Climate change and public behaviour

It has been over three decades since the Rio Summit of 1992 and the signing of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC). The growing evidence since that time has established climate change as a fact, with scientists warning that time is running out to prevent the effects of runaway global warming. Yet, world nations have failed to reduce or stabilise greenhouse gas emissions and fossil fuel usage over this period.

No end in sight

Thus, not only has the use of coal, oil and gas increased steadily since 1992 but their use is projected to remain stable over the next few decades. The International Energy Agency forecasts fossil fuel usage peaking by 2030 under assumptions of continuing addition of renewable capacity and adoption of electric vehicles. But emissions will remain at levels well above those required for limiting temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Tellingly, a 2023 report by the United Nations Environment Program highlights that governments worldwide are still planning for a coal- and oil-dependent future and expanding fossil fuel investments.

Slow progress is often assumed to be due to the associated economic costs. Fossil fuels such as coal and oil are abundant and cheap, compared to renewable alternatives. Developing countries like India and China have relied on coal and oil to fuel their growing economies and asked for financing from developed countries to increase the usage of renewables. On the other hand, no developed country is ready to commit itself to drastic changes involving sacrifices in economic growth and citizens’ standard of living. While the economic aspects are undeniable, discussions miss important psychological and behavioural aspects that explain the lack of urgency on climate change.

It has long been recognised that the effects of climate change are not direct and obvious. Many people believe that the consequences of climate change will be felt in the distant future, not in their lifetime. This is in line with research suggesting that most people have limited ability to imagine the future beyond 10-20 years. The timelines of a distant future, such as activists urging governments to act for the sake of ‘future generations’, or scientists predicting what will happen to the earth by the year 2050 or 2100, are not meaningful for most people and national governments.

Researchers have further found that people are prone to believing that the adverse effects will be felt elsewhere and that their own lives will be unaffected. Various global warming-related phenomena such as prolonged drought in Europe, shrinking Himalayan glaciers and increased tropical cyclones are not seen as part of climate change, but rather individual events happening elsewhere to other people. Even when global warming has local effects, such as an early onset of summer or erratic rainfall, many individuals have lost contact with the natural world and are not as tuned to these changes.

Global warming is thus abstract and distant. In this, it bears similarities with the risks associated with tobacco use. Ordinary consumers cannot estimate the harm to themselves because they do not perceive any serious adverse effects in the short term and discount the possibility of harm happening in the future. Even when they believe smoking to be harmful, they are likely to believe that they will be spared of the worst effects.

Behavioural issues

Policymakers are aware of how the general public perceives climate change. For populist leaders like Donald Trump and Jair Bolsanaro, denial of climate change was a cynical way of pandering to their constituents. Even when leaders acknowledge the science behind climate change, they have preferred a policy of ‘wait and watch’; there is little appetite for pushing changes that will prove to be unpopular with the public or damage national economies.

There are other behavioural aspects which determine our response to global warming. Research suggests that increased optimism about what will happen to the self and the world at large, known as the optimism bias, is associated with less concern and responsibility for the environment. Understandably, if one does not believe that the worst effects of climate change will come to pass, they are less likely to make or promote the changes to address those effects.

Optimism bias also manifests in the way influential people in politics and business oppose hard measures on climate change. They reason that imminent crises, such as the population explosion and food shortage, were solved through technological advancements. They do not see any value in sacrificing present economic growth and instead place trust in developing methods such as carbon sequestration and hydrogen-powered vehicles.

Moving from individuals to society and nations, perhaps the most formidable behavioural hindrance to action on climate change is the problem of free riders. In economics and social psychology, the free rider problem is the propensity of individuals and groups to derive benefit from something without paying or participating. Given that reductions in emissions by any one nation benefit all nations equally, every country has an incentive to not drastically reduce itself, while hoping to benefit from the reductions by other countries. For instance, it would suit very much the bloc of developing countries led by China and India, if Americans and Europeans stopped using cars, cut down on unnecessary air travel and switched to a vegetarian diet, without imposing similar restrictions on their affluent classes.

The desire to free-ride is borne out by the protracted negotiations between the developed and the developing nations, and amongst the various countries themselves, all of which are wary of doing too much without reciprocation from others. On the one hand, developing countries try to avoid binding commitments citing their per capita low emissions and the need to develop. For their part, the developed nations point to the large populations of India, China and the African continent, which they say account for the bulk of emission increases.

Way out

What are some possible solutions? Researchers suggest that an effort should be made to link current events with climate change and activists should focus more on the present than the distant future in their communications. To a certain extent, this is already the case: When scientists communicate that such and such month was the hottest ever recorded or when they report on the low levels of arctic ice. Researchers also suggest avoiding abstract figures and using concrete examples. For instance, when mentioning a 1.5 percent rise in temperature, they should also describe what this would mean for the planet. Getting the right communication strategy is however only part of the solution.

The optimism bias should be dealt with by pointing out that what worked in the past may not necessarily work in the future. It should be pointed out that the short-term economic cost that technological optimists desire to avoid is minimal compared to the potentially catastrophic future losses in the event there are no satisfactory technological solutions for capturing carbon or using emission-free transportation.

Finally, the problem of the free rider needs to be given more recognition in policymaking forums like the Conference of Parties (CoP). It is now abundantly clear that some amount of hardship in the short term is inevitable for most countries to make any meaningful progress. The developed bloc cannot expect the developing countries to make substantial sacrifices when their own per capita emissions remain very high. Likewise, developing countries must realise that whatever the merits of their arguments, the developed bloc will not agree to a substantial decrease in personal comfort and emissions, if the developing countries do not quickly move away from coal and oil.

The focus should ultimately shift from how little a particular country or group can do which others can be made to accept, to how much the world needs to do together. Such a change requires an approach different from the usual self-interest-maximising strategies pursued by nations.

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