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.’


The Doubt Paradox Surrounding Climate Change

The Paradox

There is a befuddling paradox surrounding what we believe about this issue. There is a huge body of scientific analysis that has been amassing over the past few decades, which overwhelmingly points the finger at us. This continuous river of evidence is growing and strengthening.

Five international reports have been written collating and reviewing thousands of published research papers, by a team of leading scientists around the world that make up the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The IPCC now state with 95% confidence that we are the cause of the observed increase in global temperature. The general physical principles were proven by John Tyndall way back in 1861, who showed that water vapour and other greenhouse gases cause atmospheric warming. This blanket has brought life to this planet, but we keep on adding to it.

However, and unsurprisingly for a few factors later discussed, there is still huge doubt and confusion about whether making this blanket thicker is making us hotter.

No ‘Smoking-Gun’

One major issue for communicating the science is there is no real stand-out piece of evidence, no ‘smoking-gun.’ The evidence is accumulative. Imagine each ‘piece’ of evidence as a child in school lunch hall – they do not make much noise on their own, but together their voices and their cutlery and their tumblers make quite a racket.

The going rate for a published and peer-reviewed paper that does not accept we changing our climate as opposed to one that does is around 1 to 1000. There is incredibly strong consensus across scientific institutions and scientific academies – one notable survey found that 97% of climate papers that state a view, agree that we are the cause – these are papers published by scientists that actually study the climate, not the group of sceptic economic and political leaders that continue to spout otherwise. In real-terms, the only people debating whether or not climate change is real, aren’t the ones researching it.

Climate Science is Imprecise

The debate has been fuelled with a widely known and reported characteristic of climate science. One that climate scientists are the first to voice; its imprecision. The weather man has historically been notoriously inaccurate and imprecise, although with developments in supercomputers, the five-day regional is getting pretty good.

Predicting the changes that will occur between now and 2030, 2050 or 2100, and not to mention grappling with the entire global climate system, is a truly gargantuan task. The grandeur of this is demonstrated by the scales involved and lack of crystal balls. The number of influencing factors are seemingly infinite, and in addition the interactions between these seemingly infinite factors must be calculated. Climate science is imprecise, but the body of evidence accurately points towards us as the agents of the observed changes.

Even BP Agree

We are pretty certain the human population is walking towards a cliff; in the scientific arena this is a given; even BP unreservedly agree that we will surpass the 2°C threshold (a politically agreed threshold generally considered to be the temperature above which climate change will significantly damage the global environment) and that the results will not be pleasant. The thin line we have to tread is between managing our atmospheric blanket and making sure we do not drive the global economy into the ground.

The Carbon Credit Card

As said above it doesn’t really matter to what degree we are going to warm our planet; what matters is that we are, and we have enough easily obtainable, proven fossil fuel reserves to go way beyond this 2°C threshold. We are spoiling the stable conditions we have been gifted in the current Holocene epoch (11,700 yrs – present) that has given humanity a window of opportunity. We have achieved a great deal, but we need to take a little rain check. We are using our carbon credit card, not really knowing about the interest rates.

97% Climate scientists statistic – Doran et al. 2009 & Anderegg et al. 2010

Originally posted here.