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Climate change apathy, not denial, is the biggest threat to our planet

Opinion, Leo Barasi*

The easy way to cut emissions – closing coal power stations – is exhausted. Now the public has to be convinced to make sacrifices

Three years after world leaders signed the Paris climate agreement, we’re about to better understand what that deal means for how we live our lives. On Monday, a major report from the UN’s climate science panel will set out what it will take to limit global warming to 1.5C, the key Paris target.

There are reasons to think the world is, finally, getting to grips with climate change. Carbon emissions are still rising but more slowly than before, and in many countries they’re falling. The UK has slashed its emissions to 19th-century levels, and we’re not alone – plenty of other countries, including the US, are making progress as well. Crucially, that’s happened without many people noticing, suggesting the world might be able to deal with the problem without having to persuade the public to change their polluting lifestyles.

Studies confirm what we might guess: people lose motivation when they think others aren’t pulling their weight

But this is wishful thinking. The UK’s recent emissions cuts have mostly come from shutting coal power stations, which had few friends, and there aren’t many left to close. And that only happened after years of campaigning, but it was still much easier than what is to come. Cutting emissions further to stop dangerous warming will depend on people changing how they live: flying less and eating less meat and dairy, for example. There’s no way this can be done as quietly as what’s been achieved so far.

Persuading people to cut down on things they enjoy for the sake of the climate might seem impossible. In most European countries, about three-quarters of the public say they’re worried about climate change, yet less than a third would accept higher taxes on fossil fuels to cut emissions.

But this climate apathy can be overcome if it’s tackled in the right way. The first step is to understand the psychology behind apathy. Climate change is exactly the kind of threat our minds aren’t equipped to worry about. It seems distant, happening mostly in the future and to other people. The widespread tendency to think “I’ll be OK”, known as optimism bias, makes it easier for people to assume such distant problems won’t affect them.

Partisanship is a problem, too. Arguments about climate change are often polarised between left and right, and the public widely see it as a left issue. This is a problem because people are more likely to believe what they hear from those they identify with, and to reject what they hear from others. If they usually hear about climate change from leftwing people, the majority will tend to think it’s not for them.

The distance between emissions and their effects also makes it harder to feel guilty or outraged about them. It’s easy enough to be angry when a crime has an identifiable victim, and to feel ashamed when we are at fault. But climate change is double-blind: everyone’s emissions go into the same atmosphere and no one knows in advance who exactly will suffer. Burning fossil fuels isn’t a victimless crime, but it’s not instinctively obvious who the culprits and the victims are.

And there are more psychological barriers. Cutting emissions requires people to trust authorities to be competent, honest and fair – a tall order at a time when only a third of people say they trust government. Those authorities have to persuade the public to change how they live. But most people don’t like change, favour the status quo and are averse to losing what they have. This is compounded by the fear that others might be freeloading on our efforts. Studies confirm what we might guess: people lose motivation when they think others aren’t pulling their weight – it’s known as the sucker effect.

Yet, daunting though these barriers are, they can be beaten with political leadership and honesty. To start with, the international community has to admit its plans aren’t enough. Commitments to cut emissions, such as the Paris Agreement and the UK’s Climate Change Act, give the impression the problem is under control. It isn’t. The UK is set to miss its targets from the mid-2020s, while global plans are so weak they would, even if achieved, leave us on course for dangerous warming.

In a year in which extreme weather has battered every part of the planet, it shouldn’t be hard to demolish the belief that climate change is someone else’s problem. Those in the centre and right of politics who want serious action to be taken should be more prominent in the debate. You don’t have to agree with a Conservative about how to cut emissions to see that the issue looks more pressing when it can’t be dismissed as the special interest of one political faction. But everything rests on showing that the process is fair. When Donald Trump announced the US would pull out of the Paris agreement, he said it was because the deal was unfair, not because climate change itself was a hoax. Success depends not only on showing he was wrong about how the effort is shared between countries, but also on showing the effort is being shared fairly at home. Governments must be smarter than just taxing pollution – they will fail if most people have to change what they eat and where they go on holiday, while the rich can buy their way out of any sacrifices – and they have to be transparent about how they are sharing the burden fairly.

It won’t be all burden, though. Cutting emissions could bring benefits including clean air, new forests and well-insulated homes. Research suggests these can be the most persuasive arguments for climate action.

The BBC TV programme Blue Planet II transformed how we think about the impact consuming plastic has on the planet. Since its broadcast last year, we have had a tougher plastic bag tax, a ban on microbeads, calls for a latte levy on disposable cups, and supermarkets racing to scrap plastic packaging. This happened because it made us face up to the way our lives contradict our values. The show first made us fall in love with the oceans, before confronting us with what we’re doing to them: albatrosses, turtles and whales choking on the rubbish we – each of us, personally – throw away.

But Blue Planet II didn’t produce a similar outcry about climate change. That may not seem a problem so long as there are emissions cuts that don’t rely on people in vast numbers changing how they live. But as the world faces up to what it will take to limit warming to 1.5C, it’s clear this road is running out. There’s no way to stop dangerous warming that doesn’t involve the public.

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* In The Guardian, on Oct.5, 2018 .Leo Barasi is the author of The Climate Majority: Apathy and Action in an Age of Nationalism, published by New Internationalist. Leo Barasi writes about public opinion on the website Noise of the Crowd 

 

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