(Text of an article first published in the Irish Examiner, in November 2022.
We need to stop seeing climate chaos as something that cannot be halted. Changing behaviour can hold the key.
In a few days’ time, leaders of almost 200 countries will meet in the Egyptian city of Sharm El-Sheikh to review progress on international efforts to halt further climate chaos.
Every country attending the summit will report on its actions so far, and its plans to help stop our global climate from further warming.
The Cop27 summit itself has raised many questions, and observers hope that countries will show they now recognise that global warming should be treated as an emergency, not as a minor inconvenience.
All the evidence to date shows that even the most ambitious plans announced to date are not going to suffice to stop climate change turning into climate chaos.
Another question that will be on the mind of summit watchers is whether world leaders are ready to increase the impact of their policies by learning from behavioural science.
Impact of household choices
Roughly two-thirds of all our greenhouse gas emissions are related to household consumption. In other words, the everyday choices we make at home have a huge impact on our national carbon footprint.
Yet, policy makers remain focused on setting sectoral ‘ceilings’ or hoping for a magic fix from unproven future technologies.
The latest news reports say this year may become one of the warmest years on record.
Too little time and effort has been invested in communicating the scale of social change that is needed — or in trying to understand the contribution households can make to our national and international climate policies.
The Sharm El-Sheikh meeting is taking place just months after the scientific evidence showed that the warming of our planet’s atmosphere is accelerating, while news reports indicate that 2022 may well become one of the 10 warmest years on record.
Seven of the other warmest years have all fallen in the past 15 years.
The world is struggling to come to grips with the scale and the urgency of the changes we need to make. When faced with such large-scale challenges, the psychology of change processes becomes critical.
Breaking the spiral of inaction
One of the barriers we are experiencing in addressing climate change is the ‘spiral of inaction’ that results from the fact that people do not see enough other people take action.
Research has shown that many people feel that the majority of the population does not share their concerns about global warming.
Known as the ‘values-perception gap’, this impression is detrimental to people’s well-being and their willingness to try and influence the world around them.
We know that most people want to do the right thing, but that they worry about the financial costs and practical inconveniences of transitioning to a more low-carbon lifestyle.
In addition, many people are unsure which actions will have the greatest impact on their carbon footprint.
As a result of this values-perception gap, and because they cannot see the many ways in which other people are already making significant lifestyle changes, many people will be reluctant to consider taking climate action in their own lives.
What that means is that the misperception that others don’t care about climate change reinforces itself.
Scientists have shown that this ‘spiral of inaction’ can be reversed.
When people see that others care about the environment, and when they hear their friends and peers talk about climate change, they will understand that their own concerns are more widespread than they assumed, and they will be more likely to feel that their own efforts do matter.
And as more people share knowledge on climate action, more people will demand sustainable practices and products, and the prices of alternatives to our current carbon-intensive products will begin to come down.
The ‘spiral of inaction’ will then have turned into a self-reinforcing ‘virtuous cycle’ of informed and effective climate action.
To unleash the power of this virtuous cycle, policy makers would do well to improve their communications on what needs to change, who needs to change, and the extent to which change is already happening.
There are many encouraging examples being set by businesses, citizens groups and local authorities all over Ireland, but too little is being done to ensure their templates are being showcased.
A coherent public engagement strategy is needed, offering people genuine opportunities to get involved in the process of creating a shared vision for the future, and actively removing the real — and perceived — obstacles that people encounter in trying to make the necessary low-carbon choices.