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Talking about climate change in the here and now

Why don’t enough of us care about climate change? Better yet, why don’t we care about this issue enough to cause the society-wide change needed to address the challenge?

These questions reveal that the challenge of climate action requires not just climate science. Rather, it requires a deep understanding of human psychology. Let us take a quick look at some of what the science of the human mind has to say about this challenge.

The science behind human-caused climate change is firmly established. We know, to a very high degree of confidence, that human activities, particularly the burning of fossil fuels, is causing our planet to warm at an alarming and unprecedented rate. Furthermore, we know that this global warming results in a variety of things, from the rising of the sea to the increased frequency of freak storms.

The special report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) earlier this month not only agrees with the above statements. It also shows that the window for preventing the worst from happening is closing in on us.

Given the way the issue is phrased above, many of you probably ended up feeling hopeless and therefore not inspired to act. Furthermore, our day-to-day lives present more pressing personal challenges. This leaves us with little motivation to care about a “distant” threat.

This tendency of the human mind to care much less about more distant future consequences is called hyperbolic discounting.

Writing for ScienceNews, Julie Rehmeyer presents hyperbolic discounting using the following questions: “How much would you be willing to spend now to make your child $100 richer in the future? What about your grandchild in the farther future, or your great-great-great-great-great-great-grandchild in the very distant future?”

Alternatively, we can also ask, “How much would you be willing to spend to prevent your child from being $100 poorer in the future?”

Because of hyperbolic discounting, most of us today will tend to undervalue the wealth and health of future generations compared to the comforts of living under “business as usual” today.

This is why many science communicators have argued for a shift in the framing of the climate change issue. While it is true that climate change concerns the future, it also concerns the present. Perhaps highlighting the present effects of climate change alongside its future effects will help in counteracting the effects of hyperbolic discounting.

According to the Psychology of Climate Change Communication published by the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions (CRED) at Columbia University, one very effective way of framing climate change is by combining the “future frame”—talking about climate change in terms of future consequences—and “The Now.”

Survey data gathered by CRED has shown that “the average person finds little difference between getting $250 now or $366 in one year (implying an interest rate of roughly 46%).” Their data shows a similar discounting rate for environmental problems. According to their research, “the average person finds little difference between 21 days of clean air now over 35 days of clean air next year.”

Given these results, they recommend often talking about climate change in terms of the present day or the near future.

Bringing that close to home, we Filipinos might be made to care more about climate change if we are shown how much climate change is costing us in the present day, and how much better we would be if we start pressuring our government to prioritize renewable energy over fossil fuels right now.

Speaking of bringing the climate change close to home, another issue with the way climate change is often communicated is this: it is communicated in terms of global impact.

This might be effective for some people. It might, however, be far less effective for most people.

In a study by University of British Columbia psychologist Robert Gifford, 327 participants answered a survey that measured how much they cared about climate change. Before the participants did so, one group read a poster with information about the worldwide effects of climate change. Meanwhile, another group read a poster that showed effects on the local environment. A third group did not get any message at all. Gifford’s results suggest that the people who read about the local effects were more engaged with climate change compared to the people from the other groups.

The fact that different people have very different priorities in life might, at first, seem like a hindrance to making people care about climate change. There is the danger of making climate change compete with worries like economic anxieties.

However, with the use of results from psychology, we can harness the power of such diversity of concerns to show that many of them are inextricably linked to climate change, and that they are linked to it in the here and now.

Topics: Sounds of Science , climate change , Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change , IPCC
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