The Invisible Enemy

Why we need to understand the climate crisis as immediate and personal

by Kirsty Fairhurst

We hear news stories almost everyday on the way our unsustainable modern lives are impacting the natural world around us. We know that we have just 10 years to limit our warming to 1.5 degrees celsius as published by the UN report in 2018. So why is it that governments are unwilling to take effective direct action to avoid climate catastrophe? Well to me, this is more of a question about the voter, rather the individual. So why do we not vote to see these changes?

'...our brains simply cannot compute climate change and take it seriously.'

The psychology of inaction on climate change has been looked into by many leading researchers such as Daniel Gilbert, whose work mainly focuses on happiness, and Daniel Kahneman, the author of best selling, Nobel Prize winning analysis of human behaviour; Thinking Fast and Slow. What these scientists summarise is that, in the main, our brains simply cannot compute climate change and take it seriously. Gilbert categorises these psychological obstacles into the four Is: intention, immorality, immediacy, and instantaneity. When a problem satisfies these criteria, such as terrorism or the tragic fall of Grenfell tower, generally, we care.

So let’s begin with intention. Climate change does not satisfy this criteria: there is no single evil being leading the attacks on our oceans, forests, or ecosystems. One could argue the climate crisis stems from a capitalist and consumerist society, yet that does little to help our brains identify the attacker and respond to the threat. If we were ever targeted personally and with great intention to disrupt or even devastate our way of life, we might react differently. An example that springs to mind is the Frack Free campaigns that defend certain areas vulnerable to fracking, such as Lancashire. When something is personal, we respond. When something has intent, we respond. Climate change as a global problem simply lacks this key component. Give it a gun and maybe we’ll wake up.

'Our relationship with nature should be a two-way street - or rather, a two-way footpath.'

That brings us to the next point: immorality. As a society, we struggle to see the connection between climate change and morality. Attaching a sense of decency and virtue to meteorological phenomena is difficult, whereas it’s easy to condemn and act against a radicalised terrorist group stealing the lives of those who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Perhaps we struggle with the concept of the immorality of climate change due to our lack of connection with nature. We seem to take from her with a day out in the Brecon Beacons or a holiday camping in Dartmoor. We use her to escape our lives for a while but too often, we don’t give anything back. Our relationship with nature should be a two-way street - or rather, a two-way footpath.

Recently, the climate crisis has come to the forefront of national and global news. A key reason for this are the efforts of Greta Thunberg. She has managed to change the conversation by focusing on the immorality of our inaction. She has tapped into human psychology with the words ‘how dare you!’ ringing in the ears of men in suits. Inaction has stolen dreams, futures and lives. In her powerful rhetoric, she has made people listen and understand the immorality of the climate crisis, a topic which previously does not manifest itself in the current climate change discussion.

' If we don’t feel the immediate effects of something, we are likely to put it on the back burner...'

The third reason we struggle to engage with our changing climate is its immediacy. It’s not something that’s going to affect my weekend meet-up with friends or walking the dog in the park this afternoon. Our brains are wired to respond to an immediate threat like avoiding a frisbee in a park or smelling something burning in the kitchen. Think of why when you go to the dentist you feel the embarrassment of not having flossed, despite the fact you were explicitly told it’s something you should do. Or why you loathe yourself because you procrastinated writing your essay due in 3 weeks time. If we don’t feel the immediate effects of something, we are likely to put it on the back burner - whilst the ice caps melt. Even though the climate crisis is accelerating towards our immediate timeline, this sadly just doesn’t seem to be enough to jump us into action.

The final I is instantaneity. Thinking back to the brain, we respond much better to abrupt changes rather than gradual ones. As humans, we adapt. Rising sea levels which will affect low-lying lands all over the world including southern Vietnam, parts of Thailand, China, Egypt, and coastal towns and cities across the US. However, as the seas rise millimetre by millimetre, we are able to adapt. We can foresee which areas will be affected and build greater flood defences and higher roads and homes, or migrate to higher areas. This is responding to the threat as it grows rather than identifying the source of the core threat and instead reacting to that. Our brains prefer the former.

One addition to Gilbert’s conceptualisation of our inability to take global heating seriously is the ‘it’s just too big a problem’. When something is so overwhelming, we struggle to compute and rationalise it. It has come to the point that a new term ‘eco-anxiety’ is necessary to describe the feelings of stress and worry associated with such an uncertain and bleak future among today’s youth. Being bombarded with information on the square number of miles that will be underwater by 2100, and the number of butterfly species that will become extinct, and which summer was the hottest year on record, is often unhelpful in terms of rationalising the effects of climate change and instead contributes to our climate anxiety. So, with this understanding of the psychology of climate change, how can we change this infinitely important conversation and make more of a difference?

'The climate crisis is an invisible enemy, but the forces behind it and its consequences are real and tangible.'

To rewire our brains to understand climate change better and to address our own imprint on the world, we have to shape the problem in a way that our brains are able to respond. First, make it personal. The climate crisis is an invisible enemy, but the forces behind it and its consequences are real and tangible. Not only do they impact the lives of humans but also our natural environment. This in turn addresses the immorality problem. If we understand nature as a being rather than something we can simply take from, we may realise the immorality of destroying it. Throughout lockdown, we have seen a change in the relationship we have with nature. People are spending more time outdoors: wild swimming, wild camping, wild-this, wild-that. The more time we spend with someone and the more we connect, the more we care. Nature should be no exception. Loss of human lives due to more extreme weather such as the Australian bush fires of 2019 should not be belittled. However, loss of life and violence against nature happens every day due to the climate crisis and we are able to brush it aside. Violence and loss to nature must be recognised and unapologetically denounced.

Immediacy and instantaneity may be more difficult to reshape. Humans are happy if we can see improvement quickly. The concept of the ecological footprint introduced in the 1990s allowed us to understand our imprint on the world by providing a visual representation of our carbon output, water and land usage, among other impacts. Conceptualising sustainability in this way provides us with goals that focus on the here and now and that capture our attention. However, most cannot focus solely upon the climate crisis because in this modern world we are confronted with so many stresses and challenges that are often prioritised. To me, it seems the only way to address and respond to problems that appear to manifest in the distant future, is to take part in a political system that can influence future change - voting. Whatsmore, one of the best ways to ease eco-anxiety is to take action. For want of a better expression (if we’re to condemn violence against nature) we get two birds with one stone.

Coronavirus has been awarded the title of the world’s most pressing global problem since its unrelenting spread. The silver lining is that we have shown we are capable of taking direct action. If necessary, we will ground flights, we will get those affected by homelessness off the streets, we will all but cancel our social lives. The world’s underlying most pressing problem surely has the potential to ignite this kind of change too. But only if we use our voices and vote on climate to protect the destruction of this Earth that gives us so much. It’s time to give something back.

Kirsty is a recent graduate in law from the University of Edinburgh. She has a long standing interest in environmental and sustainability issues. In her spare time she likes to go hiking, wild swimming, or get lost in a book or a podcast!