Dragons of Inaction: Why Aren’t We Doing More?

(Komodo) Dragon of Inaction

Why aren’t you doing all that you can to reduce climate change?
Photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/frank-wouters/10049178/sizes/o/in/photostream/

“If so many people are concerned about climate change, the environment, and sustainability, why are more of us not doing what is necessary to ameliorate the problems?” (290) This question is posed by Robert Gifford, a professor of Psychology and Environmental Studies at the University of Victoria, in his article The Dragons of Inaction: Psychological Barriers That Limit Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation.  In the article Gifford describes seven general psychological barriers to climate change mitigation and adaptation, as well as twenty-nine specific manifestations of these barriers.  The US is one of the world’s worst offenders when in comes to per capita greenhouse gas emissions, so what are the greatest barriers to people in the US?

I think that in the US the greatest barrier to limiting climate change mitigation falls into the category Gifford describes as “limited cognition”.  More specifically, uncertainty is the dragon of inaction that I believe poses the greatest threat to mitigating climate change in the US.  We like to think of ourselves as completely rational beings making completely rational decisions, but as Gifford wisely points out “Humans are famously less rational than once believed.” (291)  The problem is that if there is uncertainty about climate change, or even if someone simply thinks there is uncertainty about climate change, they are more likely to consume resources “at a rate that favors self-interest rather than that of the environment.” (292)  What makes this even more dangerous is the fact that all scientific data has uncertainty due to human involvement.  This leads some people to the conclusion that the data cannot be relied on.

Earth First: We can log the other planets later

I was driving through Mooresville, NC a few weeks ago and I saw a bumper sticker that said “Earth First: We can Log the Other Planets Later.”  That is not uncertainty.  That is someone who is not concerned about the environment regardless of the data available.  However, I had a teacher in high school who told me that until they could prove that climate change was caused by humans she believed that it is no more than a natural process.  The uncertainty of humans’ role in global climate change provided just enough of an excuse for her to continue consuming in the same way without feelings of guilt.  A study titled Climate change in the American Mind: Americans’ global warming beliefs and attitudes in January 2010 by Leiserowitz, Maibach, and Roser-Renouf broke down the American public into six distinct categories based upon their “climate change beliefs, attitudes, risk perceptions, motivations, values, policy preferences, behaviors, and underlying barriers to action.” (1)  The six categories described in the study (pg. 3) are shown below:

Some of the data collected in the study confirms the problems Gifford saw arising from uncertainty.  The groups I was focusing the most on were the cautious, disengaged, and the doubtful because I believe that my teacher would have fit into one of these categories, and because when you combine these percentages they make up 42% of the adult population.  When asked about the causes of global warming 50% of the cautious group, 39% of the disengaged group, and 8% of the doubtful group stated that they believed global warming is caused by human activities (9).  And when asked about the scientific consensus on global warming 37% of the cautious group, 23% of the disengaged group, and 11% of the doubtful group said they believe most scientists think global warming is happening. (10)  These struck me as very low numbers, and I think that a major reason is the uncertainty (possibly imagined) of scientific data.

My own dragons of inaction are quite different, as you might have guessed.  I am studying the environment, reading and writing about how important it is.  So for me the deadliest of dragons is behavioral momentum, or in other words, overcoming habitual behaviors that add to the rate of greenhouse gas production.  One of my biggest problems is forcing myself to take short showers in the mornings.

My own dragons of inaction, as compared to those of many Americans, are pretty different.  It is also difficult to ask policymakers to be involved in something as personal as ones’ habits.  I would argue that policymakers should work to overcome the problems that come with uncertainty, however.  If news organizations, scientific bodies, and the government can be more clear about the data that exists and what it means then perhaps people will begin to change the way they act.  In an article for the American Psychologist, Janet K. Swim et al point out that “Psychology can also make important contributions by informing efforts to mitigate or limit climate change” and that “much policy attention has been given to structural barriers to behavioral change, but Gifford argues that removing these barriers is not likely to be sufficient because of other resistances to change.” (244)  If this is to be the case then people like Gifford will be all the more important in helping us understand how many Americans think, and how to change the way we act.

Works Cited:

Gifford, Robert. 2011. “The dragons of inaction: Psychological barriers that limit climate change mitigation and adaptation.” American Psychologist 66(4): 290–302. https://ezproxy.lib.davidson.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true& db=pdh&AN=amp-66-4-290&site=ehost-live

Leiserowitz, A., E. Maibach, and C. Roser-Renouf. 2010. Climate change in the American Mind: Americans’ global warming beliefs and attitudes in January 2010. Yale University and George Mason University. New Have: CT. Yale Project on Climate Change. http://environment.yale.edu/uploads/AmericansGlobalWarmingBeliefs2010.Pdf, 1-29.

Swim, Janet K. et al. 2011. “Psychology’s contributions to understanding and addressing global climate change.” American Psychologist 66(4): 241–250. https://ezproxy.lib.davidson.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true& db=pdh&AN=amp-66-4-241&site=ehost-live