The fight to stop climate change is on.
At least, it feels like it’s on. And yet, the changes we’ve made have not even come close to reversing the increasing temperature of the planet, simply because those changes aren’t big enough. At the same time, the way the world reacted to the threat of coronavirus has been huge: countries on lockdown, crashed stock markets, cancelled holidays…
So why aren’t we making the drastic changes required to fight the climate crisis, while our answer to coronavirus has been so strong in comparison?
The statistics are fairly well known to most of us, after all.
The planet is rapidly heating up, and we’ve been living in unprecedented times for several years — 19 of the 20 warmest years on record have occurred since 2001.
A recent study by Greenpeace reports that air pollution from fossil fuels causes approximately 4.5 million premature deaths worldwide annually. Exposure to PM2.5 (fossil fuel-generated fine particulate matter) is responsible for 7.7 million asthma-related hospital visits and 1.8 billion sick days every year.
Compare that to the other threat we’ve all experienced this year: COVID-19.
At the time of writing, it has been responsible for almost half a million deaths — but it’s just 11% of the number caused by air pollution.
11% — and yet the global response to this global pandemic has been swift, news coverage has been all-encompassing and all our lives have changed as a result.
So why have the efforts to stop coronavirus been so much more than to stop climate crisis?
It’s a question that psychologists are well positioned to throw light on.
The Speed Read:
1. The climate crisis is the biggest threat to humanity that has ever been faced.
2. Cognitive psychology provides several explanations as to why it’s not being treated as such.
3. The chance to rebuild the world in a more climate-positive way is being largely passed over in favour of fast economic recovery.
Climate change and coronavirus: The psychology
While the difference in responses might seem inexplicable, the science of human behaviour is something that psychologists have been studying for a long time.
Many of us probably have a gut feeling about why the climate crisis hasn’t provoked worldwide change, ranging from feelings like “it’s not impacted me yet” to “I don’t know what to do about it”.
And both of those feelings are valid.
The problem of the climate crisis is somewhat of a perfect storm, intersecting nicely to make it as difficult as possible for our brains to process the information in such a way that prompts action.
There are several psychological phenomena at play when we’re reacting to a threat.
Reason #1: “I need to wash my hands” vs “It’s impossible for me to do anything”
In order to pay attention to a problem, we need to feel like there is a solution, according to Stanford psychologist Jon Krosnick. If we feel helpless or like the solution is too complicated and nuanced, we stop paying attention in an attempt to preserve our own sanity.
And while the threat of coronavirus doesn’t have anything as simple as a vaccine yet, the one consistent piece of advice — wash your hands regularly — does at least make us feel like we can make a difference.
In contrast, making consistently climate-positive decisions can sometimes feel like a Sisyphean task, except instead of trying to push a rock up a mountain, we’re recycling our jars while cutting down on our flights while eating less meat while remembering to take our Keep Cup to the coffee shop.
It’s no wonder we feel exhausted.
Reason #2: “It’s happening right now” vs “It’s happening in 5, 10 or 20 years time”
As the psychologist Daniel Gilbert says: “Many environmentalists say climate change is happening too fast. No, it’s happening too slowly. It’s not happening nearly quickly enough to get our attention.”
This is because we tend to discount the importance of future events, relative to events happening right now. The future is still an abstract concept, while we can think in specifics about what is happening now or in the near future.
To understand why humans think of the future so abstractly, we need to understand a bit of neuroscience.
It turns out, our brains place high value on instant gratification because they were built for immediate-return environments: the kind of environments where our actions instantly delivered clear and immediate outcomes. This saved lives back in the day of our ancestors, when they had to worry about where to sleep to avoid predators in the wild.
Now, if we switch back to our modern society, many of the choices we have to make today are designed for a delayed-return environment: you save now, you have a good retirement later; you take less flights now, you have a positive impact on the climate later.
