Article Human Rights & Press Freedom

Understanding the psychology of climate change

Why don’t we feel compelled to act on climate change?

‘With rapid climate change, one-fourth of Earth’s species could be headed for extinction by 2050’, says The Nature Conservancy. 2050? That’s way down the calendar! I will be what.. a 60- or 70- years-old then? 80 years? I must rather check the specialist’s stock market prediction for tomorrow or focus on finishing this article.

As a responsible person, my current preoccupation should be to ensure the well-being of my family. To earn well, do a good job of my profession, and establish goodwill in the market. Life is hard anyway. I have to keep provisions for retirement days, save for children’s education, unprecedented events! Climate change can wait.

For how long!

On April 5 this year, the NewYorker reported, “A new poll shows that Americans who were unconcerned about climate change as it wreaked havoc around the world are beginning to worry, now that global warming is affecting the appearance of their lawns.

According to the poll, conducted by the University of Minnesota’s Opinion Research Institute, rising sea levels, the destruction of habitats, and catastrophic weather conditions, such as hurricanes and tsunamis, have not served as the wake-up call to Americans that their lawns’ unsightly barrenness has.”

As students of Mass Communication and Journalism, we were repeatedly told to look closer; look at what affects us immediately, urgently. Readers are interested in just that. Swine flu in the state, rising prices of potatoes at the local farmer market, child abuse at the neighbourhood kindergarten – these will have all our attention. There might be some activism as well. A basic rationalisation why we keep pushing our duties towards the earth, global warming, and climate change to the bottom of the to-do list! We thought those days are far away. But they are not. We better wake up now to claim whatever is still good.

It is not easy to grasp the significance of an event that is going to impact us after a period of time or at a different location. We keep pushing an event to the backburner if it is not going to affect us immediately. We don’t normally act until it is urgently required. When a virus spreads, we take precautions because it might cause disease - that leads to immediate loss of resources, time and wealth. But we are not much interested in preventing the spread of the virus, unless it has reached the neighbouring state.

NASA compiles available data and lists that the evidence for global warming has been predominant since long in the following factors:

• Sea level rise: Global sea level rose about 17 centimeters (6.7 inches) in the last century. The rate in the last decade is nearly double that of the last century.

• Global temperature rise: All three major global surface temperature reconstructions show that Earth has warmed since 1880. Most of this warming has occurred since the 1970s, with the 20 warmest years having occurred since 1981 and with all 10 of the warmest years occurring in the past 12 years.

• Warming oceans: The oceans have absorbed much of this increased heat, with the top 700 meters (about 2,300 feet) of ocean showing warming of 0.302 degrees Fahrenheit since 1969.8

• Shrinking ice sheets: The Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets have decreased in mass. Data from NASA’s Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment show Greenland lost 150 to 250 cubic kilometers (36 to 60 cubic miles) of ice per year between 2002 and 2006, while Antarctica lost about 152 cubic kilometers (36 cubic miles) of ice between 2002 and 2005.

• Declining Arctic sea ice: Both the extent and thickness of Arctic sea ice has declined rapidly over the last several decades.

• Glacial retreat: Glaciers are retreating almost everywhere around the world — including in the Alps, Himalayas, Andes, Rockies, Alaska and Africa.

• Extreme events: The number of record high temperature events in the United States has been increasing, while the number of record low temperature events has been decreasing, since 1950. The U.S. has also witnessed increasing numbers of intense rainfall events.

• Ocean acidification: Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, the acidity of surface ocean waters has increased by about 30 percent.

• Decreased snow cover: Satellite observations reveal that the amount of spring snow cover in the Northern Hemisphere has decreased over the past five decades and that the snow is melting earlier.

Much has been written about the above findings. Environmental education has been introduced in schools so that the younger generation is made aware and active in protection of the Earth.

Yet, for individuals like us who can and should, for the government and policy makers, and for industrialists, procrastination seems to be a genetic disease.

Dan Ariely, a behavioral economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and author of Predictably Irrational (HarperCollins, 2008), has studied how people make everyday decisions, how irrational they can get in the process, and how they fall prey to procrastination.

Why do I not act on climate change now?

Based on Ariely’s studies, I can safely answer: Because I do not have a to-do list and I do not have a deadline. And I have not selected ‘working on climate change’ to be a feasible task.

