can elicit a far more immediate emotional response. But moving on, it is extremely hard to predict exactly how this belt is being altered, but if this climatic zone shifts elsewhere the coffee industry may collapse. This is one example of many changes that we are noticing all over the world.

Why can’t international politics take the reins?

Negotiations are making slow, but definite progress. The solutions under debate and solutions that will be brought to the table in the future will undoubtedly require collective action, a shared responsibility, and a fair divvying up of emission allowances if we go forward with carbon trading. There is a concept of ‘ecological debt’ that the developed nations owe to the developing nations as they have gorged on fossil fuels, reaping the rewards, but have steered the Earth into this predicament. How the ‘ecological debt’ is repaid, only time and plenty more arguments will tell. Who is entitled to what and how will it be paid? 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 to us, but we are very prone to bias, which together is causing friction at the global climate talks.

The psychology behind climate change is incredibly layered?

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 this problem seem to take less notice. Our desire to protect against immediate threats increases when we have children and we seem to generally pay less attention to far off issues. Research points to individuals having a ‘finite pool of worry.’ 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 the menace. 

What can I do?

It is widely recognised that our actions thus far have not been adequate to mitigate some pretty big changes to our world, some argue even the the hopeful 2°C threshold is playing Russian Roulette – it will probably condemn Africa to desert for starters. 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 we need leaders to step up. This vacuum of leaders needs to be filled by all of us. The cogs are turning and we are on the path. 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!

George Marshall’s ‘Don’t Even Think About It!’
Mike Burners-Lee & Duncan Clark‘s ‘A Burning Question.’


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