The Buck Stops Here

Can individual action make a difference?

Posted Apr 28, 2012

Two surveys released this week show a striking disjunction. On the one hand, new research conducted at Yale shows that a large majority (69 percent) of Americans agree that global warming is affecting weather, and has made some extreme weather events worse. On the other hand, a Harvard group has been looking at the political priorities of young people by giving them pairs of social issues and asking them to choose which is most important. Combating climate change was considered the more important issue only 37 percent of the time, on average, well behind jobs, healthcare, and even immigration.

So people acknowledge a problem but don’t feel any pressure to confront it. What explains this?

Never underestimate denial as a powerful influence on behavior. When a problem is too scary to think about – we just don’t.

Beyond denial, though related to it, is the feeling that what we do doesn’t matter. People are likely to feel that their own actions are irrelevant and that the problem is best solved by government (if it can be solved at all). Psychological research has consistently found that the perception of personal effectiveness is important in motivating action, and combating climate change is no exception. 

But what we do does matter. The Behavioral Wedge Research Group has calculated that, in the U.S., household actions could save carbon emissions equivalent to the total yearly output of France – without sacrificing quality of life.

Recent surveys conducted in zoos (full disclosure: I’m involved with this project) suggests that an important reason people don’t take action to address climate change is that they don’t know what actions will be effective. A simple, data-based list of what you can do is available here

Ignorance may be bliss, but when it comes to climate change it’s no longer an option. Remember that knowledge is power.