Ariely conducted several experiments on procrastination, one of which was on his students in consumer behaviour class. He writes:

As they settled into their chairs that first morning, I explained to them that they would have to submit three main papers over the 12-week semester and that these three papers would constitute a large part of their final grade. “And what are the deadlines?” asked one student. I smiled. “The deadlines are entirely up to you and you can hand in the papers any time before the end of the semester,” I replied. “But, by the end of this week, you must commit to a deadline for each paper. Once you set your deadlines, they can’t be changed. Late papers,” I added, “would be penalised at the rate of one percent off the grade for each day late.”

“But Professor Ariely,” asked another student, “given these instructions wouldn’t it make sense for us to select the last date possible?” “That’s an option,” I replied. “If you find that it makes sense, by all means do it.”

Now a perfectly rational student would set all the deadlines for the last day of class—after all, they could submit papers early, so why take a chance and select an earlier deadline than absolutely necessary? From this perspective, delaying the deadlines to the last day of the semester was clearly the best decision. But what if the students succumbed to temptation and procrastination? What if they knew that they are likely to fail? If the students were not rational and knew it, then they might set early deadlines and by doing so force themselves to start working on the projects earlier in the semester.

Interestingly, we found that the majority of students committed to earlier deadlines, and that this ability to commit resulted in higher grades. More generally, it seems that simply offering students a tool by which they could pre-commit publicly to deadlines can help them achieve their goals.

How does this finding apply to non-students? When resolving to reach a goal—whether it is tackling a big project at work or saving for a vacation, it might help to first commit to a hard and clear deadline, and then inform our colleagues, friends, or spouse about it with the hope that this clear and public commitment will help keep us on track and ultimately fulfill our resolutions.

Drawing on our present problem of ‘action on climate change,’ we probably need some sort of a mechanism where each individual, group, or authority gets a task to accomplish. This can be achieved through brainstorming, delegating tasks that simply need done, or through an elaborate process of involving all stakeholders in a process where they pick up tasks they want to do, given a set timeframe.

As individuals, how can we start doing our shares for the Earth?

Use biodegradable products. Stop waste. Plant trees. Reduce your carbon footprint. Use energy efficient home appliances. Cycle to work – good for health and the globe too.

The International Energy Association estimates that by 2020, about 34 per cent of the global decrease in carbon emissions would be effected through direct end-use energy-efficiency measures.

However, making energy efficient purchases require a stronger will and inspiration since these are more expensive one time purchases. This makes it important to understand the economics and the behavioral patterns behind an individual’s rationality to consume energy and make energy-efficiency purchases.

When the husband landed a high-paying government job and moved up the social ladder, a conscious decision was to move ahead in ‘social prestige’ too. A personal vehicle became absolutely necessary. This was also triggered by the fact that he had to travel long distances and local transport was not dependable, was time consuming, though cheap.

Post a few rounds of ‘peaceful and matured discussion,’ we agreed on investing on an eco-friendly vehicle that runs on compressed natural gas (CNG). It would cost us an additional hundred thousands in Indian currency. But we both agreed to take that extra burden for two reasons – we felt we are contributing our share towards sustainability, which made us very proud and happy about ourselves, and the more practical reason, the cost per litre of CNG and diesel were almost same, which is almost half a dollar less than the price of petrol. So we will gain some price advantage in the long run. Let’s not mention the fact that CNG is not as easily available as diesel and petrol. Had there been government support to promote alternative fuels and policy level support for climate change, we would have far many CNG stations and more buyers would have chosen CNG vehicles.

“Increasing energy efficiency can play a significant role in reducing overall energy consumption and associated emissions. Efficiency investments involve one-time, large monetary costs but result in cost savings over the long run through lower energy consumption. It has been shown that efficiency improvements could result in substantial long-run cost savings. However the “energy efficiency gap” puzzle remains,” state Michael G. Pollitt and Irina Shaorshadze in their research titled “The Role of Behavioural Economics in Energy and Climate Policy.”

Why buy energy efficient car and not an energy efficient house?

Buy an energy efficient car and show it off. Make your house energy efficient. And find creative ways to show it off too. But why don’t we do it? Because energy efficient houses are not readily available in the market?

Let’s fall back on Dan Ariely once more to understand this behaviour better.

He observes and asks why we tend to switch to an advanced, more expensive, energy efficient car but do not take efforts to make our houses more energy efficient. He says, “switching from a standard midsize car to the Prius can reduce CO2 emissions from 7.5 tons to 4.4 tons per year. A standard four-bedroom house occupied by four people in Massachusetts can produce 53 tons of CO2 a year.”

