Why don't we care about climate change?

Progress Namibia - Why don't we care about climate change?
03 October 2016

I am sure those of us who work in and feel the urgency and reality of climate change have often wondered why, despite our scientific understanding of climate change and its effects increasing, the concern for climate change continues to be stagnant (some studies show that it is even decreasing). This has also not a problem of education. Climate change doubt, it appears, is predominantly found in countries that are at the top of the scientific tree (US, UK, Japan, Australia and Germany).

In Windhoek, we are facing water crisis. And we know that these kinds of things will get worse, not better, in the coming years. But I still see traffic full of big cars with single drivers, fridge doors being left open in shops, air conditioning running non stop in closed office rooms, tumble dryers being used in the middle of summer, car engines running while passengers pop into the shop. In the past few days alone I have seen water being sprayed onto pavements to clean them, vividly green lawns in gardens in suburbia of Windhoek. In rich communities, people say 'I don't mind paying the fine; I don't want my garden to die.' As if dollar bills can replace water when we have none left.

Why, when we have the information, don't we do anything? There have been various studies on this. But a recent book written by Per Espen Stokes called 'What we think about when we try not to think about global warming' puts it all together quite nicely. He gives a lecture about it at the Stockholm Environment Institute (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=if9LBQm_yqA).

In his book, he outlines five barriers that the human psyche constructs when it comes to climate concern. The five Ds. Distance. Doom. Dissonance. Denial. Identity. People struggle with climate change they perceive it to be distant - in time, space and socially. There are many studies that show that humans don't respond well to the doom and gloom message - and 80% of our media articles use the doom narrative for climate change. We suffer from cognitive dissonance. Our actions conflict to some extent with the need to collectively address climate change. So either we modify one or both of the cognitions to make them compatible, or we try to justify our behaviour by adding other factors (like for instance, e.g. I recycle all my stuff so its okay if I fly across the world to go on holiday). Cognitive dissonance creates a demand for doubt. This is a key reason why climate skeptics have remained influential despite the overwhelming consensus in the scientific community. Denial is an easy one. Identity: aspects of our lifestyle are tangled up with our sense of identify. If these aspects of our lifestyle (like, for instance, the type of car we drive) are criticised, it can make us feel uncomfortable. We then tend to search for justifications for the features of our identity that come under threat.

So. Tough one. What can we do to get people to change our collective and individual ways and see the urgency of the climate crisis? Stokes talks about a new climate communication toolbox (something Futerra, a sustainability communications firm has been talking about for years). Communication needs a new narrative: the narrative needs to be social. Its needs to be simple: small, simple changes first. We need to use supportive framing - what are the opportunities in climate change (in Namibia, there are many!). We need to tell stories. People respond to stories they can relate to. And lastly, we need to use the right signals. Say, if our bank statements displayed our monthly carbon footprints, we would find it easier to engage with our personal consumption (there are apps for this now-a-days!).

For those of us working on climate change communication - do watch the lecture - it is a helpful tool. Even for those who actually know how serious climate change is, this is a great way to help us communicate it better to those who don't.

Image Credit: Steve Cutts, Modern World Caricature Illustrations.