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Turning up the volume on climate change isn’t changing behaviour

By Jonathan Rowson (The Guardian) - December 17, 2013

On discovering that their mother tongue is not shared by everyone, tourists have been known to redouble their efforts to communicate by raising their voices. This comical failure to grasp the difference between a message not being heard and not being received also has a tragic side, because we appear to be doing something very similar on climate change.

The scientific message is already loud and clear. The planet is getting hotter, we are causing it, the warming represents an imminent existential threat to humanity’s only habitat, and we need a sharp global reduction of carbon emissions to minimise the already inevitable impacts. However, collective action problems continue to trump the moral imperative, and global emissions are going up, not down. The climate message is being heard, but not really received.

So what to do?

Scientists have been turning up the volume on abstract figures: The IPCC is 95% certain, 97% of peer reviewed papers agree global warming is man-made, 100% of National Academies of Science. But these facts bounce off most people like a foreign language.

The response from political leaders has mostly been to reiterate a generic injunction more emphatically: “we should act on climate change” becomes: “the time for action is now”. But they rarely speak about competing commitments to fuel prices, energy security and economic growth that militate against such ‘action’, which is why it remains generic.

The response from political leaders has mostly been to reiterate their generic injunctions even more emphatically: “we should act on climate change” becomes “the time for action is now!” Alas, these words sound hollow because they rarely speak to our competing commitments to fuel prices, energy security and economic growth that militate against such action.

The response from business leaders has been to amplify the credible business case for reducing emissions. However, while green growth is good for everyone’s morale, even the most exemplary sustainable businesses are quiet on the inconvenient distinction between absolute and relative reductions in emissions. What matters for climate change is not reducing carbon on a unit by unit basis, but reducing emissions overall. Halving emissions to double the size of your business is much better than business as usual, but it doesn’t really help to deal with climate change.

So what are the alternatives to turning up the volume? Today the RSA publishes a report: A New Agenda on Climate Change: facing up to stealth denial and winding down on fossil fuels. There are four main points to our argument.

First, and most politically, we need to recognise that anthropogenic climate change is driven primarily by the economic logic of global fossil fuel extraction, and only to a lesser extent by the social practices and infrastructure that shape national emissions.

Second, climate change badly needs reframing. Thus far it has been subsumed by a broader environmentalism, and is often conflated with a more general concern for sustainability. The problem is ecological in nature, but it is driven by economic activity and has significant implications for public health, immigration, industrial policy, pensions, financial stability and energy security. The collective climate challenge could become much more meaningful if we could start thinking and talking about it at this more inclusive level.

The third challenge is to face up to ’stealth denial’, which we believe applies to about two thirds of the British population (63.9%). A nationally representative RSA/Yougov survey of over 2,000 people in May 2013 revealed that those who accept the facts appear to disavow the connection with their emotions, personal agency and daily lifestyle.

We characterise ’stealth denial’ in terms of those who accept the reality of man-made climate change but who agree with at least one of the following narratives (which are not mutually exclusive). Emotional Denial: “I don’t feel uneasy about climate change”; Personal Denial: “My daily actions are not part of the climate change problem”; Practical Denial: “There is nothing I can do personally that will have any significant effect on limiting climate change”

Of course, the attempt to measure complex psychological traits and processes through a relatively crude survey instrument raises a host of methodological questions, but it felt important and timely to provide empirical reference points for a notion that is already true to our experience, and each form of denial is cross-validated with other elements in the survey.

Facing up to pervasive stealth denial sheds fresh light on a range of climate-related issues, and helps to explain why we appear to persistently ignore or underestimate rebound effects on energy efficiency savings. There are many different kinds of rebound effects, but they mostly stem from the neglected empirical fact, highlighted by Duncan Clark, that ‘energy begets energy’, and that energy supply in one place often creates demand elsewhere.

At a planetary level we are therefore caught in dissonance and doublethink, simultaneously trying to minimise emissions at a national level, while maximising fossil fuel production. Energy efficiency remains an important part of the transition story to renewable energy, but believing it has a direct and significant impact on emissions begins to look like false consciousness.

The fourth and most practical challenge is to clarify the call to act on climate change. We give details of eight recommendations for the UK at the end of the report, to help move the discussion from a generic call to action, to a debate about particular acts:

1) Build a Climate Alliance with clear shared objectives that is not part of the environmental movement.

2) Consistently refocus the media debate away from the existence of the problem towards competing ideas about solutions.

3) Create public platforms for people to speak to each other about climate change for extended periods.

4) Lobby for consumptions-based emissions reporting to better capture national progress.

5) Support and promote divestment in fossil fuels.

6) Campaign for the reduction of fossil fuel subsidies and the dismantling of the European Emissions Trading Scheme.

7) Collectively supply and manage our own renewable energy where possible.

8) Build reciprocal commitment with other countries to reinforce national commitment.

We need to debate and act on such ideas to help us face up to stealth denial and to keep fossil fuels in the ground. It is time for a new agenda on climate change. As Chinese philosopher Wang Yang-Ming once put it: “To know, and not to act, is not to know.”

Jonathan Rowson is director of the Social Brain Centre at the Royal Society of Arts. He tweets at @jonathan_rowson