Archive for September, 2017

Stop worrying about climate deniers – we won’t escape extreme warming unless we deal with climate apathy

Posted in Climate Majority on September 30th, 2017 by Leo – Be the first to comment

The Climate Majority is out now. You can buy it from the publisher, New Internationalist, or from Amazon etc.

This was originally published by Desmog.

We should stop talking so much about climate denial. That might seem a surprising message from the author of a book on public opinion about climate change, but I’m convinced it’s the right answer for those of us who want more action to cut emissions.

Look at the news and climate denial seems to be everywhere. It’s common in the media, as Newsweek readers and UK radio listeners have recently been reminded, while its grip on the White House seems stronger than ever.

But among the public, denial is quite rare. As I show in my book, The Climate Majority, in comparison with the proportion that think climate change won’t be a threat, Americans are more likely to think 9/11 was a US government plot, more Brits think Princess Diana was assassinated, not killed accidentally, and Canadians are more likely to say Bigfoot is real. Those are fringe conspiracy theories, and it’s right they’re treated as such.

Climate Apathy

And yet we still get distracted by climate denial, when our real target should be climate apathy. Many people, perhaps half the population, understand that climate change is real and a threat but just don’t think about it very much and don’t understand why they would need to change their lives to deal with it. If that apathy isn’t tackled, the world will face dangerous warming.

As the world looks at the emissions it needs to cut, some parts of the job are easier than others. Most progress so far has come from closing and cancelling coal power plants. Doing that hasn’t really had to draw on public support. It’s distant from most people’s lives and is the kind of thing that governments – or markets – can do without paying all that much attention to what the public think.

But it won’t be long before the world exhausts easier changes like that. When that happens the remaining emissions cuts will have to come from activities that directly affect many people’s day-to-day lives. Two of the most challenging are flying and eating meat. The world is going to have to radically cut emissions from both – but in the two areas, emissions look set to increase. Without action, either could effectively make it impossible for the world to prevent dangerous warming.

In areas like these, public opinion will be crucial, yet it’s unlikely that widespread support would be forthcoming so long as so many people are apathetic. The Climate Majority looks at the causes of apathy and what can overcome it.

Explaining Apathy

Human psychology is part of the explanation. Several factors make climate change poorly suited to capturing most people’s attention – like the physical distance and time lag between activity, emissions and effect, and the slowness and complexity of the process.

That might make climate apathy seem inevitable, but I don’t believe it is. The ways that climate change is often talked about reinforce apathy, ignoring the lessons from studies of psychology and political campaigning. This includes the failure to show most people – particularly those in rich and high-emitting countries – what extreme climate change would mean for their own lives, and the reliance on abstract small numbers that are not well understood (for example, on average, the UKpublic think the threshold for dangerous warming is 8°C/14°F rather than 1.5°C-2°C).

On top of this there’s the political polarisation of climate change. It’s widely seen as an issue that concerns liberals more than moderates and conservatives, particularly in the US. This puts off those who don’t identify with the left and so they don’t see climate change as something that people like themselves are interested in.

There are no magic words that will make everyone care about climate change but, as I outline in the book, there are ways of dealing with these causes of apathy. We can get much better at showing how the consequences of extreme warming would affect the people we’re talking to, and we can address the perception that it’s solely an issue of the left.

Bring on the Controversies

But what of the deniers? While they’re not the focus of the book we can’t just ignore them, nor should we deny the success they’ve had in delaying action. Their goal is to cast doubt on the reality of climate change to slow action and, while they’re now losing, they haven’t given up.

Part of the answer is to keep pulling off the veil to show what’s really going on – exposing the money trails, hypocrisy and vested interests, so fossil fuel-funded lobbyists can’t keep influencing decisions from the shadows.

But another part of the answer is to show that the climate deniers are far less interesting than they seem. They get media coverage because they provide controversy for stories about climate change, but they’ve only got one argument to make. There are many other interesting and contentious issues about how we deal with climate change, about which the deniers have nothing to say – for example, on questions about how the burden of cutting emissions should be shared.

If we want to win over the apathetic, we should bring on these controversies, not shy away from them. Resolving the emission-cutting challenges to come can only be done in plain sight – it’s time we started embracing that.

 

The Climate Majority: Apathy and Action in an Age of Nationalism is published by New Internationalist.

 

Why public opinion about climate change is important

Posted in Climate Majority, Climate Sock on September 20th, 2017 by Leo – Be the first to comment

The Climate Majority is published tomorrow. You can buy it from the publisher, New Internationalist, or from Amazon etc.

This was originally published by Birkbeck.

You could look at the news and think climate disaster is now inevitable. Each of the last three years has, one by one, been the hottest on record. A consequence of that was visible with Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, which were made more destructive by oceans that had been warmed by human emissions. All of this has happened with the world only having warmed by perhaps a third of what it will this century if emissions don’t fall.

But you could also look around and think the world is finally dealing with climate change. For the first time, global emissions have stopped increasing, not because of a recession, but because of efforts to deal with the threat. Nearly every country has committed to limit their emissions, in an agreement that anticipates national commitments will strengthen over time.

Both views are right. Climate change is now here and is killing people. And the world is dealing with it more seriously than ever before. But which path will win out? Will the world eliminate emissions within a generation as it should if it is to prevent dangerous warming? Or will its efforts falter, emissions continue at their current rate (or even increase), and the planet respond with increasingly ferocious storms, heatwaves and droughts?

My book, The Climate Majority: Apathy and Action in an Age of Nationalism, looks at one of the factors that could make the difference – and how those of us who are worried about climate change could swing the balance.

