The psychology of climate change: it’s in my backyard now

Direct personal experience of global warming is on the rise in the US, according to a new study. Could it push more people into seeing it as a risk they want to solve?

We have been bombarded with warnings about climate change and global warming over the past decade. So much so that you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone in Europe or the US unaware of the term. Likewise in China, where studies by Pew and the BBC suggest awareness, at least in urban areas, is also high.

Despite this, there remains widespread ambivalence and reluctance to support policies designed to mitigate climate change.

In the US, President Barack Obama, who once championed tackling climate change, could hardly bring himself to mention it during his most recent re-election campaign. The UK took a bold move in passing the Climate Change Act in 2008, committing itself to reducing its carbon emissions by 80 per cent by 2050. However, the current government has already been accused of breaking that commitment by pursuing new gas-fired power stations. Europe, meanwhile, re-iterates its intentions to significantly reduce carbon emissions while continuing to outsource its emissions, by importing carbon intensive products from overseas.

However, as Hurricane Sandy tore its way across the East coast of the US earlier this month, many were left wondering whether climate change and the expectation of more extreme weather events could push up support for climate policies. If people began to perceive global warming as a risk to their own lives and livelihoods, wouldn’t they be more likely to want to tackle it?

It was this thought that led US-based environmental scientist Karen Akerlof to research whether or not people believe they have "personally experienced" global warming, and if so how. It is already known that people do better responding to risks which they directly experience.

Akerlof’s study, published in the journal Global Environmental Changebefore Hurricane Sandy had struck, found that people already believe they are experiencing global warming. And not just individual weather events either, but long-term changes like seasons and lake water levels.

"For a long time, academics researching people’s risk perceptions of climate change thought that people would not be able to "experience" climate change," says Akerlof, from George Mason University, "because the phenomenon occurs over such long periods of times, and it is difficult to detect long-term trends amidst the noise of normal weather variation."

In her survey of the state of Michigan, just over a quarter of residents said they had experienced global warming, with the most frequently described experiences being: changes in season (36%), weather (25%), lake levels (24%), changes to animals and plants (20%) and snowfall (19%).

What’s more, these "experiences" were consistent with the climatic record – frosts have started to first appear later in the state and water levels in Lake Michigan have dropped below average. The only example that didn’t appear to match up was snowfall, which researchers put down to people assuming climate change and global warming would mean less snow in winter.

Somewhat surprisingly, extreme weather events such as storms, hurricanes or heat waves were not mentioned by people, despite the statistics showing a rising in frequency across the US. "One of the possible explanations is that people were referring to those types of changes more generally as changes in the weather," thinks Akerlof.

Crucially, Akerlof’s research showed that people who had experienced global warming locally were also more likely to see it as a risk.

"Believing you have experienced global warming — we used that term in the survey — would not necessarily indicate that you thought it was a risk. But people who said they believed that they had personally experienced global warming were more likely to see it as a risk to their county, and its residents," she says.

Climate talks deadlock and apathy

There are limits to how far we can see this heightened risk awareness as a breakthrough factor for climate politics.

Firstly, as Akerlof is quick to point out, there is still a significant percentage of Americans who do not believe that climate change is occurring. Most respondents in her study either did not believe they had personally experienced global warming, or did not know if they had or not.

Secondly, risk awareness on its own will not translate into action. Although it is impossible to survey people’s sub-conscious motives, Akerlof says if people cannot see a solution they are more likely to ignore the problem.

"There are a lot of researchers who say that people are in denial about the enormity of the political consequences. If people don’t think there is a solution, they shutdown. People need to feel that there is a solution otherwise they do not do anything."

So while "experience" of global warming may indeed play a role in engaging people in the issue, the onus will still be on policymakers and the wider environmental community to establish solutions.

The Doha climate summit is less than a week away, but an international agreement to cut emissions looks no more than a faint and distant hope. Climate scientists are already suggesting it is becoming impossible to avoid 2 degrees of warming now.

Akerlof says there is a danger that political stalemate on climate change will feed the general apathy towards politics amongst many people in the US.

"One of the questions researchers are interested in is collective political efficacy – the belief of individuals that they can function as part of a larger community to accomplish political goals. A lot of Americans feel disengaged from the political process.

"People will need to make changes to their lifestyles, but it is also a question of engaging in the political process to accomplish the large emission reductions we will need to make to address this problem," she says.