Climate change has shifted Earth’s topography to unimaginable lengths, changed political relations, and seeped into social discourse with the global climate strikes in 2019. Why have environmental messages failed in large part to encourage lifestyle change and promote sustainable habits? The Guardian conducted an interview with Dan Kahan – a professor of Psychology and Law at Yale University – revealing the interesting psychology behind this paradox. Kahan claims that it is not the lack of scientific knowledge and comprehension that prevent people from making change, but the lack of alignment environmental messages have with our pre-existing values and identities.
Schemas are our personal mental representations of the outside world, which in turn shape how we perceive and interact with daily stimuli. Therefore, our schemas on climate issues vary immensely, from how responsible we ought to feel and how empowered we are to speak on these issues, to how much action we feel is necessary to bring about positive change. Humans are pattern recognition creatures – our schemas and predispositions help us effectively process information but can also hinder us if information does not align with existing schemas and values.
According to Psychology Professor Dan Dolderman at the University of Toronto, reframing our schemas on climate issues to ones that are more personal may be a solution. We must recognise that climate change affects us all equally: it does not affect Republicans more than Democrats. Realising this reality means understanding that food shortages, month-long heat waves, frequent floods, and freak weather events will affect us all. As ocean levels rise, we may lose island nations like the Maldives. CO2 acidified oceans mean the extinction of coral and sea life. It is only a matter of time before we become personally affected. Climate change science tells us we are approaching a tipping point, that if global temperatures warm a further 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2030, our actions then will be completely futile. In time, climate issues could affect our commute, our social activities, and our health. By reframing and realigning these schemas to our personal lives, we become more invested to contribute to change.
Humans naturally exhibit a discounting bias, in that we are less likely to act towards something that affects us far later in the future, even when we are aware of it. For example, the long-term health benefits of working out are weighed less against the short-term cost of getting out of the house, driving to the gym, and planning a workout.
In the case of global warming, however, complacency today means allowing irreversible change to our planet to continue. Inaction now will threaten everything we treasure: from Earth’s natural landscapes to the livelihoods of our families and friends around the world. The benefit of acting now is immensely valuable: climate change advocacy today may save humanity from reaching our collective tipping point tomorrow.
Unfortunately, current environmental science research paints a bleak picture. Lifestyle changes like going vegan and cutting down on plastic use may not be fast enough to reverse the damage we have already caused. According to Ingmar Rentzhog – Swedish entrepreneur working alongside Greta Thunberg – we need to use our existing social networks to put pressure on policy makers and politicians to bring about system-level changes. Changes like commitments to renewable energy and landscape preservation. The power of the masses may be the only solution we have with the time left ticking. Rentzhog founded WeDon’tHaveTime in 2017, a tech start-up aimed at building networks through social media and leveraging that power on companies and governments. We have seen the potential of speech and social media – take the Hong Kong protests for example. Two million people took to the streets, united in June 2019, to protest against a controversial government bill. Similarly, through an equity crowdfunding initiative, Rentzhog’s Startup raised $1.2 million in 2018 and today has completed 800+ climate change campaigns. Ultimately, if we can bring the discourse on global warming into our social circles, we become much more interconnected, united, and capable of affecting change.
Margaret Mead, an American anthropologist, famously said – “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” If we can harness this approach moving forward, purposefully reframing our reality and empowering our social networks, we can continue to inspire one another and make progress step-by-step. We need to.
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