Why We Don’t Care Enough About Climate Change To Change Our Ways

Are human beings just too selfish to stop climate change?

Photo by Riccardo Chiarini on Unsplash

Most of us living in developed countries today have a good level of understanding about what global warming is, what causes it, and what the future impacts are likely to be. Science has increased our climate change knowledge hugely over the last few decades. And yet most of us continue driving our cars, eating meat for every meal, powering our houses with energy from fossil fuels, and shopping for more material items at every chance. So why is it that we don’t care enough about climate change to change our ways?

The thing is, we do care. It’s just that we don’t see any good solution being put forward. Most journalism around global warming has focused on climate change as a catastrophe, reporting on the topic with a distinct air of doom and despair. It’s not that I don’t think this is true, but if we’re trying to get people to care about climate change, and change their own behaviour, it probably isn’t the way to go.

Catastrophic climate change journalism disables us. It makes us feel as though a dystopian future of drought, floods, famine, and poverty is inevitable. It makes our own actions seem minuscule. It makes climate change, as a cause, seem pointless. And if we feel this way, we’re not inspired to act. We all have other things in life that we need to put our caring towards — our health, livelihood, community and relationships for a start.

See my previous post ‘Why we need to change the way we talk about climate change’ for more on this.

On top of that, we’ve never been more separate from nature in the developed world. The growth in populations, and therefore cities and built up areas, means that we now see nature in pockets of parks, picnic spots, and canal paths, rather than integrated into our own lives.

Climate change is primarily seen as an environmental issue, changing the ecology of life on earth (as a side note, this isn’t entirely true — climate change is also very much a humanitarian problem). It’s difficult, therefore, for us to start caring about the environment we now feel so separate from and superior too. In reality, though, humanity is intricately interwoven with the planet that we live on. Think about the air we breathe for a start. It’s vital for sustaining our lives, and without trees producing the oxygen we need, we would die.

A further reason that we struggle to care enough about climate change to change our ways is that the impacts are not always visible to us. Although extreme weather events are becoming more regular and more severe as global warming increases, they’re still fairly rare, especially in the western world. Yet, it’s clear that when those impacts are visible, we do care massively about climate change.

In the winter of 2014 the UK experienced unprecedented levels of flooding. Many homes flooded, with major disruption also to transport, power and communications, with the government estimating an economic cost of £1300 million for the floods as a whole. A YouGov poll showed that after the floods had taken place respondents were much more concerned about the environment and climate change. They first conducted the poll in mid-January and 6% of respondents put the environment in their top three issues of concern. By mid-February when the poll was reissued, this number had jumped hugely up to 23% of respondents. Interestingly, by April, when the poll was done for a third time, the number had decreased back down to 11% — even though the IPCC had just published two huge reports on the future of climate change. Clearly, being able to physically see environmental impacts has more of an effect on our levels of caring and propensity to taking action than reading scientific reports of the catastrophe to come.

Finally, it’s worth noting that any attempt to limit or eliminate CO₂ emissions to reduce the threats of climate change in the future will have negative impacts in the present day economically. We’re currently dependent on fossil fuels as a cheap form of energy, and so to transition to a fully renewable society would cost us short term. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it, but it sheds further light on why we struggle to care — our natural tendency is to take actions which will reward us positively immediately, we find it much harder to act now for future gain.

So how do we get people to start caring?

To me there are two practical solutions which would help to empower people to care more about climate change, even enough to change some of their own habits for more pro-environment options.

The first is to start voicing a positive picture of a low carbon future, and stop focusing entirely on the rhetoric of catastrophe in our communications about climate change. I do think there is a place for the alarmist writing which focuses on what our future will look like if warming continues, but I think we should have, alongside that, an alternative projection of what the future might look like if we transition to a low-carbon society in time. It seems much more likely to incite action.

The second is to apply the psychological principle of ‘nudging’ i.e. making the eco-friendly options the default option. One example of this in action is the increase in companies which enroll all employees into their pension, often in the level with the highest contribution. They’re unlikely to opt out if this is done for them, but if it isn’t they’re unlikely to opt in — missing out on extra income for their future selves. In terms of climate change, this means pushing for structural solutions that support climate policy. For instance, instead of telling people they must reduce their meat intake, we focus on making tasty plant-based alternatives the norm so that more people will choose them on a restaurant menu. Or, we might give tax incentives to those who choose to walk, cycle, or take public transport on their daily commute. Choosing the pro-environment option becomes the norm, rather than a difficult change that we need to make in our lives.

I want to end with a quotation from psychologist Per Espen Stoknes in his book What We’re Thinking About When We’re Trying Not to Think About Climate Change, that I think well sums up this approach to climate change communication and action:

“It’s time for a different approach: finding ways of engaging that go with the evolutionary flow of the human mind, rather than push against it.”