The problem is that the human brain hasn’t evolved to operate in delayed-return environments. In fact, even the newest part of the brain — the neocortex — evolved roughly 200 hundred thousand years ago (which brings us closer to our Paleolithic ancestors than we thought). This means that we’re still operating with our immediate-return brains in delayed-return environments. So no wonder our brain tells us “Don’t worry about this Susan, let’s focus on the now and survive one day at a time” when it comes to the climate crisis — which still seems like a blurry, distant future in comparison to COVID-19.
This timeline conundrum also plays into another psychological phenomenon: temporal discounting.
This shows that we have a tendency to overestimate short term benefits, while simultaneously underestimating long term ones (just ask anyone who has reached for that third glass of wine despite having a spin class the next morning). The prospect of avoiding the virus feels, relatively speaking, a lot more immediate than saving the planet.
However, extreme weather events are occurring with more frequency around the world every year. In Canada alone, the cost of catastrophic losses due to extreme weather events have risen from an average of $500 million a year in the 1980s to a billion dollars every year from 2009 onwards (with the exception of 2015).
It’s very clear to everyone that climate change is happening as we speak, but our brains haven’t yet caught up with that fact.
Reason #3: “I’ve got a friend who’s had COVID-19” vs “I’ve heard water scarcity is a problem in the developing world”
Construal level theory argues that when things are viewed from a distance — either literally in terms of geography, or cognitively in terms of time — we are more likely to see them as abstract.
So, if water shortages are happening in sub-Saharan Africa, most of us are not forced to take action because of specifics, we can merely ponder it as an abstract. And as humans, we just don’t feel motivated to make changes based on abstract concepts.
It’s the events that are happening right now that we are able to pack full of detail — how the event makes us feel, what it looks like, sounds like, smells like. When we have yet to experience something, we’re relying on our memories to build a mental image for us. The closer an event gets, the more information we receive about the specifics of an event, which allows us to fill in the blanks with more reliable — and actionable — information.
Contrast this with the specific knowledge each of us now holds about COVID-19 and it’s easy to see how our imaginings of the illness are, comparatively, in technicolour. It’s been the main topic of conversation, news coverage and logistical planning for the past few months, allowing each of us to build a very specific mental image of what coronavirus would feel like for us (if we haven’t already experienced it).
Reason #4: “I don’t want my mother to get ill” vs “I’m not sure exactly how climate change is going to affect me”
The theory behind loss aversion is that we are far more sensitive to losses than gains, but these losses need to be specific and measurable.
For instance, climate change could manifest itself in any number of ways — too much water, not enough water, happening on your front door step, happening somewhere on the other side of the world. In contrast, we are all well aware of the specifics of coronavirus, from the symptoms and complications, to the vulnerable demographics.
It’s a theory that has put psychologists in a pessimistic mood when it comes to stopping climate change. As Daniel Gilbert of Harvard University says: “A psychologist could barely dream up a better scenario for paralysis.”
But it’s not all doom and gloom. This same theory can be used to change behaviour. It’s already been done successfully with smokers, penalising them for smoking rather than rewarding them for not.
Apply that same theory to recycling, and it can be as simple as charging someone more to buy a coffee in a disposable cup rather than giving someone with a reusable cup a discount. Results are already encouraging: when Starbucks put in place a 5p charge for their cups, they saw three times more people bring their own.
It’s become apparent over the past few months that coronavirus and the climate crisis have become inextricably linked.
Hundreds of cancelled events meant thousands of flights not taken. Commuting was down and video conferencing was up. Globally, greenhouse gas daily emissions fell 17% in April compared with 2019 levels.
And there was optimism that these changes could be here to stay.
Today’s reality is somewhat different, with experts highlighting a risk that emission levels may rise to even higher levels than before. Even with the dip during the first part of the year, 2020’s levels are predicted to be only 4-7% lower than last year’s, which won’t be enough to fulfill the Paris agreement on climate change.
While hashtags like #BuildBackBetter speaks to a growing awareness that there is an opportunity to put green stimulus projects into action, it’s governments that hold the real power to create a global unity. And with airlines receiving massive bailout packages and a global focus to get businesses back online fast, it seems the opportunity to rethink global infrastructure in a more climate-aware way is passing us by.