Why humans are so bad at thinking about climate change

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"We are hurtling toward the day when climate change could be irreversible." "Rising sea levels already altering this nation’s coast." "China’s capital is choking in its worst pollution of the year." "5% of species will become extinct." "Sea levels rising, glaciers melting." Okay. Enough. I get it. It’s not like I don’t care about polar bears and melting ice caps. I’m a conservation scientist, so of course I care. I’ve dedicated my entire career to this. But over the years, one thing has become clear to me: We need to change the way we talk about climate change. This doom-and-gloom messaging just isn’t working; we seem to want to tune it out. And this fear, this guilt, we know from psychology is not conducive to engagement. It's rather the opposite. It makes people passive, because when I feel fearful or guilt-full, I will withdraw from the issue and try to think about something else that makes me feel better. And with a problem this overwhelming, it’s pretty easy to just turn away and kick the can down the road. Somebody else can deal with it.

So it’s no wonder that scientists and policymakers have been struggling with this issue too. So I like to say that climate change is the policy problem from hell. You almost couldn't design a worse problem as a fit with our underlying psychology or the way our institutions make decisions. Many Americans continue to think of climate change as a distant problem: distant in time, that the impacts won't be felt for a generation or more; and distant in space, that this is about polar bears or maybe some developing countries. Again, it’s not like we don’t care about these things — it’s just such a complicated problem. But the thing is, we’ve faced enormous, scary climate issues before. Remember the hole in the ozone layer? As insurmountable as that seemed in the 1970s and ’80s, we were able to wrap our heads around that and take action.

People got this very simple, easy to understand, concrete image of this protective layer around the Earth, kind of like a roof, protecting us, in this case, from ultraviolet light, which by the way has the direct health consequence of potentially giving you skin cancer. Okay, so now you've got my attention. And so then they came up with this fabulous term, the “ozone hole.” Terrible problem, great term. People also got a concrete image of how we even ended up with this problem. For decades, chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, were the main ingredient in a lot of products, like aerosol spray cans. Then scientists discovered that CFCs were actually destroying the atmospheric ozone. People could look at their own hairspray and say, “Do I want to destroy the planet because of my hairspray? I mean, god no.” And so what's interesting is that sales of hairspray and those kinds of products and underarm aerosols started dropping quite dramatically.

People listened to scientists and took action. Now scientists predict that the hole in the ozone layer will be healed around 2050. That’s actually pretty amazing. And while stopping the use of one product is actually pretty easy, climate change caused by greenhouse gases … that’s much trickier. Because the sources are more complicated, and for the most part, they’re totally invisible. Right now, there is CO2 pouring out of tailpipes, there is CO2 pouring out of buildings, there is CO2 pouring out of smokestacks, but you can't see it. The fundamental cause of this problem is largely invisible to most of us. I mean, if CO2 was black, we would have dealt with this issue a long time ago. So CO2 touches every part of our lives — our cars, the places we work, the food we eat.

For now, let’s just focus on one thing: our energy use. How do we make that visible? That was the initial goal of UCLA’s Engage project, one of the nation’s largest behavioral experiments in energy conservation. What we're trying to do is to figure out how to frame information about electricity usage so that people save energy and conserve electricity. The idea is that electricity is relatively invisible to people. The research team outfitted part of a student housing complex with meters that tracked real-time usage of appliances and then sent them weekly reports. So you can see how much energy the stove used versus the dishwasher or the fridge. We realized, because of this project, the fridge was like the monster. So lucky for them, their landlord upgraded their fridge to an energy-efficient one. They also learned other energy-saving tips, like unplugging their dishwasher when not in use and air-drying their clothes during the summer months. And researchers, in turn, discovered where people were willing to cut back. The Engage project wanted to know what types of messaging could motivate people to change their behavior. We wanted to see over time over a year and with repeated messages, how do people, behave? How does that impact the consumer behavior? And what we found is that it's very different.

Some households were sent personalized emails with their energy bill about how they could save money; others learned how their energy usage impacted the environment and children’s health. Those who received messages about saving money did nothing. It was totally ineffective because electricity is relatively cheap. But emails sent that linked the amount of pollutants produced to rates of childhood asthma and cancer — well, those led to an 8% drop in energy use, and 19% in households with kids. Now, in a separate study, researchers brought social competition into the mix. First, they hung posters around a dorm building to publicly showcase how students were really doing: red dots for energy wasters, green for those doing a good job, and a shiny gold star for those going above and beyond. This social pressure approach led to a 20% reduction in energy use. This strategy was also used at Paulina’s complex, and it definitely brought out her competitive streak. For me, the competition was what motivated me, because seeing your apartment number and telling you that you are doing at the average, but you are not the best, was like, Why? I’m doing everything you are telling me to do.

I always wanted the gold star, because it was like, “Oh, my god, I want to be like the less consumption of energy in the whole building.” And psychology studies have proved this. We are social creatures, and as individualistic as we can be, turns out we do care about how we compare to others. And yes, we do like to be the best. Some people don’t want to say, Oh, I'm like the average. No, my usage is different and I want to be able to act on it. And people can act on it because with these meters, they can now see their exact impact. A company called Opower is playing with this idea of social competition. They work with over 100 utility companies to provide personalized energy reports to millions of customers around the world. Now consumers can not only see their energy use but how it compares to their neighbors’. Like the UCLA study found, this subtle social pressure encourages consumers to save energy.

It’s been so effective that in 2016, Opower was able to generate the equivalent of two terawatt-hours of electricity savings. That’s enough to power every home in Miami for more than a year. And they’re not alone. Even large companies are tapping into behavioral science to move the dial. Virgin Atlantic Airways gave a select group of pilots feedback on their fuel use. Over the course of a year, they collectively saved over 6,800 tons of fuel by making some simple changes: Adjusting their altitudes, routes, and speed reduced their carbon dioxide emissions by over 21,000 tons. These behavioral “nudges” do seem to be advancing how we as a society deal with some pretty complicated climate change issues, but it turns out we’re just getting started. There is no “quick fix.” We need people changing their companies, changing their business models, changing the products and services they provide. This is about broader-scale change. And part of this change includes embracing what makes us human.

That it can’t just be a guilt trip about dying polar bears or driving around in gas guzzlers. We need to talk about our wins, as well — like how we’re making progress, really being aware of our energy use, and taking advantage of that competitive spirit we all have in order to really move us from a state of apathy to action. Global warming is by far the biggest issue of our time. Climate Lab is a new series from Vox and the University of California, and we’ll be exploring some surprising ways we can tackle this problem. If you want to learn more, head to climate.universityofcalifornia.edu..

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