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Are many of us frozen in the face of the climate crisis because we think other people don’t care enough?

14/04/22

Are many of us frozen in the face of the climate crisis because we think other people don’t care enough?

Could one barrier to us feeling galvanised, organised and collaborative in pursuit of climate justice and environmental regeneration be underestimating the extent to which others care?
This is a blog by Elsie Roderiques
Elsie is a member of staff at the Common Cause Foundation.

Last week, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its third and final report reviewing climate science. You can find summaries and analysis all over the internet, but, in short, the world (read: the biggest emitters and consumers) has only a very slim chance of limiting global warming to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels and is falling way behind on making the changes needed to transform and decarbonise the global economy.

These days, many of us are aware that, in a system where growth at all costs is the global measure of success, our personal efforts to reduce our environmental impact are not enough on their own. So, the IPCC’s findings, although unsurprising, can feel pretty grim and hopeless – especially when we are witnessing, daily, the repercussions of the devastation wrought on the environment, the planet, our home; through centuries of colonialism, resource extraction, patriarchy, humans’ separation from and dominion over nature, and neoliberal capitalism.

Whilst we might feel that our individual contributions to halting the causes of the climate crises and regenerating the planet are inadequate when faced with what is required, the old adage is true that there is strength in numbers. Wealth and power might have accumulated in the hands of the few, but it is wealth and power that they have gained at the expense of others, and that collectively we can redistribute for the benefit of all – changing entire systems while we’re at it. So why don’t we do it? What’s stopping many of us (and by many of us, I mean fellow white people in the global North) from coming together to demand accountability from those who are responsible for environmental destruction? Or to divest from systems that harm and oppress? 

One factor contributing to our feeling demoralised might be due to something that we call the ‘perception gap’. Because it’s not just our own values that shape and guide how we all think and act; we’re also influenced by our perceptions of the values of others’, whether or not those perceptions are accurate. Studies show (including our own 2016 ‘Perceptions Matter’ survey and papers such as this and this) that the majority of people place greater importance on what we call ‘intrinsic’ values (values like ‘helpfulness’, ‘equality’ and ‘protection of nature’) than ‘extrinsic’ values (values such as ‘wealth’, ‘public image’ and ‘success’). However, we tend to underestimate the importance that others place on compassionate values. This ‘perception gap’ matters, because it predicts lower community cohesion and lower motivation to engage in civic life, feel responsible for our communities or support action on social and environmental issues.

The perception gap is perhaps unsurprising in a world where we are engaged, subtly and not so subtly, by institutions such as the media, politicians, advertising and, even schools and universities, as though we are all out for ourselves. This can only help to perpetuate the perception that most people are more concerned with acquiring stuff, making money to acquire stuff, cultivating their public image and gaining influence than is actually the case.

Could these inaccurate beliefs about our fellow citizens contribute to our feelings of powerlessness, hopelessness and aloneness in the face of the multiple crises we face? Could one barrier to us feeling galvanised, organised and collaborative basically be underestimating the extent to which others care?

We know that the myriad crises confronting humanity –  from climate change and biodiversity loss to inequality and poverty – can seem insurmountable, and those who lead our political and social institutions seem incapable of taking the decisions necessary to bring about transformational change. We believe that engaging our common values is critical to help create an alternative, more sustainable path.

The delicious slice of hope in this situation is that, by elevating intrinsic values in our lives, work and communities, conveying a more accurate perception of others’ values and challenging assumptions about the values that most people hold to be important; the perception gap can be closed. This, we argue, could contribute importantly to building public concern about today’s social and environmental challenges, fostering more widespread engagement on these challenges and reducing people’s feelings of apathy and alienation.

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