Complacency, the other driver of climate change

Dr Anjani Ganase continues her series on climate change and what we should be doing. It is never too late to act, but only real conscious personal efforts will help us now. The change we need, she says, is in our minds and daily actions.

The science on climate change has been clear for the last fifty years. We are seeing many of the effects, extreme weather conditions, islands lost to sea level rise, shifts in ecosystem ranges in birds, animals and plants, and mass die offs of coral reef life because of warming temperatures. They are, the scientists tell us, escalating and happening faster than predicted. How did we get here, and so quickly?

1. Let’s wait and see Policy
Despite the warnings from scientists on the need to act for over fifty years, policy makers (and politicians) have opted for the conservative, wait and see approach on the impacts of climate change. Before spending funds on climate, maybe there’s a slight chance that this climate change thing may not be a thing. Even as the impacts roll in, no single disaster event can be a result of climate change. However, the growing trend of many series of unfortunate events is related to climate change. Consecutive years with the hottest summers on record, repeated years of off the charts intense hurricanes in the Atlantic and the Pacific, and more frequent and intense coral bleaching events prove the models of our changing climate. Yet, many are still willing to wait until the impacts of climate change become more tangible in their own lives. This strategy will be to our detriment because there is a general belief that once we begin to reduce carbon emissions the impacts will go away. This is simply not true.  

According to Sterman and Sweeney (2007), people, even highly educated ones, fundamentally visualise the causes of climate change and the solutions in a flawed way. Carbon emission rise equates to global warming because of the heat trapping capabilities of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. If we reduce our carbon emissions, we expect the carbon dioxide concentrations to ebb through natural processes. Not necessarily. Imagine that our atmosphere is a bathtub and it is filling up rapidly with CO2, even when the drain is open removing some CO2 (absorption into the oceans, used in photosynthesis etc. (Sterney and Sweeney 2007)). Currently, the rate at which CO2 is being pumped into the atmosphere is twice the removal rate. At this rate the tub is guaranteed to keep rising and eventually overflow. If we somehow manage to reduce our CO2 emissions to the same rate of natural removal, will the CO2 in the atmosphere decline? In fact, it will stabilise at the same level and the accumulated amounts of CO2 will continue to impact on the planet until we manage to reduce this by working out a system to further reduce CO2 from the atmosphere, maybe by planting trees or geo-engineering. We will continue to feel effects of climate change even after we reduce our emission.

2. We’re too small to act Syndrome
This is another concept that plagues individuals who feel helpless. However doing your bit can reduce carbon emissions that add to the global concentrations. Bear in mind that not all actions are equal to curb climate change and not all socio-economies will be able to make the same impact in offsetting their carbon footprint. In Trinidad and Tobago, while our total level of carbon emission is not high (~60th in the world out of ~215 countries in 2011, UN statistics Division) and therefore contributes less to the gross amount of CO2 in the atmosphere, our per capita usage of oil and gas puts us at 3rd in the world (2014 estimate, The World Bank), even higher than the US and than most developed countries. What does this mean? It means that the lifestyle of the average Trinbagonian is much more dependent on oil and gas than most nations. Not only related to our day-to-day activities but our infrastructure is tightly bound to oil and gas production with little else as an alternative for the economy. It is also an indicator of our inability to adapt and we risk falling behind the inevitable new technology shifts to greener solutions in the energy sector globally. Examples of effective individual actions against climate change in Trinidad can be to supplement households with an alternate power supply source, such as solar energy, using ecofriendly cars and car habits, such as carpooling and walking, and protecting ecologically important areas. Now is the time to push the government to transition away from being an oil and gas producer to other forms of industry. 

3. Too little, too late Scenario
 If you think, it’s already bad after fifty years, the projections of impacts from significantly reducing carbon emissions to well below 2 °C (Paris agreement) to business as usual (3-4 °C) ranges from dreadful to devastating. Today we’re at 1 degree above the average temperature, a goal of 1.5 °C means the loss of most of our reefs, while 2 °C means that all our coral reefs would be gone. Crops and water supply will show significant shortages in Africa and the Mediterranean respectively. Imagine a global rise of 3-4 °C by 2100? Scientists who are the communicators are torn with conflict, for fear of being “alarmist” if we don’t sugar coat the problem for people not to be overwhelmed. But the facts from Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change are undeniable; ask our own Professor John Agard who was an author of the report on Small Islands. Do you think it’s too late to act to save your future and your children’s future from climate change disasters? Substitute climate change with a disease epidemic, war, poverty or crime that affects us all. Would the arguments be the same? 

The challenge facing all of us in the world today may be climate change, but complacency even when we know the facts and know what’s at stake would be the bigger tragedy. We can no longer leave it to someone else to be concerned, to do something, waiting for someone else to tell us to become active in our own well being, and in the healthy future of our planet, of us. Connect with local environmental NGOs and groups, such as IAMovement and IYORTT, to find about more about how you can take action to fight climate change.

Photo 1: People’s Climate March in Trinidad and Tobago, 2015. Advocating for local and global action against climate change organised by IAMovement, a local NGO focussed on climate education and action. Photo Courtesy Robert Krogh, IAMovement

Sterman JD, Sweeney LB. Understanding public complacency about climate change: Adults’ mental models of climate change violate conservation of matter. Climatic Change. 2007 Feb 1;80(3-4):213-38.


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