By Patrick O’Keeffe
The assumption has always been that climate change awareness raising leads to knowledge, which increases the likelihood of action. However, this is not necessarily the case. In the United States, public concern over the potential ramifications of climate change has dipped in the past few years. In particular, the Global Financial Crisis of 2008, which deeply unsettled the United States economy and led to rising unemployment levels overwhelmed concern for environmental issues such as climate change. Furthermore, concern for other issues, such as terrorism, gain much more traction with the United States public.
This raises a number of interesting issues. Awareness of climate change evidently is not the only problem. The 47% of Americans who rated climate change to be a very serious problem in 2006 did not forget about climate change overnight. However, by 2009, only 35% of Americans considered climate change to be a very serious problem. (Weber 2010, p.336) This indicates that awareness of climate change does not necessarily translate into concern over the impacts of climate change.
Elke Weber refers to the ‘finite pool of worry,’ stating that:
“As worry increases about on type of risk, concern about other risks has been shown to go down, as if people had only so much capacity for worry or a finite pool of worry. Increase concern about global warming may result in decreased concern about other risks.” (Weber 2010, p.338)
According to Weber, the amount of attention that can be used by any individual to process information is a finite resource — with so many competing targets for attention, climate change can be overtaken by more immediate concerns, such as employment, family, and economic survival. (Weber 2010, pp.334-335)
However, falling concern about the potential impacts of climate change could be attributed to a number of other causes. For example, the manner in which climate change is framed has a significant impact on how people receive the message of climate change. (Morton et al. 2011)
In particular, the uncertainty over climate change can be a considerable barrier preventing individual action to ameliorate the impacts of climate change. As stated by Morton et al., “communicating uncertainty can actively interfere with adaptive behavior.” (Morton et al. 2011, p.103) Morton et al. refer to a study conducted by Hine and Gifford (1996), which demonstrated that heightened environmental uncertainty increased the likelihood that people would act in their self interest, as opposed to acting for the betterment of their community. While this study potentially offers an insight into the human psyche, this also demonstrates the power of uncertainty, particularly in relation to environmental challenges. Furthermore, Morton et al. state that “when uncertainty triggers feelings of threat, this might lead to coping processes such as denial as people try to regain feelings of control over their environment.” (Morton et al. 2011, p.103)
The issue of control is particularly important with regard to climate change. Climate change is an issue of great magnitude, which can appear insurmountable. Furthermore, as individuals, people can feel completely powerless to have any influence over climate change. The perceived ability to act effectively and create change, or efficacy, is something that can be very powerful when confronting any challenge. The feeling that an individual is able to make a difference is much more likely to cause an individual to take action (Morton et al. 2011, p.103). However, without efficacy, uncertainty becomes a critical factor. As stated by Morton et al., “in the absence of efficacy, additional uncertainty is more likely to contribute to denial and defensiveness as people focus their attention on coping rather than responding.” This is a critical twist, and further underscores the crippling impact of uncertainty.
However, in the case of climate change, uncertainty can be particularly disarming. As mentioned by Morton et al., “being explicit about uncertainties is important for good science.” Climate scientists don’t necessarily make clear statements which indicate certainty. However, the public wants certainty. Therefore, in turn, those with a vested interest in delaying action on climate change are able to exploit that uncertainty, which is able to be used to further limit any concerted, public-driven action on climate change.
While uncertainty can restrict action on climate change, Gifford (2011, p.290) has identified seven further categories which limit action over climate change, which have been labelled as the seven ‘dragons of inaction’:
- limited cognition about the problem
- ideological worldviews that tend to preclude pro-environmental attitudes and behavior
- comparisons with key other people
- sunk costs and behavioral momentum
- discredence toward experts and authorities
- perceived risks of change
- positive but inadequate behavior change.
The second point raised by Gifford concerning the influence of worldview over climate change action is supported by Akerlof et al. (2012, p.3), who contend that this can be witnessed in the United States, where “growing political polarisation on climate change over the past decade has led to party affiliation and ideology becoming increasingly reliable indicators of climate change beliefs.” In a strange way, this suggests that climate change has become politicised to the extent that the people aren’t thinking about climate change independently, instead deferring to the particular political party that they follow for guidance.
Gifford’s ‘seven dragons of inaction’ lists “limited cognition about the problem” at the top. Certainly, lack of awareness of an issue prevents a person from acting on an issue. However, awareness is one challenge within many, which prevents action on climate change. Limiting activity to awareness raising, in this instance, can be ineffectual. This issue is highlighted by Dickinson (2009, p.1), who referred to the popularity of initiatives such as Al Gore’s The Climate Project, which operates under the assumption that awareness translates into action and promotion of advocacy. “Although short term behaviors often shift as a consequence of educational experiences, the resulting behavioral changes are typically short lived. We must question the assumption that increased knowledge of the dangers will generate a sustained, rational response.” (Dickinson 2009, p.2)
Dickinson refers to Dyson (2006, p.120), who studied responses to the AIDS virus:
“Humanity’s experience of another difficult ‘long’ threat – HIV/AIDS – reveals a broadly analogous sequence of human reactions. In short, (i) scientific understanding advances rapidly, but (ii) avoidance, denial and recrimination characterise the overall societal response, therefore (iii) there is relatively little behavioral change, until (iv) evidence of damage becomes plain.” (Dickinson (2009, p.2))
Dickinson states that the implication of the research suggests that “only direct experience with adverse outcomes leads to behavioral change.” The problem with regard to climate change is that, by the time people are directly exposed to climate change, the time for action may have passed.
Communicating the current uncertainties about climate change is an important challenge to overcome. However, determining how to ensure that climate change remains an issue of everyday concern requires considerable attention.
Image Credit: climate change sign via Shutterstock
Akerlof, K., Maibach, E., Fitzgerald, D., Cedeno, A., and Neuman, A., (2012), ‘Do people ‘personally experience’ global warming, and if so how, and does it matter?, Global Environmental Change, Article in Press.
Dickinson, J., (2009), ‘The people paradox: self-esteem striving, immortality ideologies, and humanresponse to climate change’, Ecology and Society, 14(1): 34. [online] URL: http://www.ecologyandsociety.
Dyson, T., (2006), ‘On development, demography and climate change: the end of the world as we know it?’, Population and Environment, 27, pp.117-149.
Gifford, R., (2011), ‘The dragons of inaction: Psychological barriers that limit climate change mitigation and adaptation’, American Psychologist, 66(4), pp.290-302.
Morton, T., Rabinovich, A., Marshall, D., and Bretschneider, P., (2011), ‘The future that may (or may not) come: How framing changes responses to uncertainty in climate change communications’, Global Environmental Change, 21(1), pp.103-109.
Hine, W., and Gifford, R., (1996), ‘Individual restraint and group efficiency in commons dilemmas: the effects of two types of environmental uncertainty’, Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 26 (1996), pp. 993–1009
Weber, E. U. (2010), What shapes perceptions of climate change?. WIREs Climate Change, 1, pp.332–342.