Silence about Climate Change doesn’t mean behaviours aren’t changing

Stefana Broadbent
Nov 14, 2016 · 3 min read

The concern about the consequences of global warming is quietly nagging us even if we rarely talk about it. Most people try to tackle their anxiety with their own personal strategies to reduce their footprint.

Last week I asked the audience of TEDx LakeComo to jot down how concerned they were about climate change on a scale of 1 to 10. Two thirds of the 432 respondents wrote a number between 7 and 10.

Most people are seriously worried about climate change. In many countries more than 70% of people questioned (Ipsos Mori Global Trends 2014 poll of 16.000 participants) say they are aware of global warming and believe it is caused by human activity. Even in the US (which has the lowest level of agreement on the causes of global warming), over 65% are worried about the consequences. Increasingly people fear that they and their families will experience the effects directly in their lifetime.

Worried but Silent

While people worry, it is rare however that climate change is a topic of conversation with family or friends. Our ethnographic research in London confirmed that even the most environmentally conscious participants rarely if ever discussed global warming with their friends. It was also seen as a topic mostly absent from their social media and seldom mentioned in the traditional media they were exposed to. This “spiral of silence” is explained by social psychologists Geiger and Swim 2016 as the effect of a systematic misattribution and mis-representation of other people’s level of interest in the issue. We tend in other words, to think that people around us are not worried by climate change and thus shun the embarrassment or conflict that we feel would emerge if we brought up the topic. The consequence of avoiding a potentially controversial issue is that we speak about it less and less, only increasing our feeling that it is not an appropriate topic to discuss in public.

Acting on the concern

The anxiety however is still there, quietly nagging us. The response to this fear is not hopelessness as many suggest, but the emergence of a silent personal set of strategies to transform some of our daily practices. The participants in our studies all described how many of their daily decisions about what they eat, how they travel, what they buy and how they keep warm, are informed by their attempt to reduce their footprint. From choosing local and seasonal food, to cycling and preferring trains over planes, from reducing their consumption to growing their own vegetables, they try to find ways to control their impact and regain some form of agency in a world they feel is unpredictable. In many cases they hope their efforts have some impact and hope that others are doing the same. Interestingly, the effect of their actions is not only translated in the carbon they are directly reducing by avoiding meat or cars, but also in a profound cultural change. By transforming deeply-seated practices around food, mobility, housing or clothes, they are addressing entrenched cultural conceptions about our relation to consumption and natural resources. They are quietly showing that lifestyles can be changed without renouncing mobility for instance or food variety. In fact most of their choices are empowering and as such give a new sense of agency in a very precarious world.

What we have been seeing in these last few months in our studies is that actions are going farther than words. Climate change may not be a topic for the dinner table but it is definitely affecting what is served on it.

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Stefana Broadbent

Written by

digital anthropologist, lecturer, co-founder If You Want To a platform for innovative sustainable solutions

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Innovative solutions for a sustainable life

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