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The climate crisis is staring us in the face – why can’t we believe it?

Portugal, France, Spain and Greece are on fire – and, recently, so was the UK. Record 40C heat fuelled dozens of blazes around the country, and saw the busiest day for London’s firefighters since the Second World War.

Meanwhile a staggering amount of Europe, almost half, is living with a drought warning.

The climate crisis is staring us in the face. Yet many in the UK still do not see it.

A poll on Wednesday found the vast majority of us, some 70%, understand climate change was driving Britain’s unprecedented heat, while 17% said it was unrelated.

That’s still more than one in ten people who don’t realise or accept the science that heatwaves are unilaterally linked with global warming.

Some said the heat was no worse than that in 1976, while others accused media and scientists of scaremongering or having “snowflake mentality”.

Yes, the wind bringing hot air over Spain may have blown this way anyway, the Met Office explained. But no, it wouldn’t have been so intense had the UK not already warmed by 0.9°C on average.

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What we believe and the changes we make are “super important,” says Dr Kris de Meyer, neuroscientist at Kings College London.

“Because if you fast forward ten years or 20 years in the future… if we are successful as a society to tackle climate change, we will be doing pretty much everything differently.”

Handout grab from video issued by Luke Channings of the scene after a fire at Dartford Marshes. Issue date: Tuesday July 19, 2022.
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A fire on Dartford Marshes on Tuesday 20 July

Optimism bias

The first culprit for ignoring the climate change emergency is “optimism-bias”.

We may be pessimistic about the world and think it is falling apart, but “when it comes to how stuff will impact you, we usually are much more optimistic, much more biased towards thinking that we ourselves will be fine,” says Dr de Meyer, who specialises in the psychology of climate change.

And even if we are not fine, even if we are living through flooding or droughts perhaps, studies show we tend to “still fall back” on existing and “readily available” narratives, according to Dr Charles Ogunbode, environmental psychologist at Nottingham University and member of the British Psychological Society.

“The political factors and values generally outweigh an individual experience when it comes to people’s perceptions,” Dr Ogunbode adds. His studies into flooding found competing narratives muddied the waters of people’s understanding of the causes.

Professor Nick Pidgeon, who studies perceptions of climate risk at Cardiff University, says those on the right “tend to be a bit more climate sceptic than people on the left, for various reasons”, although that divide is nowhere near as pronounced in the UK as in the United States.

While there may be an “element” of us struggling to comprehend long-term timescales, the social and political processes “far outweigh” that, he adds.

Wennington
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A significant London grass fire spread and torched to buildings in Wennington

Positive association

The UK is “unique” because “we’ve always had a positive association with hot temperatures,” adds Dr Ogunbode, a mentality hardly surprising given our temperate climate, an island nation oft bedraggled by unpredictable rain.

That has been fuelled by public figures likening hot weather to desirable destinations, for example comparing our future climate with that of Barcelona’s today, he argues.

Media reports of heatwaves that featured photos of people having fun cooling off in fountains or the sea are comparisons that he says, “[evoke] quite positive… that’s the problem with heat in particular”.

Not only has public perception “not quite caught up with the significance in terms of the risks that come with it,” we also “don’t have the kind of infrastructure right now in terms of housing, in terms of healthcare to help us live with that kind of change,” he adds.

People watch as a fire burns during a heatwave, in east London, Britain, July 19, 2022. REUTERS/Tony O'Brien
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People watch as a fire burns during a heatwave, in east London, Britain, July 19, 2022. REUTERS/Tony O’Brien

The specific can be surprising

The “specific” and “concrete” can be “very surprising” says neuroscientist Dr de Meyer.

Think of how the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded: “When the second lockdown came, lots of people were again surprised by how severe the situation got… even though they had lived through the first lockdown nine months before.

The summer of 2021 may not be scorched in our minds as particularly hot, as with 2003 or 1976. It’s perhaps hard to believe the heat killed an extra 1,634 people, according to the Office for National Statistics, or that it could take even more lives this year.

