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Why climate change is important: the psychology behind climate change inaction

My school started hosting an annual Green Week last year - an initiative driven by a biology teacher and a group of students - which got other classmates involved through activities ranging from food waste to fast fashion. Although we had always talked about deforestation and the greenhouse gas effect in geography class, which is only optional past year 9,  most students’ climate awareness and action had not ventured past the odd fundraiser or David Attenborough documentary. This one week a year was an attempt to push past the misconceptions and overwhelming intimidation of the climate crisis and ecological breakdown. This year, I ended up going to a talk one lunchtime by a psychology teacher, called the ‘Dragons of inaction’. Although I had been working within conservation and environmental activism for years, I had never really come across the psychology behind climate denial and inaction until this point, something that now seems crucial. A poll by Comres, in 2019, says that two-thirds of British adults believe that human activity ‘is the principle cause behind climate change’ and 54% think that ‘climate change threatens our extinction as a species’.[1] If that’s the case, why is it still such a big problem? In reality, half of British adults are not acting the way I would have assumed if they thought climate change could cause the premature death of humanity. This is where the significance of psychology comes into play – why do people not act even when they seem to care about something? This one Thursday lunchtime in Green Week changed my perspective on how the climate crisis came to be, and how it could be solved.

It fascinated me how linked we still are to our collective “ancient brain”. Yes, we have moved from caves to skyscrapers, but our fundamental cognitive behaviours are still based on immediate dangers and fears. Climate change is the opposite; it’s a “slow violence”. Although we are told that the rising sea levels and increasingly intense natural disasters are caused by our fossil fuel industry, I can understand and pity our brains trying to grasp such abstract and relatively slow problems. As we are burdened by the complexity of the climate crisis, we would rather not think about it at all. Conveniently, “alternative facts” can be handpicked under the pretext of uncertainty, but hide the truth of confirmation (interpreting information in a way that reinforces your beliefs) and optimism bias (believing that a negative event won’t happen to you). Here lies the Dragons of inaction.[2] Whether it’s the ability for humans to only deal in the short term, and therefore prioritise higher economic gain in the present over larger economic loss in the future, or perceived inequity and social comparison, where we will look at others to determine how we should act, these psychological barriers can inhibit us from acting against climate change, and help to explain why people do what they do, even when they know it’s a time of crisis.

After this twenty minute lecture, my perspective had broadened invaluably; not only am I now able to identify and name feelings that I have come across within myself in activism, but it has also helped me in making solutions more effective. When talking to my classmates and friends about the climate crisis, and wanting to raise awareness, I am able to break down problems in a way that I know will be easier to digest. This irreplaceable knowledge was given to me in just 20 minutes by a teacher, imagine what a whole school day or syllabus could look like? Yet this vital information is not something that would ever be talked about in any geography or biology class, let alone to the whole student body. In a repurposed education system, the climate crisis and ecological breakdown could be looked at through the lens of politics, math, literature, religion or psychology, leaving us with something more than the process of short to longer wavelength radiation keeping us warm. What would the impacts of this be on the workforce and broader society? Climate change is an issue that affects all aspects of humanity, and should be thought of as such by the accountant, shopkeeper, lawyer or scientist. Suddenly, this crisis would appear far less abstract and the solutions far less daunting.  

Serena Murdoch, 16

Teach the Future National Volunteer & Climate Activist

[1]Comres, Survey of GB adults on their attitudes towards climate change, (April 2019), https://www.comresglobal.com/polls/comres-climate-change-poll-april-2019/

[2] Dr Robert Gifford, The Dragons of Inaction: Psychological barriers that limit climate change mitigation and adaptation, (2011), https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2011-09485-005

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Teach the Future is a youth-led campaign to urgently repurpose the entire education system around the climate emergency and ecological crisis.
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