This guest episode is hosted and produced by Sarah Friesen, a marine scientist, educator, and explorer based out of Victoria, BC.
Take a deep breath. Now take another. That second breath is thanks to the ocean – it provides about half of the oxygen you breathe, no matter where you are in the world. It is the lungs of our planet. The ocean regulates weather patterns and global temperatures; without it, Earth would be as inhospitable as the moon or Mars. But it is under siege. Sea temperatures are increasing, the waters are becoming more and more acidic, and areas with extremely low oxygen levels are expanding.
Climate change is happening. Right now. The evidence is all around us: the wildfires that raged last summer in British Columbia and California, the increase in number and strength of hurricanes, such as Hurricane Florence and Michael which both pummeled the east coast of the United States last fall with billions of dollars in damages, and changes in precipitation patterns leading to extreme drought conditions that impacted over 100 million Americans last year. While recognizing that this is a global issue, let’s bring it down to a smaller scale, to a place that is special to me… Newfoundland is an island on the east coast of Canada, where communities are inextricably linked to the ocean. In fact, there’s this saying that I heard multiple times now: “The ocean is life”. I had conversations with Newfoundlanders and visitors about their perceptions and observations of climate change. Within a single lifetime, ocean temperatures have changed, fish species have moved to different areas, and storms have become much stronger, with wind speeds up to 120 km/hour.
Climate change is a symptom of a problem caused primarily by human activity. Like a lid on a pot, the greenhouse gases we emit are trapping heat in our atmosphere, causing global changes at a rate our planet has never seen. On this, scientists also agree – to even begin addressing climate change, we need to reduce our emissions. We have known this for decades… so why are we doing so little about it?
While many people and organizations are taking steps to be more environmental, there is a lot more that most of us could be doing. There appears to be a big disconnect between the attitude that we should be addressing climate change and the action to actually do something about it. To understand why this is the case, we need to consider psychology.
Dr. Robert Gifford is an environmental psychologist at the University of Victoria who has spent years researching this disconnect. In 2011, he presented the “dragons of inaction”: psychological barriers impeding pro-environmental behaviour choices that would help reduce our individual contributions to climate change. One such dragon of inaction is ideology. Climate change is still considered an extremely controversial topic to many people. When people have beliefs and worldviews that conflict with the concept of human-caused climate change, these naturally present very strong barriers to pro-environmental action.
Another dragon of inaction is social comparison. One rationalization for inaction is if you feel like you’re already doing more for the environment than others, whether at the individual, community, or national level. Why should I adjust my lifestyle if they aren’t going to? Scientist Dr. Brett Favaro is the author of “The Carbon Code: How You Can Become A Climate Change Hero”. His book addresses many obstacles to pro-climate action, including feeling like what you do doesn’t matter. If you feel like your efforts can’t make a difference in this global problem, you’re unlikely to try to fix it. Perceived lack of control and social comparison are thought to be some of the most common dragons among people. However, we have to recognize that if we don’t take action, no one will. If we follow Dr. Favaro’s recommendations to take the lead and engage in conspicuous pro-climate behaviour ourselves, this encourages others to do the same. Because of this, we can help shift social norms and end up having a much greater impact than just our individual actions.
Most people are already performing some pro-climate behaviours, like taking a reusable bag to the grocery store or switching out light bulbs to more environmentally friendly versions, which is great. These behaviours are fairly easy to adopt because they do not have that much impact on our lives. However, they do not have nearly the same climate change mitigation effect as more lifestyle-disruptive behaviours like switching to a vegetarian diet or commuting by bike instead of car. As a result, these actions may make you feel like you’re making a greater difference than you actually are, resulting in the tokenism dragon. Still, these positive actions can serve as a gateway to making other more significant environmental choices in the future, as well as increase awareness of those around you.
Of course something that underpins a lot of these barriers is knowledge. Even if you know that climate change is a concern, you still can’t take action if you don’t know what to do about it. We often think about greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels, and these are certainly a massive contributor, but there are other important emissions sources. A recent study found that people tend to underestimate the emissions associated with different types of foods, and foods associated with high greenhouse gas emissions (like beef for example) are underestimated to a much greater degree than others. This has implications for pro-climate behaviour choices; people may be unwilling to eat less of these high emissions foods because they don’t know of the climate benefits. However, the same study had some results that were very encouraging. When shoppers were supplied with food labels that included environmental impact, they tended to choose foods with lower associated greenhouse gas emissions. In short, lack of knowledge can present a significant barrier, but when this barrier is removed and people have access to knowledge, they are likely to take positive action.
Dr. Gifford has identified over 35 of these dragons or psychological rationalizations for inaction. Knowing the individual dragons that are blocking us is crucial in eliminating them. This provides us with a path forward in matching up our attitudes that climate change is a global emergency and our actions to do something about it. Together, we can slay our dragons and take meaningful action on the climate crisis. Our oceans, the lungs of our planet, depend on it. We depend on it.
Thanks to Newfoundland community members and visitors for their contributions to this story, as well as to researchers Dr. Robert Gifford and Dr. Brett Favaro. Sarah is grateful to Adventure Canada and the Explorers Club who made this trip around Newfoundland possible. The Submerge theme and outro music is made by Peat Bogs; additional music featured on this episode is by Alan Doyle, Gerry Strong, Tony Oxford, and Broke for Free.
To learn more, please check out the resources below:
Gifford et al. 2011: Dragons of Inaction
Dragons of inaction website
New Scientist article on the dragons of inaction
PBS article on psychological barriers to thinking about climate change
Western Star article about Dr. Brett Favaro’s book “The Carbon Code”
The Conversation article about the study on adding carbon labels to grocery store items
Slow Food USA website