Recently climate change and the sustainability agenda have exploded into social and political focus, moving from the fringes of political and social discussion to the forefront and for very good reasons. The wealth of scientific and social evidence that our lives have a direct impact on our planet and climate has become overwhelming. The impacts of these changes – air quality, plastic pollution, food shortages, increased severity of floods, heatwaves, droughts, rainforest fires, coral reef bleaching, climate refugees, and biodiversity loss, to name but a few – are rarely out of the news.
With this increased awareness of our impacts on the environment, we are also witnessing a positive social movement. More people and companies are now working hard to live in a more sustainable manner. Every day in our office, we talk about reducing our own consumption, reusing what we already have, and enjoy a rather extensive recycling system. The Six Christmas campaign this year is focused on ‘Dreaming of a Green Christmas’ and we are all brimming full of ideas that can reduce our impact at this time of year.
But even with my very best intentions which, as a Climate Change Science and Policy MSc student could be seen as more motivated than average, I find it so easy to slip back into my more wasteful lifestyle. This got me thinking, why do we find managing our behaviour to support the environment, at times, such a struggle?
In this blog, I outline the fruits of my researching labour and how, armed with this new understanding of the psychological barriers to climate change, I am recognising my flaws and challenging them.
What is blocking my individual actions on climate change?
Well, it doesn’t help that it is a difficult concept to grasp. Research has shown the concept of climate change sits at the intersection of a number of sticky psychological and moral impasses1.
- Climate change is complex and the realities involve long time horizons and faraway places.There are many different yet seemingly interconnected factors and events that result in climate change – political, scientific, financial and so on. What’s more, the victims are often geographically and socially distant from us. Or we are told to act now for the future generations. This lack of immediacy requires us to sit down and have a think about cold, hard moral obligations. And that isn’t fun. It’s Christmas.
- Climate change was and is an unintentional consequence. It is easy to solve a challenge, or push against it and be motivated to change when we fundamentally disagree with the intentions of the group at fault. But no one group knew this was going to happen, so who or what do we push against to find the motivation we need? Which leads onto the last moral impasse.
- Climate change isn’t our fault, yet we do feel guilty about it. Now, this guilt probably came about because everyone from governments to companies, countries to individuals hold each other accountable for the unintended side effects of our behaviour and lifestyle. But the effect of what psychologists call ‘guilty bias’ is to minimise the degree to which we feel accountable by playing the blame game, ignoring the problem or (worst of all) refuting the evidence.
We are left at the centre of a very grey moral zone and if you are anything like me, feeling trapped between wanting to fight for this cause but feeling utterly helpless to affect any real change. But all is not lost…
How am I challenging my own psychological barriers?
- I take responsibility for my own contribution. In other words, I reject my own brain’s guilty bias and accept the way I live has, and will have, completely unintentional side effects on the environment. By accepting this I am now so motivated to minimise and balance my very unintentional impact.
- The money I spend gives me influence. While it is very difficult to untangle myself from the complicated and interconnected factors of climate change, I try to promote environmental sustainability at a wider scale than just myself by considering where I spend my money. For example, trying to influence companies to stop using non-recyclable materials may feel as futile as screaming into a storm, but by taking my spending away from them I hit them where it really hurts.
- No more blame game. Just as no one group intentionally caused climate change, no one is fully to blame and, as such, no one has full responsibility. As governments, companies, countries and individuals, we all need to stop pointing the finger and start changing our behaviours if we are going to get ourselves out this pickle.
- I can make a difference – no matter how small I feel my actions are, they are making a difference. Imagine if all of us make more small changes what a big difference it would make. Did you know that the average UK home’s carbon footprint has already reduced by 4.7 tonnes of CO2 since 1990, and while a further reduction of 3.6 tonnes is required by 2030 if we are to hit UK targets2, we have made a difference. From recycling to following my family around the house turning off lights, I have already made changes that have reduced my impact, mitigated any further impact on air quality in my local area and saved myself some money.
Learning about the psychological barriers to halting climate change and how to challenge them has helped me to reframe the challenge in my mind. By understanding the moral stickiness of the issue, I now actively reflect on my own internal biases and behaviours. As a result, I’m finding it easy to stick to my environmentally friendly lifestyle. Mostly because I am starting to live with environmental boundaries that mean I support the environment in a way that is best for me, and not because I feel like I should, but because I want to.
Now, this is my dream of a green Christmas.
- Markowitz, E. and Shariff, A. (2014) ‘Climate Change and Moral Judgment’. doi: 10.1038/NCLIMATE1378.