Combating Climate Inaction

When you stop to ponder climate change and its causes and effects, are you faced with existential anxiety about environmental destruction or do you remain skeptical, questioning the human impact of climate change? 

The talking heads on the media represent the deafening noise out there about global warming as they argue with one another if it’s our problem to fix – maybe it’s the government’s fault … maybe it’s China’s … or maybe it doesn’t even exist! When the loudest in the room argue over climate action, it may look like we cannot all get along. Many of us are already aware that the noise focuses on extreme, politicized sides of the argument because this piques our interest and garners votes. In truth, despite the outward division, we may all be experiencing similar feelings of existential threat by the environment. We may hear the statistics, and we feel the effects of climate change in our own backyard – the harsher temperatures, the forest fires burning in California, and the devastating floods in Western Germany. 

As a collective, many of us are faced with the burden of inaction. Like Hamlet, to be or not to be … green and environmentally conscious. I am here to reassure you that this anxiety and dread is normal, and there is something that we can do about it – together. Between 2019 and 2020, the Pew Research Center surveyed over 3,000 American adults on their perception of the environment. The results indicated that two-thirds of the polled adults believed the government was not doing enough to address climate change. More surprisingly, concerns about climate change seem to overrule partisan politics for young Republicans and Democrats. Close to 80% of millennial Republicans and 90% of Democrats emphasize prioritizing advancements in alternative and renewable energy sources (1).

The Pew study quantifies what many of us already feel – climate change is a growing problem that is here to stay and affects all of us, regardless of political beliefs. If the majority of us feel a degree of anxiousness and concern about the effects of climate change, why is it then so difficult for us to take concrete actions? The source of our inaction must be more than simply partisan politics.
The theories on climate action range from philosophical, political, and economic, but I believe that there are two overarching factors that influence our action or inaction: strategy and psychology. With countless international organizations, governments, and citizens focusing on expanding the research into sustainable innovation and solutions, the technology and proposals already exist in laying out the framework for improving our global environmental footprint. Therefore, our
capabilities for problem-solving are not at issue, but our problem lies with our strategy. Part of the strategic challenge with acting on climate change requires us to make infrastructural and economic changes on both domestic and international levels, while also keeping inequality and discrimination in mind (2). 

Climate justice and inequality focus on those most affected by environmental changes: those living in low-income communities, our youngest generations, and our future progeny (3). Based on data collected by the EPA, minority demographics make up over half of the US population that
live within half a mile of a Brownfield (4), which are areas that contain life-threatening or hazardous pollutants (5). These fine, toxic particulates lead to serious health consequences with increased probability of cancer as one of the top health risks (6).

These statistics represent the regional inequalities with living in a polluted world, but we cannot
also ignore the international scale of climate injustice. What we see on a regional level is also clearly represented on an international level. Many developing countries are located in regions that will be most affected by the changing climate’s restrictions on natural resources. These regions still rely on fossil fuels to thrive, a process that developed countries have already achieved through their own rapid industrialization. Therefore, the inequalities of climate change are not just based on inequity of resources but also on the ability to industrialize (7).

One challenge that we will have to face is how to allow for economic growth while also promoting sustainable consumption. Just as we must address these strategic hurdles, we must also address our psychological response to climate change. Based on psychologist Robert Gifford’s theory on climate inaction, there are seven overarching categories of psychological barriers to climate action:

  1. our limited understanding of climate change,
  2. ideologies and world views,
  3. social norms,
  4. value conflict,
  5. mistrust,
  6. risk perception, and
  7. acting minimally.

To summarize, many of us collectively possess a limited understanding of climate change as a global phenomenon that crosses borders or natural boundaries (Barrier 1). When we finally do realize the severity of the problem, we are then faced with a variety of psychological barriers (Barriers 2-6) such as our belief that technology can fix all of our problems, our mistrust in the government, or even our own fear of losing our valued material wealth. However, when we finally do take action, it is often not enough; we may hesitate to do more due to feeling that we do not make a difference or feeling numb to the statistics (Barrier 7) (8). Many of the strategic and psychological barriers share the same foundation. Our inaction can be caused by four concrete issues that limit our ability to combat climate change:

  1. climate change is complicated;
  2. it is not limited by sovereign boundaries and
    responsibilities;
  3. it requires a trust in collective action; and
  4. we have not used our most creative methods
    to inspire action.

