At least 33 million people affected. More than 300,000 homes destroyed. Over 1,000 people dead. Pakistan is in the midst of a “serious climate catastrophe”, in the words of Sherry Rehman, the country’s climate change minister. The devastating floods, caused by an extreme monsoon and melting glaciers, may leave a third of the country under water. They come as Europe suffers the worst drought in 500 years and China’s rivers run dry after its most intense heatwave. Few places around the world have been spared the ravages of floods, fires, heatwaves or droughts this summer. Yet even in the midst of destruction our collective cognitive dissonance continues to keep radical global climate action at arm’s length.
People are increasingly taking part in direct action, but there is also despair, panic, even self-harm as the reality of climate change sinks in and governments remain seemingly oblivious to the discrepancy between their fine words and their flaky policies. Caroline Hickman, a psychotherapist at the University of Bath, attributes most climate anxiety not to the actual fact of global warming but to the lack of action from politicians to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
The dystopian summer, in conjunction with sky-high energy prices in Europe, does seem to be having some effect. The Daily Telegraph, generally a gung-ho advocate of fossil fuels and fracking, ran a column on Friday arguing that renewables were the “only way out of this mess”. Yet politicians everywhere are still found wanting. The reality gap appears particularly pronounced in the UK. The governments of many European countries, notably Spain, Germany and France, have seen the crises as an opportunity to slowly reduce gas use and increase energy efficiency. In the UK, however, the two Tory leadership candidates, Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss, are happier spouting inanities about solar panels spoiling farms than proposing coherent policies that would ultimately bring down emissions and energy bills. Ambitious climate strategies in richer countries will also reduce the risk of extreme heatwaves and flooding in poorer nations. Pakistan contributes less than 1 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions.
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Kate Jeffery, a professor of behavioural neuroscience at University College London, compares people’s reactions to the Covid crisis. “People were personally affected by a very direct danger, yet despite all the evidence about the dangers of the virus, we saw very bizarre behaviour with people not getting vaccinated, not avoiding hazardous situations and not wearing masks,” she says. The reasons why people seemingly ignore problems that threaten their very existence are complex and depend largely on how we assess risks, says Jeffery. “We tend to think we configure our beliefs based on evidence, but I increasingly think that this is not the case.” Instead, we rationalise our beliefs in retrospect, she adds, and it is our beliefs – irrational and distant from reality as they may be – that drive our behaviour.
We – politicians, businesses and individuals – therefore largely accept that climate change is real. An Office for National Statistics survey from October 2021 showed that three-quarters of British adults were very or somewhat worried about the impacts of a warming world. We rationalise our polluting behaviours, however, by telling ourselves that personal change is “pointless” unless everybody is else is also doing just as much. Likewise, we prefer to prioritise short-term needs – winning an election or immediate gratification – over long-term aims. And while disasters, like that unfolding in Pakistan, may inspire some to act, they may “frighten others so much that they simply shut down”, Jeffery says.
The psychoanalyst Sally Weintrobe also underlines the “need to understand how different groups and different parts of the mind perceive the threat of climate change very differently”. She doubts that many of those currently in charge are actually capable of solving climate change because they are “driving the problem” with their “ideological bent, focused on encouraging and enabling large corporations and short-term profit”. Weintrobe describes this “narrow-minded, rigid way of seeing” as “stale and stuck”. Truss and Sunak embody a “very stuck position” with their calls for tax cuts and attacks on “woke culture”, she says. For Weintrobe, such attitudes are part of today’s “culture of uncare”, which obfuscates reality and uses “predatory delay” to block change and allow the “final bit of profit to be squeezed” out of the system.
Per Espen Stoknes, a Norwegian psychologist and Green politician, has identified what he calls the “five Ds” of psychological defence that prevent people from engaging with climate change, namely Distancing, Doom, Dissonance, Denial and iDentity. This summer’s extreme weather “has the capacity to blow away the psychological distance”, he admits, but insists that any change is likely only to be short-term. Once the “autumn rains hit, people’s interest will fall”, he says. “The media will move on, politicians will be off the hook again and denial about the seriousness of the situation will creep back in. Politicians are not interested in solving climate change, but in positioning themselves for next round of the elections; they will only properly engage with climate action if they believe it will make a difference to whether they win or lose.”
Like Jeffrey he underlines that we all use fossil fuels and so, to some degree, are all responsible. “Disaster or guilt framing can make people start to avoid the issue,” he says. If you are caught stealing chocolate, you don’t stop eating it, you just become better at hiding your guilty secret, he suggests. Similarly, we create cognitive dissonance by admitting that climate change is real, but saying that “Covid is over and we really need a holiday” to justify aeroplane travel. And even though more people appear to be getting involved in climate protests, Stoknes suggests it is still too easy for conservative politicians to dismiss activists as “tree huggers” who want to “take away individual freedoms”.
Changing this state of affairs in the short time scientists say we have left to avoid the most dangerous levels of climate change is, to say the least, “challenging”, says Stoknes. He sees “story telling”, the sharing of personal stories that show the real advantages of cleaner energy systems, as the key to change. When electric vehicles were given access to bus lanes in Norway, people thought “lucky bastards”, he comments, and traded in their fossil fuel cars so that they too could speed ahead unimpeded.
Weintrobe agrees that personal stories can help to ignite transformation. “We have to keep plugging away,” she says, urging the media to “really keep on it” rather than dropping the ball once the floods recede and the heatwaves and forest fires die down. “We don’t have time to wait for climate change to get worse before people wake up. Many people are awake already, but they are terrified and are trying to change the conversation. If people are not supported in such a frightening situation, there is a danger they will turn to illusion and the false belief that they will be magically saved.”