Why does nobody act on climate change?
This year alone, it feels like the news coverage has been flooded with extreme weather events and natural hazards such as wildfires in Turkey, Greece or Canada. Simultaneously, global warming is still an alarming subject and glaciers continue to melt.
The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) (1) report reaffirms the idea that humanity is changing the climate rapidly and substantially. However, has the report told us anything new? The solutions needed to deal with this problem are also already known so where is all this inaction coming from? Why are we failing to tackle climate change?
Can disasters really be prevented?
The direct economic losses and damage from disasters caused by natural hazards in 2020 alone were estimated at $268 billion (2). This figure is expected to increase in the coming years as our societies are more exposed to risks due to rapid population growth as well as climate change. Figure 1 represents the impact of disasters from 1980-1999 vs. 2000-2019.
Disasters cause tremendous development setbacks (ie: increased poverty, destruction of infrastructure etc.) and as our planet is becoming more vulnerable, the integration of disaster risk in development processes is crucial. Additionally, the link between development and risk is not one-sided since development also creates its own risks. In fact, disasters are not natural (4). The presence of human vulnerability determines whether or not a hazard becomes a disaster (5). A volcanic eruption on a deserted island would not be deemed a disaster as those automatically imply the destabilization of a human population. The extent of the loss and damage incurred in a disaster depends largely on power, access to resources and human behaviour (6). This only reinforces the idea that we can be prepared and prevent disasters from happening in the first place, mainly through sustainable development.
Disasters and the SDGs
Agenda 2030 and the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) play a key role in reducing vulnerabilities to ensure more resilient communities. In order to successfully achieve the Sendai Framework Outcome to “substantially reduce the risk of disasters and losses” (7) and advance the resilient and sustainable development vision of the 2030 Agenda (or the SDGs), it is essential to incorporate risk information into the development agenda. This will reduce vulnerabilities, connect immediate, medium and long-term development needs, while ensuring that development investments are in fact sustainable. By doing so, we will be able to ensure more resilient communities and livelihoods. (8)
Most of us already know that climate change is increasing the risk of disasters but why are many choosing to ignore this?
While adaptive and mitigative solutions exist to prevent further rising of temperatures, not enough is being done. Indeed, when it comes to these solutions and/or reaching the SDGs, individuals face "psychological barriers" as well as economic and communication challenges. (9). Moreover, there appears to be a gap between data and emotions. This phenomenon is referred to as the "climate paradox" (9). While there has been an increase in reliable scientific data alarming individuals about the severity of climate change, the public concern on the topic and the perceived importance has been decreasing. While Espen Stokes (2014) identifies some of the reasons to explain why some individuals allow for this climate paradox to happen as seen in Table 1, it is clear that new strategies for climate communication need to be adopted.
1. Climate feels distant in time space and influence
Humans are not conditioned to think in terms of longer term decision making and instead favor immediate decisions. Nevertheless, when it comes to climate change, we are often presented with longer term data such as Agenda 2030 or what will happen in 2050. Moreover, the effects of climate change often seem distant in geographical space (ie: Arctics, Antarctica, remote glaciers). Although recent floods, fires, extreme weather temperatures have been occurring in developed countries such as Belgium, Canada, and the United States, we often tend to feel like the danger is far away. Lastly, many of the climate change effects such as the increase of CO2 emissions are not directly visible to the human eye which make it difficult to understand and easier to ignore.
2. Climate and doom
The choice of words in climate communication is very important. Humans are loss-averse, meaning that if you are told that you should not eat meat, you will interpret this negatively instead of seeing the potential gains it could have for your future. Repetitive messages insinuating that we are approaching an apocalypse and that we are all doomed such as “this is urgent, the time to act is now” have shown to be in fact counterproductive (even if it might be objectively correct). Messages of fear and doom have proven to be ineffective when used in abundance leading to an “issue fatigue”. Generally speaking when an issue is associated with disaster, cost and sacrifice, the population will have a tendency to reject it.
3. Climate and dissonance
The lack of easy solutions to fix climate change has weakened attitudes over time. As such, dissonance theory states that if you fail to change actions, you can always change how you interpret the action. Let’s take smoking as an example. If the government tells you not to smoke but still allows smoking in public and/or the selling of tobacco, you are not provided strong enough opportunities for consistent action, resulting in inconsistent behavior which means that your habits will weaken the corresponding attitude. Smokers will then find excuses such as “my grandma smoked two packs a day and lived very old” or “we have to die of something anyways”. Such means of self-justification allow you to reduce the dissonance between knowledge and action. It is easier than to change your behavior and actually quit smoking.
In the case of climate change, the emotional appeal of polar bears has been overused and the overall idea is that if no one is doing anything about climate change then it cannot be that important. We find comfort in self-justification such as “this winter was really cold, global warming is not true”.
4. Climate and denial
The previous point allows for doubt and dissonance, which then paves the way for denial. Since the fact is unacceptable to the ego, then it must not be true. This also provides a refuge from guilt, fear and threats. The denial can be justified in many ways such as ignorance, rejection of responsibility and blame (ie: “climate change is not my responsibility” or “I am consuming less plastic than my neighbors”).
