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Study: inspiring action on climate change is more complex than you might think

Posted on 19 May 2017 by John Abraham

We know humans are causing climate change. That is a fact that has been known for well over 100 years. We also know that there will be significant social and economic costs from the effects. In fact, the effects are already appearing in the form of more extreme weather, rising sea levels, ocean acidification, and so on.

So why haven’t humans done much about the problem? Answering that question may be more challenging than the basic science of a changing climate. Fortunately, a new review just out in Science helps us with this question. Lead author, Dr. Elise Amel, a colleague of mine, completed the review with colleagues Drs. Christie ManningBritain Scott, and Susan Koger. Rather than focusing solely on the problems with communicating the science of climate change, this work takes a wider view on the hurdles that get in the way of meaningful action.

The review points out that since the 1970s, extensive efforts to educate people have not lead to significant shifts in behavior. They also acknowledge that using fear or guilt has not been effective in getting people to act. So, what can help? 

Well, first we must understand that it is not just internal forces (emotions, beliefs, attitudes, etc.) that affect human behavior, but external influences as well. External factors, like social networks, societal roles, cultural worldviews, habits, infrastructure, investments, etc, are often severely underestimated in the extent to which they steer behavior. One fault of prior messaging is an almost exclusive focus of the first (internal) set of factors and a near-complete neglect of the latter (externals). The authors write:

Change is hard. Human beings are reticent to change their behavior even under the most compelling of circumstances, and environmental dangers do not tend to arouse the kind of urgency that motivates individuals to act. Mass transformation of unsustainable systems will be even more difficult than shifting individual behaviors, for unlike ants and bees, humans are not well equipped to coordinate behavior for common benefit.

Here is really the center of the problem, the social dilemma wherein it is in the collective’s interest to act in one way but individuals may benefit personally if they act in another way.

This struggle for humans to manage our impact on climate is made more complex by the unique issue of climate change; it is a long-term problem that has no apparent immediate and personal threats. Simply put, we need to take actions now to avoid problems later on even though we personally may not experience these consequences.

To counter this disconnect, climate change discussions need to be framed as matters related to current impacts at the local level. It is great that we want to save polar bears, but what really will motivate people are the risks to them right now. Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your viewpoint, it is becoming easier and easier to make these connections. Examples abound for instance terrible flooding in the central USA, the record drought in Californiarecent heat waves in central Asia, or in Australia, as just some examples.

The authors identify a variety of strategies for moving forward with human limitations in mind. Since they acknowledge humans tend not to protect those things they either don’t know or don’t value, ingraining a sense of value in the natural world may be critical. In fact, there is a strong relationship between an individual’s connection to nature and their ecological behavior. In today’s world of growing industrialization and severing of the nature/human connection, the challenge may be to find and create new connection opportunities.

More immediately, the authors encourage efforts to change the social norms surrounding environmentally sound behavior - making it cool again.

Click here to read the rest

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Comments 1 to 7:

  1. Yes climate science is compelling, proven well beyond reasonable doubt, and we know many of the solutions, but are slow to adopt these. It's like a frustrating log jam. There are several reasons, not least of which is the ongoing cynical, brainwashing campaign of denialism and doubt about the science and also renewable energy, that has worn people down.

    We also have general public worries about changing established patterns of behaviour, understandably, and the longer term nature of the problem is perhaps hard for some people to digest.

    I agree concentrating on local impacts of climate change brings the issue home quite well. Many people respond better to tangible specifics rather than more global or mathematical or abstract concepts. In fact we need to promote both equally, to reach different mind sets.

    However I think the main issue stopping progress is that many individuals are probably reluctant to do much about climate change in terms of their lifestyles and buying choices, in a voluntary sense, because they see the vast majority doing nothing very much, and so perceive their own isolated actions will possibly cost them money and achieve little. It's a sort of stalemate situation or catch 22.

    Of course there are individuals who do make the effort to reduce emissions for personal ethical reasons, and because they have taken the time to think about the issues and see a range of advantages, but not enough as yet to motivate the vast majority. Perhaps if the media publicised these people it would help, but I guess theres no big screaming headlines in this, so it doesn't count as news. But they might actually find it does count as news, because I for one am sick of screaming headlines over the latest scandals, and want just some plain, uplifting information.

    But to generally break this stalemate pattern of limited action also needs a big push from strong leaders in government and business, and local organisations that set an example in their  views and daily lives, as this is visible and provideds leadership.

    We also require things like carbon taxes or other legislative rules that send signals to change behaviour. We can also easily make electric cars an attractive option, and it may not require much. This is how other environmental problems in the past have been dealt, with and I cannot see why climate change would be different. The difference is really it's just a bit more complex and there's a bigger sceptical campaign, but the dynamics, psychology, and economic principles and government responsibilities are all much the same as other environmental challenges.

    We therefore all need to obviously make some lifestyle choices of our own in a voluntary sense, but also start seriously shaming politicians and business leaders, and force them to set an example, pass some meaningful laws, and stand up to lobby groups.