Installing more efficient lighting, heating and cooling systems, energy efficient appliances, the CO2 emission per year for the same building can be brought down to 30 tons, saving 23 tons. But we don’t work around the house but switch to an energy efficient car. Why?

Ariely suggests three reasons: That users are reminded of the price of gas more frequently at times of refueling their cars and it is psychologically painful to pay more when you have the option to pay less, that driving around in a Prius reminds users of energy efficiency provided by the car (and a feeling of satisfaction), and users take pleasure in the positive social image they create for themselves when others watch them driving a socially conscious car.

On the other hand, one cannot show off their energy efficient homes as easily. “We don’t remember the price of heating, lighting, etc. We don’t see other people and think about how much they are paying to heat and cool their homes, and we don’t get any social bonus points for making our homes more efficient.”

How does this help us to come to a point of action? Probably, urban local bodies can design incentives and tax deductions for energy efficient houses. Or can this be done at a higher administrative level – nationwide – with inspections at regular intervals. Opting for energy efficient appliances can be hailed and promoted through social appeals in mass media, as a better lifestyle choice, and may be rewarded through social events, functions, and awards that help to recognise people’s contribution.

And I am convinced now we can have a specialised market for ‘energy-efficient houses’ for which the upward mobile youth would not mind shelling out additional amounts.

Incentives for energy efficiency?

The UK government ran a pilot trial of a scheme called “Green Deal” in the summer of 2012, to encourage homeowners to upgrade their buildings by installing energy-saving improvements at no upfront cost. It involved repayments for the investments via a charge paid from savings made on a customer’s energy bills. The trial took place in the London borough of Sutton, and involved 400 households that responded to the advertisement.

An interesting observation in this connection was made by Pollitt and Shaorshadze in The Role of Behavioural Economics in Energy and Climate Policy: “Of the 126 households that eventually received home energy audits, only 60 signed up for the scheme, even if the subsidy represented 40 per cent. The households that did sign up for the scheme indicated that financial incentives were not the primary motivation (BioRegional 2011).

Studies show that even when a utility offered to subsidise 93 per cent of the cost of home insulation, consumer take-up varied from 1 per cent to 20 per cent, depending how the subsidy was communicated to the consumer (Stern et al. 1985). Stern (2000) suggests that incentives and interventions interact, and the joint effect of combining them is often bigger than the sum of each intervention on its own”.

Through their studies, Pollitt and Shaorshadze have also demonstrated that ‘how customers pay their utility bills may have implications for how they consume energy’.

They refer to a study by Brutscher (2011a) to map the consumption and meter top-up behaviour of the households in Northern Ireland that use prepayment meters. “Brutscher (2011a) shows that consumers with prepayment meters tend to consume more electricity. Households tend to purchase relatively small amounts of top-ups, and adjust to increases in tariffs by increasing their number of top-ups, rather than by increasing the amount. However, exogenous increases in minimum top-up amount result in decreased energy use. This suggests that consumers perceive costs differently according to how large they are. They have different mental accounts for larger purchases, and are more aware of the consumption after they have made a large top-up. Increasing minimum top-up amount would therefore likely result in decreased energy consumption.”

We need policies to frame consumer behaviour : Authorities step in

There is a stage in every person’s life where we feel the need of a larger intervention from other sources. When it comes to the tragedic depletion of our common resources, policy level and government interventions are absolutely necessary.

Responding further on these premises, Pollitt and Shaorshadze state that “Energy consumption, energy-efficient investment, and pro-environmental actions involve consumer decision making and behaviour. These aspects have generated increased interest in designing policy interventions that target energy demand, and interest in assessing the responsiveness of consumer behaviour to these interventions. Behavioural economics can provide new perspectives that can inform policy design on how individuals evaluate options, make decisions, and change behaviour.”

Gowdy further suggests that “Ironically, rational choice models might therefore be most useful in thinking about the simplest kinds of decisions humans and other species make— involving perceptual tradeoffs, motor movements, foraging for food and so forth— and prove least useful in thinking about abstract, complex, long-term tradeoffs which are the traditional province of economic theory… The notion that humans are created as rational decision-makers is, from a physical anthropology point of view, just as ludicrous as the notion that humans were created on the sixth day.

