What You Think You Know About The Climate Is Probably Wrong

What You Think You Know About The Climate Is Probably Wrong

We humans have a natural tendency to focus on negative stories. We tend to assume things are worse than they really are, and going downhill fast. We forget how bad things were in the past and how far we’ve come.

In reality, the world is often better — and getting better — than we think, something I wrote about in my book, The Perils of Perception: Why We’re Wrong About Nearly Everything. Murder rates, deaths from terrorism and extreme poverty are all down. Life expectancy, health and education levels are up. And yet, there is one vital, urgent exception to this rule: we still don’t realise how badly wrong our global climate and environment have gone.

A new survey of Britons which tested understanding of some key facts about the environment reveals the extent of environmental misperceptions. Rather than asking people what they thought might happen, this study instead focused on assessing knowledge of the world as it is right now.

One question, for example, was how many of the past 22 years have been the hottest on record?

The answer is 20, but the average guess was just 12. And one in five people guessed five or fewer.

Britons also overestimated some facts, such as how much air travel contributes to greenhouse guesses. The average guess was that 20% of global greenhouse gas emissions come from air travel, when in fact it only accounts for around 2%. Respondents also assumed that air travel’s emissions are about equal to that of all other forms of transport put together, when in reality, the latter contributes about ten times as much as flights. This is due to the relative rarity of flights compared to other forms of transport.

What You Think You Know About The Climate Is Probably Wrong Misperceptions about the source of greenhouse gas emissions. The Policy Institute, King's College London

Yet despite aviation’s relatively limited contribution to emissions overall, one of the most effective environmental actions we can take as individuals is to fly less. A study by Swedish academics puts skipping one transatlantic flight as the third most effective action we can take, only behind the much more extreme options of having one fewer child and living entirely car free. Curiously, only 25% of the British public pick out skipping a flight as one of the top three. Instead, 52% of people guessed that recycling was one of the best things we can do to reduce our emissions - when it’s seventh in this list of nine actions.

What You Think You Know About The Climate Is Probably Wrong We are very wrong on what would most reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. The Policy Institute, King's College London

And that’s not our only misperception about recycling: we massively underestimate the problem of plastic waste. Britons guessed that about half of the 6.3 billion tonnes of plastic waste humans have produced globally is still out there in the environment (in our oceans, our soil, our water, even inside our bodies), when in reality it’s an incredible 79%. And how much plastic waste has been recycled? Respondents guessed about a quarter, when in reality its only 9% (Read: Is there any point in recycling?).

We also don’t realise just how extreme the loss of animal species over the past decade has been. Only a third correctly identify that the population sizes of mammals, birds, fish and reptiles in the world have declined by 60% since 1970.

What You Think You Know About The Climate Is Probably Wrong Only a third of us correctly guess that animal populations have dropped by 60% since 1970. The Policy Institute, King's College London

Anxiety and other people

But our lack of understanding of the scale of the issues doesn’t mean we’re not worried. In fact, recent polling of Britons by Ipsos MORI measured record-breaking levels of concern. Our new polling also shows that two-thirds of Britons reject Donald Trump’s assertion that global warming is an “expensive hoax” – and instead two-thirds agree with the recent UK Parliament declaration that we are facing a “climate change emergency, with the threat of irreversible destruction of our environment in our lifetime”.

 

What You Think You Know About The Climate Is Probably Wrong Very few agree that global warming is an expensive hoax … The Policy Institute, King's College London

Our largest misconceptions seem to be around what other people think, a phenomenon that academics call our pluralistic ignorance: our perception is that other people’s attitudes are the problem.

Despite record levels of public concern, 73% believe that other people are not worried enough — while only 16% say we ourselves are not worried enough. Half of us say that other people think it’s too late to do anything to prevent a climate change emergency, but only one in five of us admits to having given up hope. This misunderstanding of the norm is serious, as it affects our own sense of efficacy: if others aren’t bothered, what’s the point in us acting?

What You Think You Know About The Climate Is Probably Wrong ‘Other people’ are not worried enough about climate change. The Policy Institute, King's College London

Its naive to think that bombarding people with facts will incite them to act, no matter how extraordinary or terrifying these facts may be. But its equally as naive to think that we can figure out exactly the right emotional buttons to push: we just don’t know enough yet about how fear, hope and a sense of efficacy interact in motivating action in different people.

Nevertheless, a little more understanding of the scale of the issues and how we individually can act most effectively couldn’t hurt. And perhaps most crucially, we need to remember that we are not alone in our concern. Anxiety about climate change has become the norm, and this is a fact that we can harness and put to use.

About The Author

Bobby Duffy, Professor of Public Policy and Director of the Policy Institute, King's College London

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Related Books

The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming Kindle Edition

by David Wallace-Wells
0525576703It is worse, much worse, than you think. If your anxiety about global warming is dominated by fears of sea-level rise, you are barely scratching the surface of what terrors are possible. In California, wildfires now rage year-round, destroying thousands of homes. Across the US, “500-year” storms pummel communities month after month, and floods displace tens of millions annually. This is only a preview of the changes to come. And they are coming fast. Without a revolution in how billions of humans conduct their lives, parts of the Earth could become close to uninhabitable, and other parts horrifically inhospitable, as soon as the end of this century. Available On Amazon

The End of Ice: Bearing Witness and Finding Meaning in the Path of Climate Disruption

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1620972344After nearly a decade overseas as a war reporter, the acclaimed journalist Dahr Jamail returned to America to renew his passion for mountaineering, only to find that the slopes he had once climbed have been irrevocably changed by climate disruption. In response, Jamail embarks on a journey to the geographical front lines of this crisis—from Alaska to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, via the Amazon rainforest—in order to discover the consequences to nature and to humans of the loss of ice.  Available On Amazon

Our Earth, Our Species, Our Selves: How to Thrive While Creating a Sustainable World

by Ellen Moyer
1942936559Our scarcest resource is time. With determination and action, we can implement solutions rather than sit on the sidelines suffering harmful impacts. We deserve, and can have, better health and a cleaner environment, a stable climate, healthy ecosystems, sustainable use of resources, and less need for damage control. We have so much to gain. Through science and stories, Our Earth, Our Species, Our Selves makes the case for hope, optimism, and practical solutions we can take individually and collectively to green our technology, green our economy, strengthen our democracy, and create social equality. Available On Amazon

From The Publisher:
Purchases on Amazon go to defray the cost of bringing you InnerSelf.comelf.com, MightyNatural.com, and ClimateImpactNews.com at no cost and without advertisers that track your browsing habits. Even if you click on a link but don't buy these selected products, anything else you buy in that same visit on Amazon pays us a small commission. There is no additional cost to you, so please contribute to the effort. You can also use this link to use to Amazon at any time so you can help support our efforts.

 

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