A woman covers her face as a wildfire burns in Pallini, near Athens, Greece
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A woman covers her face as a wildfire burns in Pallini, near Athens, Greece

No pain no gain?

In the battle in our minds between short and long-term benefits, the former “would tend to win in everyday decisions where we are making the decision on automatic pilot or mindlessly,” says Dr Dr Meyer.

But people “are very capable of foregoing present pleasures for future gains,” he explains, pointing to times we abstain from a sweet treat because we know it’s bad for us.

Mr Ogunbode argues that it’s not strictly a question of trade-offs or sacrifices anyway. Taking vehicular emissions as an example, he points out that restrictions on fossil fuel engines will also cut air pollution and improve health.

Firefighters work to contain a tactical fire in Louchats, as wildfires continue to spread in the Gironde region of southwestern France
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Firefighters work to contain a tactical fire in Louchats, as wildfires continue to spread in the Gironde region of southwestern France

Elite cues

What, then, of the effect of former Conservative leadership candidates Kemi Badenoch and Suella Braverman pledging to delay the net zero by 2050 target? A target that is not arbitrary, but based on scientific consensus.

“What politicians actually say really matter[s],” says Cardiff University’s Professor Pidgeon.

Comments by people in positions about climate change, can “be seen to influence the debate in a way that public opinion then shifts afterwards,” he adds. The theory is called elite cues.

The example always cited is then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s 1988 speech on climate change.

This first warning about the dangers of climate change from a prominent political leader “set in train, I think, a lot of things around the globe, that led to sort of broadly people believing in this country among the general public that climate change is an issue,” he explains.

The UK has a strong cross-party political consensus on the need for climate action – for now.

Current scepticism of green policies by some Conservative MPs does risk making net zero “a defining issue between political parties,” says Antony Froggatt from Chatham House.

But overall, “in terms of the government, we haven’t seen a significant shift” in support for the net zero target, he argues.

In the UK we are getting our heads round the risks from heatwaves, with a huge jump in how many thought they were serious, from 23% in 2013 to 72% in 2019. Although flooding, heavy rain and coastal erosion still ranked higher in people’s minds.

Firefighters work at the site of a wildfire as Spain experiences its second heatwave of the year, in Faramontanos de Tabara, Spain, July 19, 2022. REUTERS/Borja Suarez
Image:
Firefighters work at the site of a wildfire as Spain experiences its second heatwave of the year, in Faramontanos de Tabara, Spain, July 19, 2022. REUTERS/Borja Suarez

‘Fear alone’ won’t do it – stories of ‘action’ will

While we are catching up with heat driven by climate change, we haven’t with other impacts.

In surveys, people “don’t particularly mention drought causing failure of crops… which is one that one worries about,” Prof Pidgeon says.

Nor do they readily associate with climate change “invasive pests and diseases coming into the country as a result of rising temperatures.”

But “fear alone” is “not enough to get us to act,” Dr Kris de Meyer explains.

What will accelerate that and help individuals “make good choices” is hearing stories about “action”.

Three years ago, Kris attempted to travel from London Austria by train. “I gave up because the technology didn’t exist. The tickets were extremely expensive,” he says. So, he booked a £60 flight that was much cheaper and more convenient.

Since then, train travel costs have come down, and improved technology allows him to map that route.

“And so it’s become a lot easier for me to be doing the right things,” he says over the phone from Austria, where he arrived a few days previously, by train.

And after we spoke, this reporter found herself downloading the Interrail app to plan an upcoming Europe trip.

Watch the Daily Climate Show at 3.30pm Monday to Friday, and The Climate Show with Tom Heap on Saturday and Sunday at 3.30pm and 7.30pm.

All on Sky News, on the Sky News website and app, on YouTube and Twitter.

The show investigates how global warming is changing our landscape and highlights solutions to the crisis.

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