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  2. Mark Twain: "Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime."  To care for Nature you have to make it personal to you.  With all the distractions of modern life, there needs to be some prioritizing, in the Educational sphere, that the World 'out there' is not just another 'reality show'.  I was struck by an opinion piece in the New York Times, recently, written by a guy who is walking from Southern Africa out to the Middle East, Asia, Siberia, North America, and finally South America, to trace the expansion of humanity outward from 'Eden'.  This guy illustrates, in his writing, Twain's quote.  Somehow, through Education, we need to impress upon children the fundamental importance of Nature in our lives.  I don't see how that can be done without frequent travel to see Nature.

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  3. Perhaps I am wrong, but I think that almost all climate deniers are fundamentalist believers of some sort.  I could lay out the reasons for t his, and if someone asks, then I will, but let's assume  that I am correct.

    You might try this:

    Revelation 11:18
    And the nations were angry, and thy wrath is come, and the time of the dead, that they should be judged, and that thou shouldest give reward unto thy servants the prophets, and to the saints, and them that fear thy name, small and great; and shouldest destroy them which destroy the earth.

    And ask ... If you are at the pearly gates, and you claim that you did not know or were in denial, do you think that god will five you a Pass??  Really???

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  4. Factotum @3 , you may be right, about the role played by religious fundamentalism in fostering a science-denying attitude about the changes occurring in this planet.  See Roy Spencer's strong leaning toward minimizing (in his mind) the amount of global warming going on.  And the relatively high level of Christian fundamentalism in the USA has some correlation with the higher than world-average denialism among Americans.   It would be a difficult matter to study statistically.   For comparison, it would be interesting to see the relative amount of denialism among Christian fundamentalists in Mexico, South America, and perhaps Africa.

    I suspect that a greater motivation, at least in the USA, is the anger felt by change-rejecting conservatives — combined with right-wing rejection of governmental regulations, plus ordinary selfishness & lack of compassion for others (especially foreigners).

    It is not just Christian fundamentalist theology having a hand.   Take for example the (non-Christian) Richard Lindzen who also expresses a belief that this world is a Divine creation, formed as a mechanism which is self-correcting : and which cannot slide into a condition which is unfit for mankind.   Presumably this reflects his Old Testament upbringing.  [ I am unaware of the degree of denialism in Israel. ]

    However, there may also be many people whose thinking is influenced by some amount of "non-religious spiritualism" or subconscious worshipping of an idealized Mother Nature.

    Of course, all these factors could be: Horses harnessed together and pulling in the same direction.

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  5. Factotum @3, I think you are right that climate denialism goes together with religious fundamentalism. In addition to your research link, one of the leading climate deniers in my country is a christian fundamentalist and book writer and magazine editor. I'm not going to give him any advertising by naming him. And he is far from the only person I can think of. So my anecdotal evidence is consistent with the research.

    One can only speculate about why this is so, because religious fundamentalism does not seem incompatible with looking after the earth or anything particular in the bible old testament. It may just be thinking that the earth was created  fundamentally fixed in its processes, and we are temporary passengers before the second coming, and anything that erodes confidence in this is painful to contemplate.

    Fundamentalists do also include a fair share of blue collar people left behind by globalisation, who probably resent and distrust the elite who are afterall associated with identifying the climate problem. I'ts a complex web of social, economic, politically conservative, educational and ideological factors.

    However I dont think all christians are climate sceptics by a long way. Pew research find the vast majority (80%) of people in Latin America are worried about  climate change and want something done (which implies they accept the science) as below. Now Latin America has a lot of catholics so they seem to accept the science and want something done. So there is quite a pronounced difference in attitude between cathloics and fundamentalists.

    The following website has some interesting data (with original sources) on the relationship of climate denial to politics and religion. It notes that In America 80% of athiests accept climate change, and this number drops with people with any form of religious convictions, but more so fundamentalists.

    But clearly not all athiests accept climate science either. Libertarians tend to lean towards athiesm in my experience and are also generally very sceptical about climate science in my country. I'm thinking of a libertarian leaning political party. So political and world view ideology can influence climate beliefs.

    There would also presumably be athiests with vested business interests, such that the vested interests are compelling to them and take precedence over their scientific outlook.

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  6. I have a grandniece who is a young-earth-believing fundamentalist Christian, a recently degreed MD, an ardent feminist and a climate activist (activism limited by demands of a medical internship).

    People can be complex. I prefer complex people to doctrinaire whatevers.

    Regarding climate matters, I am glad that denialism is being seriously studied from a variety of approaches. The road to Hell is paved by doctrinaire single-minded workaholics.

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  7. Dcrickett @6,  yes people are complex, but as humans we look for patterns. There's a correlation between religious fundamentalism and climate science denial. There are of course exceptions, but the question is why the correlation, and I have taken a stab at it above.

    I agree it's important climate denial is looked at from various different points of view, and nothing is simply assumed. There are many reasons for climate denialism discussed on this website, and all seem compelling,so it may just be a combination of things. I would add it's an important decision whether to leave fossil fuels in the ground, and it takes time for people to mentally work this through, and all the time there is a campaign of lies against the science hanging over us as a distraction.


    Doctrinaire single minded workaholics. I'm not entirely sure how this relates to the issue, but having suffered from this, and severe burnout, I'm now a fan of balance and moderation. But many great achievers are doctrinaire single minded workaholics, so is it entirely wrong? People are complex, and life is complex as well.

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