Why is it so hard to get people to care about climate change? A neuroscientist and a psychologist shed light

·7-min read

Portugal, France, Spain and Greece are on fire - and, recently, so was the UK. Record 40C heat fuelled dozens of blazes around the country, and saw the busiest day for London's firefighters since the Second World War.

Meanwhile a staggering amount of Europe, almost half, is living with a drought warning.

The climate crisis is staring us in the face. Yet many in the UK still do not see it.

A poll on Wednesday found the vast majority of us, some 70%, understand climate change was driving Britain's unprecedented heat, while 17% said it was unrelated.

That's still more than one in ten people who do not realise, or accept the science that heatwaves are unilaterally linked with global warming.

Some said the heat was no worse than that in 1976, while others accused media and scientists of scaremongering or having "snowflake mentality".

Yes, the wind bringing hot air over Spain may have blown this way anyway, the Met Office explained. But no, it wouldn't have been so intense had the UK not already warmed by 0.9°C on average.

What we believe and the changes we make are "super important," says Dr Kris de Meyer, neuroscientist at Kings College London.

"Because if you fast forward ten or twenty years in the future… if we are successful as a society to tackle climate change, we will be doing pretty much everything differently."

Optimism bias

One reason we may not join the dots between extreme weather and climate change is "optimism-bias".

We may be pessimistic about the world and think it is falling apart, but "when it comes to how stuff will impact you, we usually are much more optimistic, much more biased towards thinking that we ourselves will be fine," says Dr de Meyer, who specialises in the psychology of climate change.

And even if we are not fine, even if we are living through flooding perhaps, studies show we tend to "still fall back" on existing and "readily available" narratives, according to Dr Charles Ogunbode, environmental psychologist at Nottingham University and member of the British Psychological Society.

"The political factors and values generally outweigh an individual experience when it comes to people's perceptions," Dr Ogunbode adds. His studies into flooding found competing narratives muddied the waters of people's understanding of the causes.

Professor Nick Pidgeon, who studies perceptions of climate risk at Cardiff University, says those on the right "tend to be a bit more climate sceptic than people on the left, for various reasons" - although that divide is nowhere near as pronounced in the UK as in the United States.

While there may be an "element" of us struggling to comprehend long-term timescales, the social and political processes "far outweigh" that, he adds.

Positive association

The UK is "unique" because "we've always had a positive association with hot temperatures," adds Dr Ogunbode, a mentality hardly surprising given our temperate climate, an island nation often left bedraggled by unpredictable rain.

That association has been fuelled by public figures likening hot weather to desirable destinations, for example comparing our future climate with that of Barcelona's today, he argues.

Media reports of heatwaves that feature photos of people having fun, cooling off in fountains or the sea also add to it.

"It evokes something quite positive… that's the problem with heat in particular".

Not only has public perception "not quite caught up with the significance in terms of the risks that come with it," we also "don't have the kind of infrastructure right now in terms of housing, in terms of healthcare to help us live with that kind of change," he adds.

The specific can be surprising

The "specific" and "concrete" can be "very surprising" says neuroscientist Dr de Meyer.

Think of how the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded: "When the second lockdown came, lots of people were again surprised by how severe the situation got… even though they had lived through the first lockdown nine months before.

The summer of 2021 may not be scorched in our minds as particularly hot, as with 2003 or 1976. So it's perhaps hard to believe the heat killed an extra 1,634 people, according to the Office for National Statistics, or that it could take even more lives this year.

Short-term vs. long-term

In the battle in our minds between short- and long-term benefits, the former "would tend to win in everyday decisions" that we make on auto-pilot or mindlessly, says Dr Meyer.

But people "are very capable of foregoing present pleasures for future gains," he explains, pointing to times we abstain from a sweet treat because we know it's bad for us.

Mr Ogunbode argues that it's not strictly a question of trade-offs or sacrifices anyway. Taking vehicular emissions as an example, he points out that restrictions on fossil fuel engines will also cut air pollution and improve health.

Elite cues

What, then, of the effect of former Conservative leadership candidates Kemi Badenoch and Suella Braverman pledging to delay the net zero by 2050 target? A target that is not arbitrary, but based on scientific consensus.

"What politicians actually say really matter[s]," says Cardiff University's Professor Pidgeon.

Comments by people in positions about climate change, can "be seen to influence the debate in a way that public opinion then shifts afterwards," he adds. The theory is called elite cues.

The example always cited is then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's 1988 speech on climate change.

This first warning about the dangers of climate change from a prominent political leader "set in train, I think, a lot of things around the globe, that led to sort of broadly people believing in this country among the general public that climate change is an issue," Prof. Pidgeon explains.

The UK generally has a strong cross-party political support on the need for climate action - for now.

Current scepticism of green policies by some Conservative MPs does risk making the net zero target "a defining issue between political parties," says research fellow Antony Froggatt from Chatham House's Environment and Society Programme.

But overall, "in terms of the government, we haven't seen a significant shift" in support, he argues.

'Fear alone' won't do it - stories of 'action' will

In the UK we are getting our heads round the risks from heatwaves, with a huge jump in how many thought they were serious, from 23% in 2013 to 72% in 2019. Although flooding, heavy rain and coastal erosion still ranked higher in people's minds.

While we are catching up with heat driven by climate change, we haven't with other impacts.

In surveys, people "don't particularly mention drought causing failure of crops… which is one that one worries about," Prof. Pidgeon says.

Nor do they readily associate with climate change "invasive pests and diseases coming into the country as a result of rising temperatures."

But "fear alone" is "not enough to get us to act," Dr Kris de Meyer explains.

What will accelerate that and help individuals "make good choices" is hearing stories about "action".

Three years ago, Kris attempted to travel from London to Austria by train. "I gave up because the technology didn't exist. The tickets were extremely expensive," he says. So, he booked a £60 flight that was much cheaper and more convenient.

Since then, train travel costs have come down, and improved technology allows him to map that route.

"And so it's become a lot easier for me to be doing the right things," he says over the phone from Austria, where he arrived a few days previously, by train.

And after we spoke, I found myself downloading the Interrail app to plan an upcoming Europe trip.

Watch the Daily Climate Show at 3.30pm Monday to Friday, and The Climate Show with Tom Heap on Saturday and Sunday at 3.30pm and 7.30pm.

All on Sky News, on the Sky News website and app, on YouTube and Twitter.

The show investigates how global warming is changing our landscape and highlights solutions to the crisis.

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting