According to the latest data from the Pew Research Center, 48 percent of American adults now believe that climate change is mostly caused by human activity. The vast majority of us think that global warming will negatively affect the future of the planet. And yet, only 36 percent of us report caring a great deal about the issue, and only 20 percent say they make an effort to always live in a way that protects the environment.
Every day, different theories arise as to why people who believe that human behavior causes climate change aren't more eager to shift their own practices. Last month on his podcast, plant-based Ironman Rich Roll likened human behavior to a black box, saying that it's difficult for us to change habits we've been entrenched in our whole lives. In a recent interview with mindbodygreen, National Geographic explorer David Gruber theorized that our inaction results from the fact that we inherently don't want to accept and react to bad news unless we absolutely have to.
So in the end, what's to blame? Is it routine, complacency, or a lack of understanding that's keeping us from more meaningful change? According to one of the most comprehensive studies on the question, it all comes down to our psychology.
The 2008 analysis Psychology & Global Climate Change used established knowledge on psychological processes to explore what's keeping us from taking more aggressive action, and its authors identified a variety of mental barriers. Considering how much the climate discussion has changed in the nine years since the study's publication, we asked the brains behind the study for a status update on the drivers of inaction and how we can overcome them. Here's what they had to say:
Why we aren't doing more.
A few of the psychological barriers identified in the report include lack of control (the belief that our individual action won't make a difference), undervaluing risks (the perception of climate change as a far-in-the-future problem), and mistrust (the opinion that climate change facts are inaccurately reported by the government and the media).
The study also found that our cultural values, beliefs, and geographic location are strong influences. For instance, people who have been personally affected by extreme weather events are significantly more likely to be concerned about the adverse effects of climate change. (That's 45 percent of people in Australia, 39 percent of people in the States, and 90 percent of those in the Philippines.)
Susan Clayton, the chair of psychology at the College of Wooster, still sees this mix of emotional and ideological factors at play today. "Climate change is difficult to think about. Very few of us really understand the geophysical processes involved. We can’t directly perceive these changes; the world looks pretty much the same to us. Climate change is also emotionally difficult. It’s scary; it asks us to deal with uncertainty, which is uncomfortable; people may feel as if they are being made to feel guilty about their lifestyle choices, which makes them defensive."
She adds that cultural and political drivers also still play a role. "Climate change may seem to be incompatible with some strongly held belief systems. For example, some people have religious beliefs that say God is in charge of the earth and humans couldn’t possibly affect it. Other people are committed to the free market and resist any suggestion that government intervention is necessary to address the problem. In the U.S. at the moment, political ideology represents a barrier because climate change has been cast as an issue of the left."
Has anything changed?
While we're still working against a lot of ingrained resistance, both Clayton and Joseph Reser, a psychology professor at Griffith University who also worked on the study, believe that we're making progress.
"I do think we have made substantial progress in what we are distilling, offering, and suggesting to climate change scientists, policymakers, and the public," says Reser. Clayton agrees that climate change issues are now being discussed in a more public forum, making them harder to ignore. "There’s also been progress in emphasizing solutions to climate change and not just scaring people about the magnitude of the problem. Political polarization, however, has gotten worse, perhaps due to the current administration’s position," she adds.
Can we rewire our brains to act according to our values?
Reser and Clayton agree that certain actions can help make green living more second nature. In the initial study, they hypothesized that immediate positive feedback could motivate individuals to make more sustainable choices. For example, people are probably more likely to invest in energy-efficient appliances if they are given immediate feedback on how much energy—and therefore money—they could save every time they use them.
It all comes down to making climate change personal and rooting it in the present whenever possible. "People evolved to address more short-term issues," explains Clayton. "It is hard to visualize the abstract and long-term challenges, and in some ways this requires us to suppress our more instinctual inclinations. We can also become more informed about the personal and immediate impacts of climate change, such as the spread of Lyme disease, the increased toxicity of poison ivy, and the threat to coffee crops, [which] feel more immediate because I can easily imagine how they will affect me."
So start by asking yourself if the decisions you're making are in line with your environmental beliefs right now. And when that doesn't work, imagine what your future self would say. "It requires deliberate effort to think about the long term and about humanity as a whole, but we can prompt ourselves to do it. Guidelines like 'What will you tell your grandchildren about how you addressed climate change?' are attempts to do that."
So while the ultimate trajectory and timeline of climate change are somewhat unpredictable, we don't need to let that throw us off. If you are passionate about easing your impact on the planet, remind yourself of that commitment on a more regular basis and notice how it starts shaping your routine.
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