Climate Change

Climate change is many things – a scientific question, a technological challenge, a political conundrum, a series of moral dilemmas and a multiplier of other risks. Because it has so many faces, is so pervasive and has such profound ramifications it is very hard to tackle. Where to begin in cutting emissions, and who should pay?

And because there has been a successful campaign in the media to confuse the scientific discussion, for many, including senior figures in politics and business, even those questions are irrelevant. After all, why take action to solve a problem that may not exist? In part ideological and in part psychological, there is little real science behind the widespread denial that we have a problem.

Such is the context that has led to near paralysis when it comes to taking effective action on climate change. As the evidence mounts as to both the causes and consequences, at the global level emissions continue to increase while decisions across a range of policy areas exacerbate future vulnerability to the expected impacts.

Under these circumstances it strikes me as vital that practitioners in those disciplines that are in a position to act, step back and take stock of the real nature of the problem. That process leads me to increasingly see the climate change challenge as less about technology and politics and more about psychology. That in turn leads to a discussion about narratives and the mental frames of reference through which people hear about climate change and its implications.

For the most part the presentation of climate change is based on a combination of peril, implied guilt and inevitable sacrifice. No wonder those who seek to insert an element of doubt are so successful, even when they have the flimsiest grounds for the claims they make. But what might work better?

One thing is a more positive story. When action to combat and adapt to climate change is presented through the prisms of job creation, economic advantage, enhanced security and better health, a different reaction might be expected.

If that is correct then how to convey the message becomes a very important question. The mass media for the most part can’t do science and because bias and ‘balance’ tend to trump facts, different routes to changing awareness and opinion are needed. One approach could be to shift the narrative more through doing things, as well as talking about them.

After all, a focus on making positive changes and showing those to as many people as possible is more likely to build support for change than trying to get accurate reporting from certain newspaper editorials or science-based policy from an ideological minister who is unable to read data.

Renaturalising rivers can help reduce flood risk while rebuilding fish populations and creating recreational opportunities. The restoration of blanket bogs to increase carbon storage can reduce the cost of supplying water. Offshore wind farms help diminish reliance on energy supplies from regions riven with conflict and electric cars are cheaper to run than fossil-fuel powered equivalents. Low carbon lifestyles can be better for people’s health while cities made ready for climate change impacts can be far nicer to live in.

Awareness about all of that and a whole lot more could build quite a different public reaction, and this is why it is time to go around the climate change deniers. Their day will in any event soon be done. As Nature speaks and lays out the realities of a warmer world, it will not be for want of evidence that we’ll struggle to cope. It will be more for a widely owned positive view of how things could work better. The sooner we can break that barrier the better.

First published: In Practice, the bulletin of the Chartered Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management, September 2014.