Environmentalists chase ‘dragons of inaction’

Psychological and structural barriers keep many people from fighting climate change despite good intentions, say experts

When it comes to sustainable living and fighting climate change, people’s actions do not measure up to their intentions, say experts.

“Most people I talk to are concerned about climate change, and they want action to be taken on climate change, but by and large a lot of them will acknowledge that they’re not doing as much as they could,” said Tim Pearson, director of communications at Sierra Club B.C.

Robert Gifford, psychology and environmental studies professor at the University of Victoria, has been researching why people do not seem to do as much as they feel they should regarding climate change for the past 10 years.

He has discovered 32 “dragons of inaction” in seven categories that keep people from standing up against climate change.

“When somebody says ‘I intend to do this [to help the environment],’ you can treat is as maybe about a quarter or a half true,” said Gifford.

One of the biggest barriers to sustainable behaviour is a lack of perceived behavioural control, he said.

If people do not think anything they do will make a difference, then they may not bother.

“People have to understand, that yes, their actions do make a difference if they act at multiple levels,” said Pearson. “You can act as a consumer, making choices to buy local, or to do more in terms of energy efficiency in their own home . . . but we have to acknowledge that those behaviours alone won’t solve the problem. In the end, we require large-scale action, and that means people have to put pressure on their government.”

However, Pearson said people need to realize the issue is not hopeless.

“I don’t think people are necessarily aware enough of how much progress is being made. “I think one of the mistakes the environmental movement has made over the years is to take the sky is falling approach, he said. “When all people see is the negatives and that feeling of hopelessness, that’s very destructive.”

Another barrier stopping people from acting against climate change is conflicting goals and aspirations, said Gifford.

“People will say ‘yes, I’m in favour of the environment, but I have to drive my kid to school because I’m afraid of her safety.’ or some kind of justification that has to do with conflicting goals.”

Social norms and pressures may influence people’s actions when it comes to sustainable living as well, said Gifford.

“If I’m in a group of people who ridicule me or question me because I do something positive, then I’m pushed toward joining that crowd of doing nothing.”

Another social aspect is perceived inequity in effort.

“Perceived inequity means, why should I do something because Joe’s not doing it? Or why should Canada do something if China’s not doing it?”

While many of the barriers are psychological, Gifford said there are also structural barriers that prevent some people from taking environmental action.

“That’s where things have to change at the national level or at the policy level,” he said. “It’s hard to take the bus in a town that has no buses.”

 

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