Friday, February 8, 2008

CLIMATE CHANGE - What, ME worry?

Anyone interested in climate change paid close attention to the December meetings in Bali, where the world’s leaders worked on how to deal with this unprecedented global threat. The meetings took place under the challenge of the head of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Dr. Rajendra Pachauri, who said “What we do in the next two to three years will determine our future. This is the defining moment.”

But as policy makers focused their attention on the Bali meetings, the rest of us were paying attention to the same things we always do; our health, our jobs, our personal budget, our spouses or love lives, the daily commute, etc. The policy makers in Bali considered climate change from their usual perspective, as if looking down on the earth from high above. But we don’t live up there. We live down here. We don’t live on a planet. We live in our homes and our neighborhoods. We don’t live in the climate of the earth. We live in the weather of our daily lives.

That chasm in perspectives, between the global view and the local, could be the biggest obstacle to meeting Dr. Pachauri’s challenge. The things we need to do at the system level will have impacts at the personal. But we may not be willing to accept those impacts, because most of us don’t see how climate change actually threatens us. The wisest policies agreed to in Bali and subsequently will come to little without public support. The leaders dealing with climate change at ’defining moment’ must devise solutions that will work globally, and appeal locally.

Ask yourself this; Over the next 20 years, can you name one specific way that climate change will have a serious, negative, direct impact on you or your family? Most of us can’t answer that question. You probably know that climate change will have all sorts of serious negative impacts, but not how it’s going to impact you directly. A survey of public perceptions of climate change by Anthony Leiserowitz, “Climate Change Risk Perception and Policy Preferences: The Role of Affect, Imagery, and Values” found that while an overwhelming majority of respondents believed that climate change is real and that we should do something about it, only 12% were most concerned about the effects of climate change on them. 50% were most concerned about effects on the U.S. as a whole. 18% were most worried about effects on nonhuman nature. 10% weren’t worried about the effects of climate change at all. Small wonder, then, that the study found the following support in the United States for various ways to deal with climate change.

US Reduce Emissions - 90%
Kyoto Protocol - 88%
Increase CAFE standards - 79%
Regulate CO2 - 77%
Business tax - 31%
Gas tax - 17%

People are ready to support ideas. Fewer are ready to support spending what it will take to make those ideas reality.

Or consider a Globescan survey of 22,000 people in 21 nations released by the BBC in November. 83% said personal changes in lifestyle are needed to help combat climate change. But when asked if they themselves would be willing to make such changes, the number goes down. It’s still large, 70%, but note that it goes down. Fewer still, 61%, agree with the idea of paying higher energy costs. Ask them if they’d be willing to pay higher taxes to combat the problem and it effectively becomes a toss up, 50% saying yes, 44% saying no.

The trend is similar in most surveys. An overwhelming majority of people in the U.S. and around the world believe that climate change is a real threat, but when you ask people what should be done about it, as the cost to them goes up, their readiness to act goes down. That bodes poorly for the prospect of public support for the changes we need to make to address the problem.

Research into the ways humans perceive risk has found that, not surprisingly, we worry more about things that could happen to us than about things which threaten others. The survey evidence makes pretty clear that the “ME” factor is not much at work in most people’s perceptions of climate change. Which makes it unduly hopeful to expect people to give up the benefits of maintaining their current lifestyles? Why would they agree to pay higher energy bills, or gasoline taxes, or more for goods and services whose prices rise because of CO2 trading? The benefits of the comfortable status quo outweigh the minimal risks that we think climate change poses to us personally.

The science and policy communities tend to see the issue through their own professional lenses of fact and science and reason. The science of human behavior, particularly the psychology of risk perception, robustly shows that we use two systems to make judgments about risk; reason and affect, facts and feelings. It is simply naïve to disregard this inescapable truth and presume that reason and intellect alone will carry the day. That's just not how the human animal behaves. Even as potentially catastrophic as climate change might be, if people don't sense climate change as a direct personal threat, reason alone won't convince them that the costs of action are worth it.

There are still too few scientists and policy leaders describing the potential impacts of climate change on a local level. This is an admittedly dicey business because it’s hard to know specifically what changing the climate of the planet is going to do to Denver or Delhi or Dusseldorf. But there is plenty of scientific evidence of the harm climate change might do at the local level. These potential local risks need to be emphasized, in the concrete terms that will give people more of an idea of what climate change might do to them.

The costs of policies to deal with this global challenge also have to be presented in local terms. What will carbon sequestration or CO2 trading do to the prices of the goods and services we buy? What will requiring renewable energy sources do to our electricity bills? How might energy efficiency requirements cost us money, or perhaps save us money?

Many scientists from a wide range of fields have built the evidentiary case for climate change, and identified a range of solutions. But far too little attention has been given to the science of risk perception, and the tools of risk communication, to build a base of support for those solutions. Achim Steiner, head of the United Nations Environment Program, said that the ominous IPCC report released last fall sends a message; “What we need is a new ethic in which every person changes lifestyle, attitude and behavior.” A wonderful goal, but unlikely to happen unless individuals are more worried about how climate change might affect them directly. As the leaders of the world move on in the wake of Bali, they need to remember the real people in the local neighborhoods of our global village who will have a lot to say about whether the policies they choose will succeed.