5. Climate and identity
The way you view climate change is in fact highly intertwined with your political views, level of education and overall identity. This identity will appear in the form of cultural filters, enabling you to override scientific reason. Similarly, our perception of risk is also affected by one’s identity.
Epsen Stoknes later describes requirements for successful climate communication (Table 2) (9).
What about companies?
While most countries today already have the necessary solutions and economic resources to solve climate change, politicians seem reluctant to implement those policies as they are waiting for citizen's voices and concerns about climate change to be stronger (10). On the other hand, citizens want politicians to take stronger actions to fight climate change. Pidgeon (2012) refers to this phenomenon as the "governance trap". For the benefit of us all, this vicious circle needs to be broken highlighting the fact that climate change communication needs to be rethought and this can only be done through an interdisciplinary and collaborative approach.
Governments play an important role in enforcing regulations and stricter reporting from companies. Individuals and companies are often plagued with the illusion of resilience (ie: “disasters will not happen to me”), but companies are also increasingly affected by climate change and disasters. More often than not, the climate discourse targets either governments and policy-makers or individuals but companies cannot be left out of the equation as they play a significant role in ensuring the advancement of the SDGs and the Sendai Framework.
Impact of disasters for companies
Data Foundry helps you calculate your downtime cost in the event of a disaster (Table 3) (11). The cost of your downtime can also include revenue loss and/or productivity loss. As an example, power outages from severe storms can last several days, and restoration can take as long as two weeks (ie: Hurricane Rita (Texas) resulted in 384 hours of power outage).
Benefits of a sustainability action plan
Generally speaking, having a sustainability policy as well as a disaster contingency plan can not only make you more resilient as a company but also helps reduce the chances of disaster occurrence. Having a sustainability action plan also lead to many other benefits such as:
Improve your brand image and communication
Increase productivity and reduce costs
Increase business ability to comply with regulations
Improve employee and stakeholder engagement
Improve environmental, social and governance impact (ESG)
Attract investors and decrease the cost of capital
Increase sales and innovation
At SDG Monitor, we want to change the way companies communicate about their sustainability performance. We recommend focusing on the positive while maintaining transparency and integrity. It is about our daily actions and all the baby-steps towards achieving Agenda 2030. Our communication tool allows you track your actions consistently while communicating them visibly. There is no need for dramatic communication about how we are all doomed since these may backfire and trigger dissonance or denial. Instead focus on positive reinforcement while reducing “cultural and political polarization on the issue”.
While scientific facts about climate change are crucial to understanding the topic, unfortunately, these will most likely have little effect on turning apathy into action. Instead, an approach focused on story-telling can be much more persuasive. Effectively communicating your sustainability action plan is just as important as having one in the first place. By making consumers buy more eco-friendly products/services, companies can contribute to changing consumer’s attitudes towards the environment and thus ensuring a brighter future.
(1) IPCC. 2021. Sixth assessment report, Working Group I. IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), Geneva, Switzerland.
(2) Statista. 2021. Economic loss from natural disasters worldwide 2020 | Statista. [online] Available at: <https://www.statista.com/statistics/510894/natural-disasters-globally-and-economic-losses/ > [Accessed 12 August 2021].).
(3) CRED and UNDRR, 2020. The Human Cost of Disasters: An overview of the last 20 years 2000-2019. [ebook] ReliefWeb. Available at: <https://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/Human%20Cost%20of%20Disasters%202000-2019%20Report%20-%20UN%20Office%20for%20Disaster%20Risk%20Reduction.pdf > [Accessed 9 August 2021].
(4) O'Keefe, P., 1976. Taking the" Naturalness" out of" Natural Disaster". Nature (London), 260, pp.566-567.
(5) Chmutina, K. and Von Meding, J., 2019. A Dilemma of language:“Natural disasters” in academic literature. International Journal of Disaster Risk Science, 10(3), pp.283-292.
(6) Deeming, H., Fordham, M., Kuhlicke, C., Pedoth, L., Schneiderbauer, S. and Shreve, C. eds., 2019. Framing Community Disaster Resilience. John Wiley & Sons.
(7) Undrr.org. 2021. What is the Sendai Framework?. [online] Available at: <https://www.undrr.org/implementing-sendai-framework/what-sendai-framework > [Accessed 12 August 2021].
(8) United Nations Development Programme. 2019. Integrating disaster and climate risk into the SDGs | United Nations Development Programme. [online] Available at: <https://www.undp.org/blogs/integrating-disaster-and-climate-risk-sdgs > [Accessed 12 August 2021].
(9) Stoknes, P.E., 2014. Rethinking climate communications and the “psychological climate paradox”. Energy Research & Social Science, 1, pp.161-170.
(10) Pidgeon, N. (2012). Public understanding of, and attitudes to, climate change: UK and international perspectives and policy. Climate Policy, 12(sup01), pp.S85-S106.
(11) Data Foundry. 2019. How Much Should You Spend on Business Continuity and Disaster Recovery? [online] Available at: <https://www.datafoundry.com/blog/much-spend-business-continuity-disaster-recovery > [Accessed 12 August 2021].