I counted at least 10 articles on climate change in one recent edition of the local paper, writes Amanda Cole. And that was without including those that referred to climate change within a wider piece. This suggests we really don’t need any more information about climate change and the devastating impacts it will have.
So why do I, as a psychologist, think there is room for another article? Psychologists have something to offer because we spend time trying to understand and make sense of human behaviour. We know around 80% of people are concerned about climate change. And yet, an average of only 10% of us is doing anything effective about it.
One reason for this is that we are much more motivated to do things that are likely to make us feel good than stay with bad feelings. Knowing that climate change is happening, and that governments aren’t doing enough about it, is bound to make us feel bad. In response, most of us either stop thinking about it, reassure ourselves we are doing all we can, such as recycling and reducing waste (and that this is effective and will reduce our carbon footprint), or believe that others (governments, businesses) are solely responsible for the solutions.
Unfortunately, that leaves us in the difficult position of being bombarded with facts about climate change, and experiencing the effects, like huge storms and flooding, but believing there is nothing more we can do about it. Understandably, and quite reasonably, this can lead us to feel anxious, hopeless, and sometimes depressed. There is evidence this is happening, especially, but not exclusively, among young people.
Is there a solution? Yes, more than one. For a start, we know that doing something new about climate change will lessen the emotional effects of doing nothing. Even more importantly, we are more likely to change our behaviour if we choose to do so rather than being told to by someone else. We are also more likely to stick with a change if we choose it ourselves.
Our choices need to fit with our circumstances, our lifestyles, and our values. We need to feel good about helping to make a difference, rather than seeing changes we make as a sacrifice or a loss of something. Feeling good makes it more likely we will go on to choose something else to change. It doesn’t matter if changes we make are big ones (switching to an electric car, investing in a heat pump) or small ones (driving less and more slowly, buying unpackaged and local food). What matters is that it makes us feel good.
Making changes can lead to unintended positive consequences, like being fitter or saving money. You may have experienced this when you changed your behaviour due to the pandemic. It may seem that being asked to think about the climate is yet more unwelcome pressure in tough times. And yet the things we can do to help generally tend to make the cost of living less, and will keep us healthier and happier. And it’s great to know for the future that renewable energy is now less expensive than energy generated from coal and gas.
Another powerful point is that we sometimes can’t see or measure the impact we are making, so we may go back to old habits. However, there is evidence from social scientists that our communities and our culture are changing as we move towards a more sustainable future.
Changes in society take time to document so don’t imagine your little bit is not making a difference. It is subtle, but just below the surface, our thinking, our behaviour and our values are shifting. We are moving towards ‘positive tipping points’ where ideas like eating fewer meat meals or flying less are becoming normal instead of ‘alternative’. These tipping points can be hugely influential on businesses and politicians, as well as on more vulnerable communities and societies where the freedom to choose is more limited.
So here is the main message. Don’t do nothing. Choose something you really WANT to change. And talk to people about it. Climate change won’t wait for us. The time to act is NOW.
Amanda Cole is a member of ACT