The rational reaction to any problem involves the identification of its nature and thus coming up with feasible ways of solving it. However, in the case of climate change, denial, inaction and avoidance of the problem are common instead. This is caused by a number of reasons, understanding of which can improve the way of public communication and discussion on global warming.
Moral licensing – what can hinder us from consistently taking positive action?
An interesting psychological effect has been observed in relation to good deeds, with the first study on the topic appearing in 2001. Researchers noticed that after doing something morally good people exhibit a greater tendency to later display unethical or problematic behaviours, just as if the good deed acted as a sort of a ‘license’ to do so. Many studies have resulted in similar observation, however, the full scope of this tendency and the specific circumstances under which it occurs are not yet known. Nonetheless, such an effect has also been observed to be triggered by environmentally friendly action – participants in a 2010 study conducted in Canada displayed immoral tendencies (eg. lying and stealing) after purchasing “green products” more often than after buying regular goods. Positive contributions to the environment can make us feel like we have earned enough “points” to be forgiven more selfish activities. And so buying green products or saving energy can, for example, become a “license” to commute by car instead of using public transport.
The way we respond to long-term threats is also a part of the problem
From the evolutionary point of view, our brains are “trained” to respond to immediate threats, since, for the bigger part of human history, they were the most dangerous to our existence. This makes it difficult for us to react to threats that feel to be far away – both in terms of time and physical distance. Many people have not yet experienced severe immediate consequences of global warming such as extreme weather events, furthermore, the climate is changing constantly, but over years, not overnight.
In a 2018 European Social Survey on attitudes to climate change and energy, respondents from most participating European countries expressed serious concern about energy affordability more often than concern about climate change. This can be surprising, given that a large majority of them also admitted to believing that the consequences of global warming are a serious problem. Issues resulting from decreasing energy affordability are however easier to imagine and may seem more immediate and relevant to our current lives, what can explain this trend.
An example of a similar case is an unhealthy diet – although its dangerous consequences such as obesity or heart diseases are widely known, they do not manifest themselves instantly, and so it is easy to fall into a trap of bad eating habits. Inaction in the face of climate change is often grounded in the same phenomenon.
Other problematic reactions to climate change are denial and avoidance of the topic, which may occur when we are faced with a problem so complicated, we can hardly grasp the full scope of it. The possible solutions are extremely difficult and impossible to pull off by an individual, which makes us feel we do not have any control over it. Declining to acknowledge the problem stems therefore from the need to cope with resulting negative emotions like fear and stress.
How can this knowledge be used in communication on climate change?
The reaction of denial and passiveness is at least partly influenced by the way in which knowledge on climate crisis is communicated. Many campaigns aim to grab attention by evoking fear, which they can be quite successful at. However, unless they do so without presenting solutions feasible for an individual, they will not be effective at driving action and will contribute to passive attitudes instead.
Communication can also be improved by stressing that environmentally friendly solutions are in everyone’s interest (for example saving energy and buying more used product helps us save money). That way, the effects of positive action seem more immediate. This can be done not only in public campaigns but also on an individual level, for example when we wish to convince a friend or a relative to engage in responsible behaviour.
Blanken, I., van de Ven, N. and Zeelenberg, M. (2015). A Meta-Analytic Review of Moral Licensing. [online] Researchgate.net. Available at: https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Marcel_Zeelenberg/publication/272837497_A_Meta-Analytic_Review_of_Moral_Licensing/links/552253ad0cf2f9c13052a936/A-Meta-Analytic-Review-of-Moral-Licensing.pdf [Accessed 3 Jan. 2020].
Fritze, J., Blashki, G., Burke, S. and Wiseman, J. (2008). Hope, despair and transformation: Climate change and the promotion of mental health and wellbeing. [online] BMC. Available at: https://ijmhs.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1752-4458-2-13 [Accessed 2 Jan. 2020].
Mazar, N. and Zhong, C. (2010). Do Green Products Make Us Better People?. [online] SAGE Journals. Available at: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0956797610363538 [Accessed 3 Jan. 2020].
Poortinga, W., Fisher, S., Bohm, G., Steg, L., Whitmarsh, L. and Ogunbode, C. (2018). European Attitudes to Climate Change and Energy: Topline Results from Round 8 of the European Social Survey. [ebook] European Social Survey, pp.4-6. Available at: https://www.europeansocialsurvey.org/docs/findings/ESS8_toplines_issue_9_climatechange.pdf [Accessed 3 Jan. 2020].
Wójcik, A. and Wrzos, M. (2018). Nie bądźmy pesymistami klimatycznymi!. [online] Zielone Wiadomości. Available at: https://zielonewiadomosci.pl/tematy/ekologia/nie-badzmy-pesymistami-klimatycznymi/ [Accessed 3 Jan. 2020].