Climate change: the new playing field emerges

The tide seems to be shifting in the debate over climate change. Last year was dominated by the fallout of the Climategate email theft, and scrutiny of the integrity of various climate scientists and organisations. Of all the mud thrown, the only fraction to stick tells us what we already knew: scientists are people,who do good work but may make poorly judged decisions under certain, high-pressure conditions. In 2011, more attention is falling on the oft-neglected social side of climate change. Why are people apathetic about climate change? How can effective change be enacted? What is the human side of all this?

In Australia, one of the world’s major hotbeds of climate change denial, public rallies for and against action on climate change are taking place in response to the Government’s announcement of a carbon tax. The rallies have attracted a decent bit of attention, and the selection of placards is an entertaining mix! More seriously, the next 12 months in Australia are effectively going to be a PR war, and both sides are drawing battle lines.

It’s a real shame, because climate change and the solutions proposed for it are not a simple dichotomy of action or inaction, and trying to force the ‘middle’ off the fence one way or another is inevitably going to lead to separations on grounds far more fundamental than the economic approach to carbon mitigation or the bare realities of climate science. A much more productive public debate, but one that hasn’t seemingly started yet, would be the details of climate action programs, and priority-setting in order to protect those who will be affected most by both climate impacts and mitigation measures.

From the Brisbane climate action rally. Photo: John Cook, SkS: Click to see more examples!

The first issue of Nature: Climate Change is a readable and interesting mixture of articles. There’s a healthy mix of science and social science. I’m really happy to see it: the more I’ve looked at the issue over the past 5 years or so, the more I recognise that what is interesting about climate change is not what will happen, but how people respond to it. The subtlety and nuance in human psychology and behaviour means that it can be difficult to really scrutinise social responses to climate change, but we must if we want to achieve a livable future.

The issue carries a number of articles on this. One – which I have plans to do a little podcast about with Anna – assesses whether direct experience of flooding (one of the key predicted risks of climate change in the UK) makes people more willing to reduce their energy consumption. There’s an interesting story to tell there, but you’ll hear it later!

Another, by Chris Woodside, is about the keeping-up-with-the-Jones syndrome, which is a powerful force holding back climate-friendly behaviour: social norms guide what we do, more than our attitude or knowledge. I believe that this is the single most expansive playing field to emerge in the climate change debate. Attitude follows behaviour more than the other way round, as I’ve discussed before. Information-based approaches to climate change are useful, but are extremely unlikely to induce widespread social change in environmentally friendly behaviour. Tackling this problem will be tricky and will require innovative and carefully tailored approaches, but it’s also vital if we want to see a positive shift in public behaviour and opinion.

I could (and will) write more about this, but the sun is shining brightly for the fourth day in a row and I have to make the most of it! Here’s a shot from Hyde Park on Wednesday…

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Categories: environmentalism, Problems, Thoughts | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

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