Why Don’t We Take Climate Change Seriously?

Sleeping polar bear

(Photo © Copyright Iain Thompson and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence)

Most people know the climate is changing, don’t they? There is even a term of insult that parallels the outlawing of holocaust deniers- climate change deniers.

The general scientific opinion seems to be that human activity is causing environmental changes that are not good. So why are we doing so little to change our actions in order at least to reduce its impact? As I found when I was studying human behaviour in fires and other emergencies, disasters happen when people leave the recognition of the problem too late. This is usually because those involved do not think there is a problem until it overwhelms them. Is the same thing happening with climate change? The current issue of Contemporary Social Science, the journal of the Academy of Social Sciences, explores these questions.

In her interesting introduction to the special issue, Catherine Leyshon from Exeter University points out that although climate change is hardly ever out of the news, it is an invention of empirical analysis. We may be able to watch the sun rise, so noting the change in the light, but longer term and subtler changes, whether it be inflation, the average age of the population or global warming, are only noticed by observers who record and measure over what might be long periods of time. Because of this the changes are actually creations of those who make the recordings. They are therefore open to challenge; challenge not just to their existence but, more importantly, what is causing them. In this crucial sense, then, climate change is an aspect of knowledge; knowledge that has accumulated over the last 30 years or so. Climate change is not an immediately observable aspect of experience.

That is where the problem of dealing with climate change starts. Because it is not directly available to our senses it is an idea, a construct, and like many ideas that emerge into public consciousness it covers many different things; everything from changes in the icecaps, to reduction in biodiversity, depletion of resources such as water or land or energy. Debates on environmental degradation also become embroiled in explorations of policy options, challenges to the economies of developing countries and the gamut from education to forms of burial. With such a diversity of issues under one umbrella term it is perhaps not surprising that it is so difficult to get action to deal with them. What exactly is the phenomenon that needs to be addressed?

As many contributors to the special issue of Contemporary Social Science point out, there is a common assumption in the scientific community that global warming and all its consequences will be dealt with if only people understood and accepted the science that demonstrates its existence. This is the naïve assumption that knowledge produces change. Yet, if the social sciences can claim any major discovery over the last century or so, it is that individuals and society do not operate solely on the basis of rational decisions derived from scientific knowledge.

Psychologists, of course, have often been aware that people do not always just act logically on the basis of evidence. In relation to pro-environmental behaviour, Birgitta Gaterleben and her colleagues at Surrey University have demonstrated after reviewing a number of large scale studies that who people think they are – their identity – is tied up with what they do. Such identities come from many sub-cultural and personal-historical factors. Indeed, as Catherine Leyshon argues, policies attempting to changes human actions are built on assumptions about the nature of people. Are people just economic entities influenced by the balance of costs and benefits? Or are they better thought of as social beings, shaped by their interactions with others.

Elizabeth Shove from Lancaster University discusses the problem of enabling policy makers to engage with social science perspectives. She shows that by recognising the cultural context that defines acceptable behaviour quite dramatic impact is possible. She quotes the Japanese example of encouraging salarymen to take off their jackets and ties in summer as a way of reducing the need for air-conditioning. In the tight codes of the Japanese office workspace it required this formal approval of a different dress code to generate a remarkable reduction in CO2 emissions.

That Japanese ‘Cool Biz’ policy illustrates the complex processes involved in dealing with climate change. Social habits, technological systems, and policy formulations all of relevance to human biological processes, all had to be harnessed together to make a difference. It is the growing awareness of the need to understand and manage multi-modal, multidisciplinary systems that social scientists are articulating as they develop their explorations of climate change and what to do about it.

The awareness that threats to our environment are part of complex systems can nonetheless generate some simple implications. In a sophisticated economic analysis of the pollution content of the flows of trade, Karen Turner from the University of Stirling and her colleagues demonstrate that managing the consumption can be as, or even more, effective than managing production. This has obvious parallels to dealing with drug abuse, in which reducing drug use may be much more powerful than trying to stop production.

The recognition that energy uses are part of complex systems of supply and demand, within a socio-cultural context, has been one of the motivators for encouraging smaller and tighter systems. Decentralising energy production so that it is closer to where it is consumed is increasingly being advocated. It is seen as a way of not only reducing CO2 emissions, but also of increasing energy security and engaging the grassroots in the whole production and consumption cycle.

Bouke Wiersma and his colleague from the University of Exeter (notably, the only male in this otherwise all female set of contributors) reviewed a number of studies of decentralised energy projects. They included a community-installed biomass-fuelled district heating system, the construction of zero-carbon homes and local wind-turbines. What became clear was that energy efficiency was typically only a small feature of the reasons for these projects. Fuel poverty, improving housing quality standards, health and well-being were typically more dominant in influencing the reasons for the projects.

Such findings serve to show how the examination of the social processes involved in dealing with climate change reveal that those processes usually encompass much more local issues than the grand ideal of saving the planet. Indeed over a quarter of a century ago, the social anthropologist Robert Rapoport argued that a fundamental change in attitudes towards global issues was only possible if the change occurred within the family.


Canter D (2013) Why do we Leave it so Late? Response to Environmental Threat and the Rules of Place. J Earth Sci Clim Change 5:169. doi: 10.4172/2157-7617.1000169

Elkan G.(1999) Blueprint for a global morality–the work of Robert Rapoport 1924-1996. The Israel journal of psychiatry and related sciences

The interrelationship of the context of change with idealistic missions is also well-illustrated in the novel study carried out by Harriet Bulkeley of Durham University and her colleague, of a zero carbon development in Bangalore. They show that making, maintaining and living low carbon are three inter-related activities. As such they have a tendency to isolate the development from its community. So, although the T-Zed project as a carbon-neutral gated community is transforming and reconfiguring the urban landscape of Bangalore, its impact is also deeply ambivalent because of the way it sustains existing forms of urban development and the associated inequality.

Let social scientists loose on any topic and they are bound to reveal its complexities. Responding to climate change is a prime example of this. What the natural sciences present as a simple need to reduce carbon emissions and a fond belief that if people only knew the facts they would change what they do, turns out to be a dangerous over-simplification. Human activity is always part of a multifaceted flux of psychological, domestic, social, economic, political and cultural forces. Climate change itself is a part of complex social, biological and technical process. Bringing all of these issues together to save the planet is a very tall order indeed.

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Source: Social Science Space

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