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Climate change is too much for our thought processes

Climate change does not fit with how people perceive risks. From the viewpoint of climate psychology this is one reason why action on climate stagnates and global warming continues all the time.

Climate change remains one of the greatest unsolved problems for humanity, because so far politicians have not been able to bring about effective progress on the climate on a global scale. On the contrary, in recent years the topic has slid down the political agenda. Critics claim that international climate policy is in serious crisis. The summit meeting in Doha, the capital of Qatar, at the end of 2012 was largely ignored by the media, and in any case little political progress was made. The UN negotiations in Durban in 2011 had not resulted in the long-awaited breakthrough, although the meeting did confirm that the United Nations will continue to provide the negotiating framework for international climate policy.

The reasons for climate change becoming less important in both the political debate and the media are complex. One major obstacle is the rigid attitudes of states such as the USA and China when it comes to entering into binding legal obligations on goals for climate action. This position has caused several climate summits to fail. Top of the list is the meeting in Copenhagen in 2009, where the European Union was side-lined with its relatively ambitious targets. Washington and Beijing set the tone and did not allow very much to happen. Since then developments have lost their impetus.

Yet going beyond the political causes, there are other reasons behind the difficulties in dealing with the topic of climate change. These are psychological reasons that determine our actions in all types of systems – politics, business, society and the media. This has to do with the special structure of the climate change problem, which partly runs against the way humans resolve crises. At least, that is what experts say.

Climate change has a long timescale

‘Climate change contradicts the way we perceive and combat problems. It overstretches people’, says Mark Brayne, a former BBC reporter and psychotherapist. Colleagues admit that he is right. The British environmental journalist George Marshall has written essays investigating the topic of climate change. He concludes that above all the aspect of time overstretches the political system that is in fact in a position to take rapid and global action, as shown by the way it has tackled the global financial crisis.

For Europeans and Americans, most of the impacts of climate change still lie in the future and are therefore not yet really present and tangible. But the situation is already very different in regions such as Southern Asia or the Pacific islands because these areas are the hardest hit by the consequences of climate change such as storms, floods and the rising sea level. In these regions, climate change is already much more a part of everyday life than it is in the industrialised states – that is, in the countries that contribute most to global warming and simultaneously bear the greatest political responsibility for international action on the climate.

Successful climate action takes time to show

These states have to fight another time-related problem. ‘The successes of today’s actions will not be visible for another 70 years; that is too much for our imagination, and for our motivation to do anything’, explains Irene Neverla, a professor of journalism in Hamburg who researches how the media present climate change. Government cycles generally last four or five years. For this reason, the period for which politicians are in positions of responsibility does not match the long-term and imprecise nature of climate change. Even with the best climate studies, research cannot predict the exact consequences of climate change decades in advance.

Climate change is being tackled only very slowly and sluggishly – even in society in general. The rapid developments in climate research over recent years have given society an enormous amount of knowledge about how the problem could be solved, and about what it will cost to do nothing. The ‘Stern Report’ even put figures on this in 2006. The former chief economist at the World Bank, Nicholas Stern, estimated the economic impact of global warming. Humanity would face costs of around 5.5 trillion euro if it did not take any action to counteract climate change.

There is no ‘main culprit’ of climate change

Why is so little being done, if the consequences are going so be so expensive? This question comes up again and again in the climate debate. The problem is explained by another psychological aspect. The causes and effects of global warming are highly complex, and in part controversial – and therefore all in all very impenetrable. This makes it very difficult to take targeted and coordinated action.

There is also a local problem, according to Irene Neverla. ‘Climate change has impacts all over the world, which makes it difficult to localise.’ And that makes it a diffuse topic difficult to grasp, for which nobody assumes central responsibility. Furthermore, there is no ‘main culprit’ because the causes of climate change are always policies, business and society jointly. All levels are involved – and suffer simultaneously under the consequences. The subject does not allow a neat division into perpetrators and victims.

Climate psychology: research is just beginning

Certainly there are not only psychological reasons for the dithering on the climate question. This aspect of the problem is the reason for many obstacles – but only rarely is it discussed. ‘We must examine this topic. If we are aware of how we perceive the problem, we are better able to tackle it’, says Brayne.

Psychology and media research have only just started to address these issues in recent years. The Hamburg professor Irene Neverla works in one of the climate-psychology projects. She believes that climate change is subject to the general cycles of media attention, that is, in the media it is sometimes higher and sometimes lower on the agenda. But at a fundamental level, she says, global warming is a topic for society which is not going to go away. It arouses strong associations, for instance with the ‘belief in nature, purity and the primeval state’, Neverla says. This is one reason why climate change is positive at a very elementary level. So as a media topic it is something of an evergreen – and therefore will continue to be discussed even during periods of criticism and doubt in climate research and climate policy And that makes climate change a new ‘meta topic’, Neverla says, i.e. an overarching subject that has attained an especially great significance.

April 2013

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