Most people are now aware of the climate crisis and what is at stake. They also tend to have at least a rough idea of which of their actions are bad for the environment, and which can have a positive impact.
So why the lack of action? Why are most people still driving around in gas-guzzlers, jetting off on long-haul holidays and powering their homes using fossil fuels?
It’s a question that environmentalists, governments and others have long grappled with. For the answers you need to delve into human psychology. Look no further than the ‘Dragons of Inaction’, an ever-growing list of the reasons people don’t always behave in pro-environmental ways collected by Professor Robert Gifford, Professor of Psychology and Environmental Studies at the University of Victoria, Canada.
Here’s a round-up of some of the barriers to action, or ‘dragons’, that Professor Robert Gifford has identified. Do you recognise yourself in some of these?
Limitations resulting from how we think about things
Prof Gifford writes that thinking about the future usually takes a back seat to the present, so taking action to prevent the future impacts of global climate change – which are sometimes projected decades into the future – does not come naturally.
There’s also a lack of knowledge about which actions to take, how to go about them and their relative benefits. You can be forgiven for getting confused, Prof Gifford notes, citing a study showing that New Zealand lamb shipped to the UK for consumption there apparently has a much smaller carbon footprint than lamb produced and eaten in the UK. It’s enough to stick your head in the sand.
People are bombarded with environmental danger messages from the media, the government, and scientists. When these are too similar and too frequent they become wallpaper, Prof Gifford says, making behaviour change unlikely.
It’s happening elsewhere
People tend to believe that environmental conditions are worse in countries other than their own - while people in those other countries tend to believe the same thing about other countries. This means people are less motivated to improve their own environment, Prof Gifford says.
Optimism hinders action
While optimism generally is healthy, it can be overdone, Prof Gifford says. People tend to underestimate their own risk from environmental hazards, which hinders their pro-environmental action.
Perceived lack of control
Because climate change is a global problem, many people believe that their actions won’t make a difference - or worse, that nothing can be done even through collective human action.
Beliefs foster inaction
Prof Gifford notes that some religious and political views can act as strong barriers to behaviour change as believers believe a higher power is in complete control. What’s the point in taking individual action if that’s the case?
Similarly, he says, overconfidence in technology to solve problems can serve as a barrier to pro-environmental behaviour.
Other people’s inaction
People tend to compare themselves to others and if family and friends are not doing their part, individuals may not bother either. This can work both ways when it comes to environmental action. As Prof Gifford proffers: “Why should I change if they won’t change?”
Similarly, it’s easy to use the damaging environmental actions of organizations, other nations or well-known people – think celebs flying around in their private jets – to justify your own individual lack of action.
Investments of money and time can be potentially harmful to the environment, Prof Gifford warns. He is referring to the sunk cost fallacy, where people continue a behaviour or action as they’ve already invested into it, whether it’s time, money or effort.
He gives owning a car as an example. You’ve paid all that money for it, so you want to use it (potentially to the detriment of the environment).
He notes too that many habits are extremely resistant to change, such as commuting by car.
Disbelief in others
When people begin with a basic disbelief in others’ views, they are unlikely to take direction from them, Prof Gifford funds. For example, if scientists and politicians are disbelieved as a matter of course, their suggestions to be green are likely to be ignored.
Fear of the risks
Changing behaviour entails several risks, which is why people are often risk-averse. Prof Gifford notes that these risks include:
- Functional risk: Will a climate-positive technology work? If, for example, you buy an electric vehicle (EV), could it, as a new technology, have battery problems? (read more about such range anxiety here)
- Physical risk: Investing in green tech such as an EV could be seen - however irrationally - as posing a danger. Or in Prof Gifford’s words, such a fear might lead you to wonder: “Is that electric vehicle as crash-safe as the SUV that I currently own?”.
- Financial risk: Green solutions require spending money, even if you then make it back. But investing for a long payback period can deter people and seem risky.
- Social risk: What if someone judges you on the pro-environment change you’ve made? In Prof Gifford’s example: “If I ride my bicycle, will my significant others deride me behind my back?”
- Temporal risk: It can take time deciding on a green action, but what if it doesn’t work out or you don’t even do it in the first place? You’ll have wasted lots of time that could have been better spent.
“I recycle, so I’ve done my part.” It’s easy to fall into this trap. Usually a behaviour that is easy to adopt is used for tokenism, Prof Gifford suggests, and these changes may not have as great an impact on the climate as other changes would.
Overcoming your dragons
That’s just a summary of some of Prof Gifford’s dragons – you can read more in a very accessible paper he has written on the topic.
The hope is that with a better understanding of these dragons, everyone can do more to protect the environment.
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