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Why Do We Keep Ignoring Climate Change?

28/10/2015 16:14 GMT | Updated 27/10/2016 10:12 BST

Despite spending more than two years in the Green Party, I did a sterling job of ignoring the arguments of vegetarianism, but as of last week, I finally bit the (meat-free) bullet and gave up relying on dead animals for my sustenance. This move was largely determined by the realisation of two facts: the meat industry is the largest single contributor to climate change, and climate change is the single biggest threat humanity has ever faced. We're going past the capacity the Earth has to replenish itself by roughly 50% a year, and that's without the rest of the world living as we do in the West: in Europe we use far more than twice the resources we should, in the U.S they use 4 times. In light of this, it seems prudent to ask the question: why aren't we all eating organic broccoli and saving the world one cup of almond milk at a time?

The example of giving up meat is typical of a lot of climate-related behaviour. The traditional British roast dinner, fish and chips, meaty pies and pasties, even a 'cheeky Nando's'- meat consumes a large part of shared culture in Britain. Beyond specifically meat, food practices naturally form a very important role in virtually all societies: breaking bread with an enemy exempts them from being attacked (except in Westeros), religious and social events are often celebrated with feasts or special meals, and first dates often take place in a slightly too expensive restaurant. Perhaps this is why so many are loath to even consider abandoning meat: our eating habits are simply more of an integral part of our identities than how we dispose of waste or what is powering our kettles.

Changes to deeply ingrained behaviours characterise a lot of what needs to be done in the fight against global warming. The sensational claims of environmentalist campaigns of impending doom can feel a bit anticlimactic when all that's asked of us in return is to change our light bulbs and put our beer bottles in a separate bin. To be sure telling people that their whole life has to change is not the best way to get them on board, but perhaps we sometimes go too far the other way: perhaps sub-consciously people get the impression that the danger can't be that serious if the response demanded from them is so little? Perhaps our eagerness to downplay the changes we may have to make ends up belittling the cause?

Psychologist Phillip Zimbardo, dissecting his infamous Stanford Prison Experiment, tells us of the importance of both the situation and the system that creates it in crafting human behaviour. Maybe we have such a lacklustre response to climate change because the economic and political system we live under legitimises, maybe even forces, such an outlook. The ruthless competition for profit and market share displayed by top corporations, the relentless consumption of material goods promoted by their Machiavellian advertising departments, the short-term approach of the financial sector and the scandalous politicians that subsidise and protect them... all of these factors solidify a system that continually puts pressure on us to define ourselves and our social standing by consumption, material goods and a ruthless individualism. In this world, the mere suggestion of less growth fuelled by needless consumption is enough to have voters laughing at you. Again, it goes against something we define ourselves by.

Fortunately, less growth needn't be the problem it is often assumed to be. Economists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett have already documented well in their book 'The Spirit Level' that economic growth, past a certain threshold (that we are well past in the UK) holds little value for a range of social factors and human happiness, whereas the inequality that an obsessive focus on growth often brings leads to a worsening of numerous social and economic issues. We have long known the detrimental effect that over-consumption of meat and dairy can have on our diets, as well as lack of exercise because we can't escape the myriad of gadgets that surround us. Modern, consumption-focused lifestyles have led to a proliferation of mental and physical health issues, as well as distracting us from other important, less material concerns. By framing the considerably large changes people need to make in the West as actually beneficial to them as well as the planet, instead of as 'sacrifices', could be a game-changer.

How we frame 'environmental' issues as well is problematic, starting with what we call them. Psychologist Drew Westen suggests that for most people 'the environment' is not a term that carries much emotional weight, something key to triggering positive responses from the public. Talking instead of ways humans have been harmed already by climate related events, particularly local people (last year's flooding in southern England), national parks and other local sites people may have holidayed in, and even how their children are going to suffer are much better ways of approaching the topic than talking about polar ice caps and rainforests on other continents. Tying environmental issues to things that are already salient and emotionally charged such as family values, empathy with other human beings and even patriotism is a much more fruitful way forward for environmental activists.

Climatic changes will push up global food prices as desertification and regional conflicts make certain food types scarcer. Climate change is theorised to have played a role in the recent mass migration out of Syria, leading to increased immigration into Western countries. Fossil fuels are intimately connected to a corporate, top-down, unaccountable system of business, whereas renewables can be key to unlocking local ownership of energy sources. Emphasising these points serves to place climate change into the broader social context as well as highlighting to people how it is personally going to affect them and their values.

Along with this highlighting how climate change is not an inevitable, unstoppable force, but rather a result of specific and deliberate life style choices that you and me are directly responsible and culpable for, may help break down psychological barriers. Our lifestyles are literally killing people and wiping out ecosystems. This is a stark and, to borrow from Al Gore, inconvenient truth that we must be made to face up to.

Climate change is the ultimate wake-up call, the largest imaginable cataclysmic intervention in inexhaustible human advance and arrogance. We shouldn't try and deny the fact that this will require considerable changes from us in the West if we are to halt climate change, but we should also make it clear that these are not sacrifices or burdens: they are the benefit of us all. I have found that giving up meat has not actually limited me in the way I thought it would: it has instead opened up a world of culinary explorations that I would not have otherwise explored, as well as having tangible benefits for my health.

Emphasising the human, local elements of climate change, as well as tying it to other emotionally salient issues and being open and honest about the scale of the issue and the response required from us is the way forward. These are lessons the environmental movement needs to embrace soon, or there won't be much left to save.