The planet is getting warmer, climate systems are changing and it’s “extremely likely” this warming is man-made, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s latest report, released at the end of September.
The new report uses the strongest words yet on the issue — and some climate experts still believe the IPCC estimates are “conservative.”
And yet, individuals aren't doing much to limit or lessen their carbon footprint. We’re actually doing so little, psychologists have been studying why for decades.
“When there’s a new issue to think about, in this case, climate change, people form their attitudes toward the new issue based on their underlying values,” psychologist Paul Stern, PhD, of the National Academies of Science, told Weather.com. Dr. Stern has researched human reactions to global changes, including climate change, for decades. He contributed to a comprehensive report on the psychological challenges surrounding climate change, which the American Psychological Association published in 2009.
Some people’s value systems prioritize the collective good. Others prioritize their individual lives, making action around a vague and distant threat that’s largely perceived as a merely academic debate psychologically unlikely.
Some people don't act because they feel they can’t control the outcome, or the issue provokes too much anxiety, so they choose to look the other way — just temporarily, they believe.
Cass Sunstein, President Obama’s former regulatory chief, wrote last month in an op-ed for Bloomberg that people don’t view risk associated with climate change the same as a more tangible threat. “An act of terrorism, for example, is likely to be both available and salient, and hence makes people fear that another such event will occur (whether it is likely to or not),” he wrote. “By contrast, climate change is difficult to associate with any particular tragedy or disaster.”
Some scientists believe manmade climate change made events such as Hurricane Sandy or the recent Colorado wildfires and flooding either worse or more likely than they would have been otherwise, but it’s difficult to say by how much. There’s still a great deal of uncertainty among the scientific community, Dr. Jeff Masters of Weather Underground told Weather.com last week.
To nonscientists, uncertainties may be misinterpreted. “Well-meant efforts by climate-change experts to characterize what they do and do not know [can lead] to systematic underestimation of risk,” the 2009 APA report noted. “Scientists are left with the problem of how to present the risk honestly while not promoting misguided optimism and justifying inaction.”
Plus, with rare events, such as the Colorado flood, it’s hard for the average person to identify risk based on their personal experiences. “If a 100-year flood becomes a 30-year flood, what does that mean about when the next one is going to come around?” Dr. Stern said. “The issue is about the difficulty of understanding rare events.”
The owners of Sylvan Dale Guest Ranch outside of Loveland, Colo., are the perfect examples of this principle, ranch owner David Jessup explained to NPR after the storm. A flood destroyed the ranch in the ‘70s; they rebuilt after the last flood in a way that they thought storm-proofed their property. But when September’s flood hit — it was twice as large as the 1976 surge — their property was destroyed, and they have no flood insurance to cover it because they thought they were safe.
Climate-change deniers also majorly contribute to mass climate inaction, Dr. Stern said. “They say it’s nothing to worry about; it’s not caused by human activity, so you don’t have a responsibility to do anything or care,” Dr. Stern said. “This attitude is particularly strong in the U.S. and somewhat in the U.K., but in other countries it’s rare — almost nonexistent.”
Life-changing action is also difficult. “When people decide they ought to do something, there’s a question of what to do and whether the information that’s out there is trustworthy,” Dr. Stern said. Evaluating the costs and benefits of installing solar panels in your home is time consuming and difficult, and it’s hard to know whether you can trust contractors and energy providers to create the most benefit, he explained. It took Dr. Stern six years to install solar panels on his own home, for example, even when he bought the home thinking he'd immediately do so.
When individuals take small actions — they recycle or carry reusable grocery bags — they think that they’ve done their part, Dr. Stern said, and they mentally cross it off their to-do list. “People need help prioritizing the steps they can take to lessen their carbon footprint,” he added. (Dr. Stern and a colleague actually published a shortlist on the most effective actions people and businesses can take against climate change in Environment Magazine in 2009.)
So what would make us collectively change our ways, and fight manmade climate change on an individual level? From a psychological perspective, a little bit of everything must occur, Stern said: More severe weather events with human impacts, fewer climate deniers, easy, accessible guides to lessening our carbon footprint and a renewed sociological focus on acting for the collective good.
MORE: Amazing Images of Climate Change
The Ash Creek Fire seen here is one of some 27,000 fires which have destroyed nearly 2 million acres of the western U.S. since the start of 2012. Extremely dry conditions, stiff winds, unusually warm weather, and trees killed by outbreaks of pine bark beetles have provided ideal conditions for the blazes. (Credit: NASA)