Slaying the Seven Dragons of Inaction on Climate Change

Seven Dragons are generic types of psychological barriers, compiled by psychologist Robert Gifford at the University of Victoria (Canada), that hold a person back from doing something. These barriers may help explain why a person (or society) agrees that climate change and environmental sustainability are important issues yet doesn’t take sufficient action to effectively deal with them.

Slaying the Seven Dragons of Inaction on Climate Change starts with the recognition that they are real and then facing up to them!

Slaying the Seven Dragons of Inaction on Climate Change starts with the recognition that they are real and then facing up to them!

If you study these seven dragons, you’ll probably recognize not only your own barriers, but also get some insight into how and why we are all struggling with combatting climate change in the world at large. Here are three of them.

1.     Ingrained habits (such as North America’s “car culture”) that allow us to embrace ride-sharing that increases auto dependence and focuses our attention on electric vehicles (that shift the emissions problem to generating renewable electricity), while neglecting such measures as urban design, congestion pricing, and investing in non-auto transit systems. The one-third of us who live in downtown urban areas should get out sometime to the suburbs where another third (like me) live and realize that we’re not going to get rid of cars anytime soon.

One implication is that ubiquitous “climate action plans” that prioritize public transit investments over wider highways aren’t going to get us very far toward reducing massive carbon emissions from auto use. We should instead have a much larger, ongoing federal tax/rebate incentive program for electric vehicles that will lead to more rapid fleet changeover, especially for SUVs and light-duty trucks, the majority of cars that Americans clearly want to buy.

Typical traffic on the 405 in L.A., the country’s busiest freeway. More than 375,000 cars per day  on average  in some stretches of this road through Los Angeles and Orange Counties.

Typical traffic on the 405 in L.A., the country’s busiest freeway. More than 375,000 cars per day on average in some stretches of this road through Los Angeles and Orange Counties.

2.     Lack of trust. In a culture where every statement, every action has become politicized and open to savage responses online, do we really trust climate scientists to be objective purveyors of the truth about climate change, or are they just another interest group looking for more research dollars, prestige, and book deals? To restore trust, the media (and the rest of us) might start by not treating every individual event of extreme weather as a positive indicator of climate change. Extreme weather events have been with us forever. It’s their frequency, magnitude and duration that’s increasing because of climate change, and to demonstrate that can take years or more of careful study and analysis.

3.     Ideology. Going back to the origins of the environmental movement in the late 1960s, we have clearly understood that we struggle between worldviews that see nature as something humans can exploit and nature that we are instructed to respect and carefully steward. If there are no boundaries or social norms around these issues, then the inevitable result is destruction and pollution, with business and society treating the environment as a “free good” and useful only as a pollution sink.

Obviously, the public wants to protect the environment, but it’s equally clear this understanding is superficial - how many people realize that soil health is critical for our ability to feed ourselves in the future and that much of our approach to agriculture destroys soil health? Each year the muddy Mississippi River transports an incredible amount of eroded soil from the Midwest into the Gulf of Mexico, a phenomenon clearly visible in satellite photos.

In the words of the iconic Pogo cartoon from the early 1970s, “we have met the enemy and he is us.”

Pogo and Porkypine walk through the primeval forest and discover it’s not leaf litter under their feet but…

Pogo and Porkypine walk through the primeval forest and discover it’s not leaf litter under their feet but…

Next week, I’ll portray the other four dragons. How many of these do you recognize? How many are you personally willing to deal with? Should we think instead that technology will solve everything, since as a society we are unwilling to deal with the mentality that has brought us unprecedented prosperity and health, but has also led us to the brink of climate catastrophe?