From conversations with friends and colleagues these last few months it seems no one really understands or cares that much for this climate change thing! When asked, reactions typically invoke a laugh and comments such as 'what's the point of worrying', 'they tax us enough as it is' or 'how come it's so cold this winter'?
In travelling abroad, I have also noticed that the topic simply does not register in developing countries because priorities there are to raise living standards and to provide access to the kinds of material goods and services that those of us living in Europe and North America take for granted. Essentially, climate change is seen as a problem that people will worry about when it happens and since it has been created by the life styles of those living in the developed nations, they alone need to fix it.
|Rising Standards of Living in Asia||When friends do respond positively, it usually involves acts like deciding to visit a local farmer's market, taking rubbish to a recycle centre or sending an e-mail asking me to sign an e-petition raised by one of the many climate change action groups (10:10, 350.org, tcktcktck, etc.) that have sprung up this last year. It doesn't do much to 'save the planet', but at least it shows that they do care.|
Changing Habits of a Lifetime
All of this has got me thinking that any move to create a low carbon economy will require everyone to change habits of a lifetime and that this is not going to be an easy thing to do at all. In this respect it is important that those formulating policy should think not only about market mechanisms, but also the behavioural response of its citizens once they start pushing them to reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases. Experience to date shows that it is highly likely the public will be resistant to such a change and that this could easily derail any number of initiatives. For example, it is fine for an economist to propose internalising the price of carbon, but how do you explain the consequent increase in the cost of energy to someone who wants to buy a new car or to a low-income family that is struggling to find money to pay their next electricity bill?
Climate related initiatives in Europe that the public has already taken exception to include plans to trial the underground storage of carbon dioxide captured from coal fuelled power stations and the introduction from 2010 of a carbon tax in France (thanks to Tim Joslin for this link). We can also expect spirited objections in the UK to the Carbon Reduction Commitment (CRC) that begins next April and any proposals to introduce personal carbon allowances.
David MacKay points out in his webcast - how many light bulbs? - that the issue of climate change cannot be addressed at the level of the individual. He considers (and I would concur) that this is going to require a major change in attitudes by society and an acceptance that much needs to be done to construct a new infrastructure (power supply, residential and industrial) if we are to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. He also observes that we find ourselves in a situation where people do not want to sanction the construction of any new coal fired power stations (that would operate more efficiently than existing units), nuclear power plant or wind farm - yet they still expect power to be available whenever they switch their lights on.
In this regard, the World Bank has recently published a working paper that provides some interesting insights into the behaviour of people in response to the issue of climate change. Although the public has the power to reduce emissions by changing its travel, heating and purchasing habits, as well as the ability to drive organisational and political change, it chooses not to do so. Reasons include:
- Exposure to too much conflicting information makes it hard for individuals to frame a response. This creates scepticism, as well as feelings of helplessness and guilt about the whole issue.
- The slow moving nature of climate change and the delayed, uncertain outcome of the problem does not 'move' people.
- Humans strongly discount the future and assign higher priorities to more immediate problems.
- People can fail to act on available information if the cost of making a decision is too high.
- People construct and re-construct information to make it less uncomfortable. For example, a focus on country emissions (such as those of China) rather than per capita emissions allows individuals in the West (as well as those in developing countries) to minimise their own responsibilities.
Conflicts in the Message
The public's position on climate change is also clouded by the perception that there is a major disconnect in messages from the groups that it has left to worry about the problem and which it expects to sort out a solution. This author does not subscribe to the notion that this discord is being orchestrated by funded climate change deniers, but it does seem evident in the democracies where this is being played out that a number of well meaning groups are pulling in different directions. These include:
- The technocrats who have formulated programs to mitigate the emissions of GHGs.
- The politicians debating the regulatory environment to be put in place.
- The agencies tasked to implement the regulations.
- The media that is usually on the look-out for good copy.
- The industries and businesses that see this as something that increases costs.
- Pressure groups, both those accepting and those denying the existence of climate change.
Personally, I think it inevitable the World will overshoot whatever limits on the emissions of greenhouse gases are negotiated. This in itself will not be the end of things, as it is certain that people and life on the planet will find ways to adapt to the predicted rises in temperatures and extremes in the weather. A more searching question is whether we can make our economies less dependent on the combustion of coal and other hydrocarbon fuels that have sustained our lifestyles these last few centuries. It is here that the real struggle to convince the public begins because such changes threaten to reduce standards of living and increase the cost of nearly everything that make our lives so comfortable.
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