While the world has done better than many predicted in halting the increase in emissions, its progress has depended on changes that have imposed little burden on most people. The most important of these has been the closure of coal power plants, and cancellation of new plants, which are increasingly being replaced by lower-carbon sources like gas and renewables.

But eventually, the world will exhaust relatively painless changes like this. At some point, the only remaining emissions cuts – which will be crucial for avoiding dangerous warming – will be from activities that directly affect many people in their day-to-day lives.

Two of the most challenging of these are flying and meat-eating. The world is going to have to radically cut emissions from both – but in the two areas, emissions look set to increase. Without action, either could effectively make it impossible for the world to prevent dangerous warming.

Achieving these harder, but essential, emission cuts won’t be possible without public support. Yet, at the moment, that support wouldn’t be forthcoming. It’s not that many people deny climate change: no more than 20% do, even in the US. The more important problem is that many people, perhaps half the population, understand that climate change is real and a threat, but just don’t think about it very much and don’t understand why they would need to change their lives to deal with it. Without their support, crucial emission-cutting measures will fail.

My book looks at the people who are apathetic about climate change and investigates why they think what they do. It explores how human psychology and the ways climate change is often described have made the problem seem distant, unthreatening, and a special interest of left-wing liberals.

And the book looks at what we can do to overcome apathy. There’s no magic word that will make the world act on climate change, but there are ways we can persuade those who are apathetic that it is worth making the effort to deal with the threat. It’s still possible to tip the balance away from disaster.

The Climate Majority: Apathy and Action in an Age of Nationalism will be published on 21 September by New Internationalist.

 

Extract from The Climate Majority – why climate apathy matters

Posted in Climate Majority on September 19th, 2017 by Leo – Be the first to comment

Business Green have published an exclusive extract from my book. You can read it here.

And, if you like the sound of it, you can buy the book here.

 

No-one wants to talk about it but stopping extreme climate change will mean eating less meat

Posted in Climate Majority, Climate Sock, Meat on September 17th, 2017 by Leo – Be the first to comment

This was originally published by New Internationalist.

Earlier this month Jeremy Corbyn made headlines in a new way – expressing interest in becoming vegan, after being a vegetarian for decades. Although he later denied he was considering the switch, the episode provided a glimpse of a conversation that few people want to have – but which we can’t keep putting off if we are to avoid extreme climate change.

Campaigners have been trying to persuade the public to eat less meat for years. It’s more than four decades since Peter Singer’s consciousness-awakening book Animal Liberation was published. The Vegetarian Society has been going four times as long. Over those years, there have been countless exposés of cruelties in factory farms and of the damage that farming can do to the local environment, and doctors increasingly warn of the risks of eating too much meat.

But if the aim of all this was to reduce meat consumption, those efforts have failed. Vegetarianism might now seem part of mainstream culture rather than an eccentricity, but there’s little sign that more people are quitting meat. Nor is there evidence that many people are reducing the amount they eat – data suggests individuals around the world are eating steadily more of it. Even in the US, where meat consumption per person fell during the Great Recession, consumption is now rising again. It looks like economics was the driving force, not ethics.

The world won’t prevent extreme climate change if it doesn’t deal with this. Meat and dairy production is responsible for around a seventh of all of human greenhouse gas emissions. If this continues, livestock emissions alone will exhaust the world’s ‘carbon budget’, the amount the world can release before committing to the dangerous warming threshold of two degrees celsius, within around 100 years – even if every other source of emissions is cleaned up. And, with farming emissions set to grow 30% by 2050, meat and dairy may burn through the budget even faster.

There are solutions to this. There’s been a shift in tastes, with chicken becoming more popular and beef becoming less so. This has cut emissions – beef warms the planet about four times as much as chicken. But the switch has been so slow that population growth means the total amount of beef eaten is still rising. And, though cleaner than beef, chicken is still several times more polluting than vegetarian alternatives.

Technology might help. Meat substitutes like the vegan Impossible Burger, which release a fraction of the emissions of beef, could make a switch more palatable. As a recent convert to being mostly vegetarian I’ve found that even the limited range of meat substitutes now available help me cut down on meat, as vaping does for smokers (though I’m still far from convinced by cheese substitutes: they’re fine in cooking but on a cracker are about as appealing as their plastic packaging).

But technology won’t fix the problem on its own. Even if vegan alternatives keep getting better, most people will need more motivation to switch. As long as the substitutes are neither tastier nor cheaper, many people will wonder why they should stop eating cheeseburgers.

This could be one of the hardest problems the world will have to face as it tries to avert extreme climate change. Other possible ways of cutting emissions – like switching from coal to clean power, or ditching inefficient fridges – bring obvious benefits and are supported by most people. But it will be much harder to persuade nearly everyone to cut down on something they enjoy for the sake of the climate, when arguments about health, animal welfare and the local environment have failed.

My bookThe Climate Majority: Apathy and Action in an Age of Nationalism, sets out some of the ways that more people could be persuaded to do so.

The surprised response to Corbyn’s comment demonstrates how far public debate still has to come. If this is one of the world’s hardest problems, it’s also one of the most ignored – few people outside the green movement are prepared to admit that consuming less meat and dairy is necessary. All Corbyn did was saying he’s considering changing his own diet. Imagine the outrage if he’d suggested that others should do the same or mooted taxes on high-carbon foods.

But we can’t put off confronting the consequence of our diets for much longer. Cutting emissions is only getting harder, as targets get tighter and easier measures are ticked off. Soon we will have to look at our plates and admit it won’t be possible to prevent extreme climate change as long as we keep filling them with cheese and meat.

The Climate Majority: Apathy and Action in an Age of Nationalism will be published on 21 September by New Internationalist.