Buy Now, Pay Later

Guest Post by: Sharon Michelle, MSc Psychology

Scientists are warning we only have a short window of opportunity to make significant positive differences in the outcome of climate change. But this has been overshadowed in the mainstream news by what is perceived as more pressing matters at hand.   

I need to talk about a pervading sense that someone else will sort out everything out sometime in the future. I need to talk about the enormity of the situation. And I need to know why we aren’t asking more questions about what seems like a sense of a total lack of urgency to change our ways?

The horrendous invasion of Ukraine highlights how our comfortable lives can be impacted when the cost and flow of fossil fuels are threatened and disrupted. Germany is using this as an opportunity to bring their deadlines of net-zero forwards, but other Governments seem to be simply looking to change suppliers. This means habits will not be changed that much and disruption of the status quo is avoided.   

People often put up their barriers when I try and communicate about this issue because clearly many don’t share my position. I strongly believe each of us can make a positive difference and more of an impact than what is being achieved so far, but what seems right and achievable to me often seems extreme and unattainable to others. My motivation and passion for this subject often end up with others eyes glazing over and the conversation being killed outright.

What would happen if we stopped using gas to heat our homes or run our businesses immediately, or by next year, or sooner than we wanted to? The impact would be huge, and it’s hard to contemplate how much would change, and how much hardship it might involve. It may be a big reason why we are not talking about what changes are needed because we are not ready to deal with those changes.  

But when will we be ready? Are we too afraid to face possible discomfort because our need for convenience and comfort means we won’t ever let them go willingly, or even a little bit? I fear the more we hold on to our comfortable lifestyles the further we are pushing the opportunity for the same away from the next generations.

There are so many opposing views as to when it is best to make significant changes in our behaviour. Some, like me, believe it has to happen now, for others it’s as soon as possible which can be stretched as far as 2050. But leaving it until 2050 means it is actually our families in the future who will be making the really difficult decisions, making sacrifices, experiencing difficult transitions, and suffering potential hardships – not us. We are reaping the benefits of buying and consuming now and it’s the future generations that will most likely have to pay for it.

So how do we move forward in paying our debts to the planet sooner rather than later?

In 2018 Researchers in the UK interviewed a group of people about their views on climate change and on the different levels of action and responsibilities of Governments, Businesses, and Individuals (Becker Sparks research ). The group was asked what they all thought should be done to reduce climate change. Some said they would only change their behaviour when they felt the direct effects of climate change and not before then. It was only a small study but it may reflect the wider population and explain the perceived inability to make changes.  

The main theme of the interviews was a feeling that there is only an “either/ or” outcome.  Many Interviewees felt the future could be decided based on the best interests of the economy, or on the best interests of the environment –  that it was impossible to hold and act on both interests. There was a strong feeling that the need for profit would always win over the needs of the environment. With only this viewpoint I understand why some feel the problems cannot be overcome and would not want to think about the future.

The research also found there were a variety of frameworks people used that mitigate climate change. This mitigation could be interpreted in several different ways which highlight that a simple explanation of why people aren’t taking action won’t work; because it is a complicated problem, and complex solutions are required. The Researchers advocated offering various viable alternatives for change to counteract the different narratives that were being constructed, to accommodate all of the different viewpoints. Tailoring several different narratives which face and deal with the truth in a way which fits each perspective to actually achieve the results the planet needs.  One narrative or explanation doesn’t work for everyone.

Trying to engage with people about environmental issues has always been tricky for me.  I realise now that I may have actually put people off by trying to be overly positive about what is possible in an effort to motivate others. Other times I may have been “too realistic” with statistics with the intention of pushing people to take action which probably had the opposite effect.

The work by Climate psychologist Renée Lertzman is a fantastic resource to get to grips with the issues (thanks for putting me on to her Grant!). A CNBC article about her work  (cnbc-Lertzman-article-2021-how-to-discuss-climate-change) explains her view that “neither gloom-and-doom nor extreme solution-obsessed optimism is the best way to discuss climate change productively”.  

She believes to get people to engage with climate change effectively, communication and a collective approach are vital. It is important to be authentic and truly acknowledge feelings, and not force ourselves to be positive and be the “hope police”, because it just won’t work. (I’m guilty of this!)  In her view a “solution-er” perspective does not allow for difficult emotions or ambivalence, it can instead alienate people who are still trying to process how they think and feel about climate change, or who don’t feel hopeful or positive.  

The “doom and gloom” approach and the view of pitting both sides against the other are not helpful either and need to be actively dismantled. Renne says our minds don’t work in a simple and binary way as often issues are far more complicated, as is how we approach and deal with them. She says the way forward is to embrace authentic experience and engagement with climate change and what it means, which will be different for everyone.  “There is enormous hopefulness and enormous positivity, deep inspiration and power with recognizing, and facing directly the scale and the impact and the loss”, which for her is the middle ground and the way forward.  

From now on I am going to try and explain why I feel the way I do about climate change instead of trying to influence people so much, and I am also going to listen more to understand all of the places where people are coming from and their needs, so I can adjust my approach to accommodate that. My hope is I might have better conversations which might lead to more action or at least a little less inaction.

I think we may not be asking more questions about the need for urgency because we might not like the answers and what we need to face and deal with.  

A question that might help with this is what would you say to our grandchildren 50 years in the future if you met them now? Can you look them in the eye and truthfully say you did absolutely everything within your power to leave them the best possible world?  What if you met up with yourself 5 years from now?  

What can we do differently now so the price to be paid for our comforts and conveniences won’t be so high for those living in the future?

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