Climate change is a complicated process that is not promptly visible. We cannot immediately see the effects of global warming in the same way that we can see the consequences of a toxic oil spill. The effects of our emissions take place over hundreds of years. Furthermore, no one country has jurisdiction over climate change, and no one country can claim sole responsibility. Mitigation not only
requires all of us to claim some responsibility, it also asks us to leave our mistrust of the government behind. The scope of global warming is far too large for only individuals to take into their own hands. It requires both national and international governments to act on our behalf. Lastly, current mitigation efforts lack a strong focus on imagination. One of our greatest strengths as a human collective lies in our ability to weave stories. Without powerful stories, how do we ignite our passion for action(9)? Improving our structural approaches to climate change simply will not be enough unless we improve how we motivate both individuals and collectives to take action.

In discussing what strategic and psychological barriers exist in acting on climate change, I have also provided some guidance on which direction our solutions need to go. Therefore, our first task focuses on how we can address the structural and systemic issues of climate justice and policy. We must be able to address the resource and social inequalities faced by those who will suffer the most from the changing climate. Overcoming these structural barriers would require increased cooperation between governments and multinational corporations to provide consumers with affordable and sustainable goods and services. Corporations heavily influence our daily lives by affecting our product choices and impacting what innovations lie at our fingertips. One way to increase cooperation between these firms and governments is to massively invest in green technologies both in the public and private sectors (10). However, we cannot rely on technology alone. Shifting our carbon-based economy towards a greener economy may also address social inequalities in climate change as well as incentivize corporations to develop sustainable products.

A green economy has the potential of improving the quality of life for the victims of climate injustice by providing more sustainable infrastructure and reducing pollution (11). We need not look far to see what policy for a greener economy could look like. In response to catastrophes, countries have enacted emergency policies to prevent a further collapse of the economy. For example, The New Deal was the US response to The Great Depression in order to jump-start the US economy. This historic policy placed certain restrictions on the inequality-causing factors of capitalism and enhanced workers’ rights by improving wages, hours, and product prices. Investments in the public sphere rapidly fueled new infrastructure, creating jobs in a jobless economy (12).

We have seen similar proposals like “The Green New Deal” introduced (although it failed to pass) in the U.S. in 2019. These kinds of ideas can help lay the groundwork for solutions. Such policies could address inequality by providing greater access to public transportation and sustainable housing – while also reducing toxic pollutants in our communities. Climate change proves that our global market is not necessarily efficient and requires a limitation of corporate power over our civic life, requiring a “New Deal-like” limitation on corporate capitalism. Environmental policy can learn from The New Deal by combining economic growth with sustainable innovation to promote job growth and access to resources. However, at the same time, these pro-environment policies have difficulty garnering support because it requires citizens to trust the government to act on behalf of the collective interest (13).

Addressing the psychological reasons behind our inaction can help garner public support and create a more united front. To address our limited understanding, we need to increase our basic scientific comprehension and STEM education (14). If we continue to see public denial on the causes, effects, or severity of global warming, we cannot effectively encourage behavioral changes. We must create a better medium to inform consumers on green policies and technologies (15). One way to do this is to use our capacity for storytelling. We need to promote a greater variety of approaches, and sometimes, the creative methods are what best communicate complex issues to the public. The thematic presence of climate change is lacking in fictional works when compared to other societal concerns. Just as Consequences of the July floodings in Western Germany; photo: Anno Weingarten, 2021 Firefighters on their way to stop the Calwood Fire from spreading; photo: Malachi Brooks on Unsplash how movies and television in the past have ignited social movements, using more creative forums helps the public in visualizing the complicated effects of climate change (16).

Lastly, we have to be able to address the growing mistrust that we have in our governing bodies. If we cannot trust our governments, then we cannot expect the support needed to enact these environmental policies, especially in democracies. We need to trust in our ability to act as a collective, from the community level to the global level. A restructuring of climate jurisdiction and responsibility is required to restore public trust in collective action. We need to encourage and condemn both governments and corporations for ethical or unethical climate actions. If we cannot hold one another responsible, we cannot enact major changes. Accountability may look like treaties, taxes, and other forms of political and economic regulation to encourage positive action (17).

