Why is Climate Change so Hard to Address?
I wrote this article for The Science Room (first published here) as a follow-up to a discussion I led for them as part of the Climate Tipping Points science outreach project. As part of their mission to get scientists to answer direct questions from the public, here I respond to the community questions of : “Why is Climate Change so Hard to Address?”, “Could climate change cause another refugee crisis?”, and “What if ocean currents change due to global warming?”.
The focus of the group was the scientific dimensions in the difficulty of tackling climate change, and so I didn’t focus on another and arguably the most important factor: the decades-old industry-funded misinformation campaign against climate science and action, which in hindsight should have been included anyway (along with how this misinformation taps in to the psychological aspects I mention). I’d also now add more caveats around the “Wicked Problem” framing, which has some limitations, and talk more about positive stories about the potential for social transformation as part of the reframing discussion.
Climate change is one of the greatest and most urgent issues facing humanity, but attempts to craft a sufficient response have been frustratingly difficult. Some have described climate change as a “Wicked Problem” — a problem that is so complicated, interconnected, and psychologically difficult to face that it becomes fiendishly hard to find good solutions. Difficult-to-forecast Climate Tipping Points such as changes in ocean currents, rapid arctic warming, and social cascade effects like the refugee crisis also make the urgency and impacts of climate change more difficult to predict and comprehend. So how do these issues make climate change so hard to address, and what does this mean for how we try and respond to climate change?
Man-made emissions have been pushing up Earth’s temperature through the Greenhouse Effect, and much more warming is expected during our lifetimes if emissions aren’t reduced. But warming may not be gradual — passing a ‘tipping point’ can cause sudden change. Scientists are now worried that we’re approaching some climate tipping points, beyond which rapid and difficult-to-reverse climate changes may occur. You can think of tipping points as being like a seesaw — you have to keep pushing the ball all the way to the pivot, but then then the ball rolls away quickly without any further pushing. Once you’re past a tipping point the system finds a ‘new normal’ and it’s difficult to get back to where you started.
One of the key drivers of tipping points are positive feedback loops. Strong positive feedback loops can quickly amplify small changes, and happen when a change in A leads to a change in B which in turn produces more change in A and so on. A key positive feedback loop in the climate system is associated with the ice-albedo effect. Sea ice is very white and reflective — it has a high ‘albedo’ — and reflects back more solar energy than the darker open sea.
But when global warming melts more sea ice in the summer than usual this results in a darker overall sea surface, which reflects less solar energy, raises local temperatures, and leads to yet more sea ice loss. If this process isn’t stopped by a negative feedback then a tipping point could be hit beyond which total summer sea ice loss is inevitable. This process is already underway in the Arctic, with the last few years seeing record lows in arctic sea ice area.
There are many other potential tipping points in the climate system that scientists are worried about too. Some scientists now think that the West Antarctic Ice Sheet may have now passed a tipping point where warm seawater is melting the ice from underneath, which could cause the collapse of this ice sheet and raise sea level by around six metres over the next few centuries. Ocean currents may also be affected, with the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC) — which brings warm water northwards via the Gulf Stream and returns cooled water to the deep Ocean in the Arctic seas — weakening as meltwater from the Greenland Ice Sheet enters the North Atlantic and interferes with the water currents. The AMOC may have completely stopped in past Ice Ages for similar reasons, and its collapse would cause the UK to cool a few degrees versus the global average and would conversely amplify warming in the tropics. Gradually melting permafrost and undersea frozen ‘methane hydrate’ deposits may soon pass a tipping point beyond which they could melt much more rapidly, which would release the potent greenhouse gas methane and amplify global warming and therefore permafrost melting even further. Climate change could also trigger social tipping points, with spikes in food prices and regional droughts being recently implicated in food riots in 2008–2011, the Arab Spring revolutions, the Syrian Civil War, and the subsequent refugee crisis. Longer droughts, changes in monsoon patterns, and disappearing glaciers could trigger similar crises in regions like South Asia and Africa in the future.
Tipping points make climate change a lot more difficult to tackle as it makes the future more difficult to forecast and raises the risk of sudden and unexpected shifts. But this is not the only reason climate change is so hard to address. The climate system is so complex, the problem so multi-causal, and a single simple and uncontroversial solution so lacking that it becomes what some call a “Wicked Problem” — a problem that has no simple or easy solution. The lack of a clear central authority to take responsibility for this global problem and the rapidly closing timeframe in which we can avoid significant warming adds to the challenge of crafting a sufficient response to climate change. This has led to frustratingly slow progress in international talks and treaties on limiting carbon emissions and their vulnerability to short-term political changes.
But it’s not just the complexity of the problem and the lack of global governance that makes climate change a wicked problem. In the book “Don’t even think about it: Why Our Brains Are Wired To Ignore Climate Change”, George Marshall of Climate Outreach describes how human psychology is not suited to a predicament of this scale. Loss aversion — the tendency to be more sensitive to losses than gains — makes people very resistant to short-term sacrifices in order to avoid a bigger loss in the far-off and uncertain future, a behaviour known as irrational discounting.
Climate change presents no clear external enemy as we all collectively contribute to the problem and as an issue it is very amorphous. This makes it easy for confirmation bias to shape our view of the issue and then project our own personal enemies onto it, whether it be seeing climate change as solely the product of evil corporations or a hoax made up by environmentalists. This can lead to ‘motivated reasoning’, where people rationalise their cherry-picking of the facts to form a narrative that fits with their existing beliefs — a behaviour which perhaps surprisingly is more common in scientifically literate people. Climate change also challenges some of our deep assumptions about our own safety and how our society works, as well as reminding us of our own mortality — a topic that produces deep-seated resistance.
So how should we try to address climate change? For one thing, we need to move beyond the ‘knowledge-deficit model’, the idea that people don’t act on climate change simply because they don’t know enough about it, and that repeating the facts to them ever more loudly will convince them to act. It’s clear that for many people this simply won’t work — inaction on climate change is rooted much deeper than just not knowing enough about the issue. Everyone is susceptible to confirmation bias and motivated reasoning by selecting facts to fit their existing worldview and values, and climate change is no different. Reframing action on climate change within different narratives — for example Climate Outreach’s work in framing climate action in faith-based or centre-right terms — might help to reach more people than environmental campaigners can currently reach.
Finding immediate pay-offs to climate action, like reduced air pollution or energy security, may also help to limit feelings of loss aversion. And while there are many tipping points we wish to avoid, there can also be beneficial tipping points that might help trigger rapid positive changes. Finally, as the problem is so complex and multi-causal it may also be better to pursue multiple, smaller responses rather than seek one big solution. In “Why We Disagree about Climate Change”, Mike Hulme posits that we shouldn’t think about climate change as one big problem requiring an equally big solution, but as “an environmental, cultural and political phenomenon” that we can use to build a better society in responding to.
First version published by The Science Room: http://www.sciroom.org/read/2017/02/why-is-climate-change-so-hard-to-address-asks-james/ (Feb 9th 2017 — link now dead). Update Log: 8/9/17 with extra links, video, and shiny new gifs; 28/4/20 & 8/3/22 with climate misinformation caveat in the Intro.