Our very complex, other-regarding, altruistic, empathetic behavior is what makes humans unique, and understanding this behavior is the key to formulating effective economic policies having complicated and long-lasting consequences.”

Pollitt and Shaorshadze also add that “It is important to point out that energy policy is not just about climate change, but also about security of energy supply and about the affordability of energy. Climate policy significantly interacts with both of these elements of energy policy via the introduction of expensive and intermittent renewable electricity and heat. If consumer behaviour can be changed to reduce energy demand or to make energy demand more responsive in time and space to weather-induced shortages of energy, it could be a significant contribution to facilitating the introduction of climate policy–induced renewable energy. By contrast, failure to address public concerns about the security of supply or affordability implications of climate policy may jeopardise the achievement of ambitious carbon emissions reduction targets.”

Devise incentives and encouragements, rewards and punishments

In their study titled, ‘Human Behavior and Environmental Sustainability: Problems, Driving Forces, and Research Topics’ by Charles Vlek and Linda Steg from the University of Groningen, the authors conclude: “For society at large, problem analysis, policy decision making, and behavioral intervention programs are particularly important with regard to climate change as resulting from forced global warming (see Lorenzoni, Pidgeon, & O’Connor, 2005).

This huge environmental commons dilemma is strongly rooted in large-scale fossil fuel use through a multitude of motorised installations, vehicles, and equipment (remember the current 83.3 million barrels of worldwide oil use, each day). Without significant technical and/or behavioral changes, further population growth and increasing affluence will intensify current motorisation and thus the associated emissions of greenhouse gases.”

Now when an aspiring entrepreneur reaches a success milestone and invests his hard earned profits in a lavish, eco-friendly luxury vehicle, how would an environmentalist or policy maker talk him out of this aristocracy because the vehicle burns some amount of fossil fuel to carry one or two people against the same amount of fossil fuel energising a public bus carrying 40 passengers at a time?

During an English communication class in Norway, few years back, with mostly Scandinavian students and some from Africa, my students were supposed to speak on global warming and how they can do their bits. Almost everyone wanted to do something within their individual boundaries – reduce consumption, use energy efficient lamps and appliances, cycle their way to work (they really did), and more. When the discussion reached a student from Ghana, and then one from Angola, it changed texture. One of them said, “You in Norway are used to conditioned homes, lives of comfort and luxury. You have taken it for granted. We struggle for our lives, a decent living, health, education, and hardly a few of us reach a comfortable life in our country. And you want us to stop enjoying that life – the comfort of an air conditioned room, a car, industrialisation? How could you have the gall for it? It’s like you enjoyed your chocolate bar, and then advise others not to have it for whatever reason.”

Can’t agree more! And so does Dr Gowdy.

“A major issue in global climate change policy is the fairness of the policy with respect to developing countries. The undeniable fact is that we have reached a tipping point in global climate change because the industrialised world has pushed CO2 levels from 280ppm to 380ppm in the last hundred years. The North has gotten rich by burning 27 fossil fuels and now we are telling the poor countries to stop this practice”, says John M. Gowdy, from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, in his research titled ‘Behavioral Economics and Climate Change Policy.’

Make it global! Make it national! Make it widespread!

Impose a common global carbon tax on emissions to tackle this issue, says J Stiglitz in ‘A New Agenda for Global Warming’, in Economists’ Voice, 2006. He suggests that “the tax revenue be kept by each individual country and used to reduce taxes on capital and labor. A more radical idea is to put the revenues in a common pool that could be used for such things as education, health, and alternative energy projects.”

My other student suggested a novel idea that underlined the fact that people in so called backward communities, the tribals and aboriginals, possess more cumulative wisdom, live closer to nature, interact within a give-take relationship framework with nature, and do not necessarily contribute to global warming. And had we lived a sensible life like them, we wouldn’t have any need to worry about the climate. Out of scope, and matter for another proposal there!

We need rewards and punishments

In Human Behavior and Environmental Sustainability, Vlek and Steg mention: “Data show that the fate of common resources is significantly related to distinct behavioural phenomena, such as short-sightedness, habits, and social imitation. They also show how useful it may be to form an a priori (simulated) idea about common resource use, so as to optimise the provision and utilisation of common goods.”