Our current methodologies are simply not working. For decades, we have been warned about the toxic effects of our consumption patterns. Despite the statistics, little has been realistically done in reducing our collective harms to the environment. Therefore, we need to restructure our approach. We have become comfortable with our instant access to material goods without regarding the effect of collective consumption patterns. The global pandemic has only increased our reliance on instant goods shipped directly to our waiting hands – without a thought to the life cycle of the product. If our current status of massive supply shortages is any indication of the future to come, we can no longer maintain this ignorance of our actions.

So, what can we do together? We have a chance at a new beginning. Let us leave our inaction behind in 2021 and start with something as simple as telling a story. We have the power to reignite our passion for the environment through photography, novels, screenplays, and films. We need imagination to understand the problem and to take action. If we take a moment to change our approach – to offer more empowering messages instead of assigning blame – we can create a new era of change. Yes, there is a lot that we must expect from our governments to tackle this issue, but what we can do together, right now, is use our creativity to improve our overall grasp of the problem. Through storytelling and imagination, we can inspire one another to protect those most vulnerable to the changing climate, including our children and grandchildren.

Written by our very own Customer Development Extraordinaire, Fulbright alum, and Climate Activist,

Janani Ravi

Janani Ravi is a Fulbright alum and former US grantee. After completing two Bachelor’s programs in English literature and in International Studies, she received a Fulbright Scholarship to assist in English language learning in Germany. She completed her Fulbright grant in Hagen, Germany as a Teaching Assistant between 2015 and 2017. Janani completed her Master’s degree through the EELP program at the Ruhr University of Bochum in 2020 with a specialization in climate ethics. She currently resides and works in the renewable energy sector in Maryland and is the co-chair of the Climate Reality Project in Baltimore. we can no longer maintain this ignorance of our actions.

Click here to see this article as it was first published in Issue 2021 of FRANKly, the Annual Journal of the German Fulbright Alumni Association 

Sources: 

1. Funk, Cary and Brian Kennedy. 2020. “How Americans see climate
change and the environment
in 7 charts.” https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2020/04/21/
how-americans-see-climate-change-and-the-environment-in-7-charts/

2. Kuttner, Robert. 2019. “Green New Deal: The Urgent Realism of
Radical Change.” https://prospect.org/greennewdeal/the-urgentrealism-of-radical-change/

3. Ott, Konrad. 2012. “Domains of Climate Change.” Jahrbuch für
Wissenschaft und Ethik 95-114.

4. EPA. 2020. “Population Surrounding 27,030 Brownfields Sites.”
https://www.epa.gov/sites/default/files/2015-09/documents/webpopulationbrownfieldsites.9.28.15.pdf

5. Jackson, Derrick Z. 2019. “Toxic Injustices.” https://prospect.org/
greennewdeal/toxic-injustices-little-village-chicago/

6. Desikan, Anita, J. Carter, S. Kinser, G. Goldman. 2019. Abandoned
Science, Broken Promises: How the Trump Administration’s Neglect
of Science Is Leaving Marginalized Communities Further Behind.
Union of Concerned Scientists. https://www.ucsusa.org/sites/default/
files/2019-10/abandoned-science-broken-promises-web-final.pdf

7. Diprose, Kristina et al. 2019. Climate change, consumption and intergenerational justice: Lived experiences in China, Uganda and the UK.

8. Gifford, Robert. 2011. “The Dragons of Inaction: Psychological Barriers
That Limit Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation.

9.+10. Karmack, Elaine. 2019. Report: The challenging politics of climate change. Brookings Institute.

11. Robert Kuttner. 2019. “Green New Deal: The Urgent Realism of Radical Change.” https://prospect. org/greennewdeal/the-urgent-realism-of-radical-change/ 

12. Winkler, Allan M. 2009. “The New Deal: Accomplishments and Failures.” Testimony before the U.S. Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs. https://www.banking.senate.gov/imo/ media/doc/WinklerTestimony33109TheNewDealSenateTestimony.pdf 

13. Robert Kuttner. 2019. “Green New Deal: The Urgent Realism of Radical Change.” https://prospect. org/greennewdeal/the-urgent-realism-of-radical-change/ 

14. Karmack, Elaine. 2019. Report: The challenging politics of climate change. Brookings Institute. 

15. Gifford, Robert. 2011. “The Dragons of Inaction: Psychological Barriers That Limit Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation.” 

16.+17. Karmack, Elaine. 2019. Report: The challenging politics of climate change. Brookings Institute

 

 

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