Gowdy says in Behavioral Economics and Climate Change Policy, “During the past 100 years or so consumerism and materialism came to be the dominant form of behavior in industrial market societies and this behavioral pattern is rapidly sweeping over the entire planet. This behavior is no more “natural” than any other of the thousands of behavioral patterns exhibited in human cultures throughout our history. Like other cultural patterns of consumerism is dominant not because of genes but rather because of cultural systems of rewards and punishments.”

“Generalised Darwinism recognises that patterns of human behavior are selected and retained on the basis of their compatibility with approved ways of doing things. At any given time, people are rewarded and punished according to how they behave with respect to social norms… Global warming is at present a classic “tragedy of the commons” problem. Climate change policy should begin by identifying the incentives for selfish behavior in the “atmospheric commons” and then finding ways to minimise incentives for this behavior and maximise those for cooperative solutions,” says Gowdy.

As mentioned earlier, for more doable solutions, we can formulate policies and incentives at local levels. These can be catalysed by government bodies as well as private players, which may or may not be promoted by government policies. For example, local urban authorities start giving away an award for the best managed energy efficient house or a car selling company announces winner of the best maintained CNG vehicle in a city.

We need waking up: Kindly use mass message, appeals to people

Fine. So now we have a few things to do on the list. Rather, I have, because I have set aside my primary responsibilities, and trying to get to the bottom of this huge piece comprising a few thousand words, all for altruistic reasons. So now let’s understand – people take me for a ride? I do things while others have all the fun? How do you ensure that everyone works towards the same goal.

Well, a part of this question has to be answered through policy interventions and government enforcement, incentives and rewards policies. The other part has to be through mass awareness, appeals, messages, requests to citizens, by all means and methods. Campaigns, seminars, meetings, teach the children, teach the parents, whatever form you use, make sure you put the message loud and clear in front of every-single-body that each one can contribute towards the environment and each must do so. Start humbly – use CFLs, consider lifecycle costs of appliances rather that their MRPs, save energy. Remember personal choices have a huge collective impact on our climate and a change in behavioural pattern can save up to 30 per cent of energy consumption over the next around five years.

Do people pay any heed to public messages?

Pollitt and Shaorshadze refers to an experiment conducted by P Reiss and M White in 2008, titled “What changes energy consumption?” where they analysed household data on energy conservation in California during the energy crisis of 2000–2001, where a price increase in energy and utility bills followed by mass appeal for reduced consumption actually succeeded in reducing consumption by 7 per cent.

Pollitt and Shaorshadze observes, “Behavioural economics suggests that public appeals may result in increased awareness, and may induce altruistically motivated individuals to conserve more energy. In addition, some behavioural economists postulate that public appeals affect social norms.

Mass appeal to people can work wonders but it takes time, as it was shown by a joint effort taken by the Kolkata Municipality Corporation and an NGO, Concern for Kolkata, in the 1990s, where they repeatedly requested Calcuttans to take care of their wastes and dump them appropriately in the bins and garbage carriages every morning, and not at the street corners. The drive has changed the habit of the citizens in dealing with waste.

The final word..

One thing is for certain – there cannot be a final word on a subject that is so widespread, urgent, and universally neglected. Studies in behavioural economics, human psychology, and behavioural patterns are showing ways in which our government can frame policies to promote, twist, and manipulate consumer behaviour.

There is a basic level of awareness among people. We know the rights and the wrongs, we just don’t practice the correct behaviour, probably because of the lack of appropriate policies, rewards, punishments, and enforcements.

A higher level of involvement is necessary – currently we think the government is doing something – when actually it is busy with election campaigns. We think it is the task of the activists and organizations working with nature to spread awareness and create solutions. We forget to look at ourselves, and what we can do. There is a need for a widespread call for action.

As I am writing these final sentences, Nepal and the Himalayan subterranian has already been shaken by over 49 tremors. Widespread devastation and damage have reduced the capital city to rubble. The number of casualties has reached 2500 and increasing fast. People, hungry, sick, cold, and wet are spending sleepless nights on the street, while the rest of the world is watching, scared and unsure. Let’s learn our lessons fast. Let’s stop waiting for others to work on the issue of our climate and our Earth. Let’s start doing our bits, and most important, shout it out for others. We need to remind ourselves and all around us that the time has come to act. We will be able to appropriate the gains from the stock market only if we can make it above the rubble, breathing and all.

The image abpove is borrowed from The Nature Conservancy

This article is a response to the topic idea; Understanding the psychology of climate change.

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