Marie-Sophie Roul, Research student in Sustainable Development at ESSEC Business School, Dauphine-PSL, and Author of the Climate Thoughts blog, looks at climate inaction through the normalcy lens and how to shift the focus to new understanding and positive action.
Climate Inaction: Changing normalcy, by Marie-Sophie Roul
Anempire of knowledge has been built by humans over the centuries: we exhaustively know the consequences of our actions on our environment. I – and many others – have spent half of my history classes hearing about Limits to Growth (MIT, 1972) and the Brundtland Report (WCED, 1987) that question our consumer lifestyles. We have known the reality of climate change and many ways to fight it for a long time. Why, then, don’t governments and companies seem to care if we preserve the habitability of our territories?
In the introduction to Climate Crisis and the Global Green New Deal (Noam Chomsky, Robert Pollin, 2020), the political economist C. J. Polychroniou writes that “the most daunting obstacle to success is mounting the necessary political will to defeat […] the global fuel industry”. The importance of the “will” to provide efforts for solutions and the complexity of the interactions between the actors raise questions about mental perceptions of the matter from politicians, industrials, and, overall, individuals. For example, why would the fuel industry’s interests be more important than human survival? Since knowledge and resources don’t seem to be the only matter at hand, part of the answer to the question of our inaction could be found in the study of cognitive and social sciences.
The climate economist Gernot Wagner states that “COVID-19 is climate change at warp speed”: a long-term, anxiety-inducing disaster, that endangers our usual comfort, against which we didn’t act until thousands of people already died, and against which we have a limited possibility of action. Interestingly, different types of reactions could be observed among governments. From rushed measures to denial of the need for action, the palette of feelings was large, but some seemed to almost copy each other.
In the case of climate change, we can notice that some countries like the United States barely even acknowledge climate change, whereas some rare governments like Sweden keep trying to lower their greenhouse gases (GHG) emissions, that are already relatively minimal. Nevertheless, the global trend is still climate inaction. What makes us persevere in what the sociologist Christian Morel would call “absurd decisions”, deviating us from our supposedly common goals?
Shall I compare thee to climate action: Thou art more biased and more temperate
The mechanism that makes us persevere in our current lifestyle, thinking that everything will remain the same, is called “normalcy bias”. This cognitive mechanism can be seen as having evolutionary purposes and allows us to be sure, for example, that a meteorite won’t hit our car on the way to our kids’ school. However, normalcy bias also encourages us to know almost everything about long-term dangers we’re facing but still be confident that our lives will remain the same – in the same way that someone would stop moving at the sight of a predator.
Thomas H. Davenport, an academic specialized in analytics and cognition, explains in the MIT Sloan Management Review that these mental shortcuts have been overused during the current sanitary crisis. In the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, normalcy bias has led politicians from the Unites States, the United Kingdom, and even Sweden, to count on herd immunity and let things happen passively while countless people died. Others would persist in implementing lockdowns or curfews during months, even when some of the measures proved to be unnecessary.
What behaviours do we persist in, simply because they are “normal”? Three come to mind: 1) our mainstream economic model – inherited from industrialisation – 2) encouraging families to have several children – inherited from times where survival was scarce 3) thinking that ecology is a personality and a luxury – inherited from the idea that humans are evil conquerors, and reinforced by miscellaneous stereotypes. These are to me three of the greatest issues driven by the normalcy bias. Consumer behaviours, putting growth and production above all else, are a very impactful symbol of our inertia. Many of us, for example, felt the eviction of the openly ecologist Emmanuel Faber from the presidency of Danone as a frustrating sign that priorities are still following the sole norm of financial indicators.
Yet, the physical laws of conservation of energy and entropy show that “green growth” might just be an optimistic oxymoron. Economists from the University of Chicago warned that the long-term consequences of constant growth will be worse than a slow decay…and these are the same ones that trained Milton Friedman. And, way earlier, in 1966, the economist Kenneth Boulding published the article “The Economics of the Coming Spaceship Earth” in which he states that “we are very far from having the moral, political and psychological adjustment” to handle the fact that our resources are limited; now we hope to get closer.
One norm to rule them all?
“Normalcy” is a mobile concept, that differs from one culture, location, or person to another. To be considered normal, a behaviour or a thinking pattern has to go through social and political “normalisation” process. Politicians like Donald Trump or Jair Bolsonaro have taken disastrous decisions, deforesting, or deciding the withdrawal for Paris agreements, yet a large portion of the population continues to endorse them. Normalcy here shows the great prevalence of the economic necessity and political power, and anything that can question these two components shall be denied. Smaller countries with advantageous lands like Costa Rica have been known to act, whereas small countries with a desert climate like Qatar view energy as a luxury and a means of survival – and have the highest GHG emissions per capita. This climate schizophrenia is frustrating for those who know that any economic or “rational” objective behind these decisions is biased and counterproductive.
Others – politicians or companies – from developed and democratic countries, known in the past for their wealth and soft powers, publicly announce their commitment and keep steering the wheel towards normalcy lane. Australian and Canadian leaders are altogether considered climate-hypocrites by their population. Norway paradoxically holds the reputation of a climate-friendly country, but its oil and gas industry keeps following the elegant “Drill, baby, drill!” motto. And of course, agriculturally speaking, meat consumption shows many different behaviours: Asian countries drastically increased the importance of meat in their diets, whereas European countries stagnate or very slowly reduce it. In Climate Crisis and the Global New Deal, Noam Chomsky and Robert Pollin find modification of this industry essential; however, population growth matters and agricultural policies keep encouraging intensive agriculture, deforestation, and cattle farming.
Whether it be climate hypocrisy, greenwashing, or administrative laziness, this inaction means that society stays in an in-between state: we know the need for change, but we feel helpless. Normalcy in these conditions resides in anxiety, frustration, and distrust of our governments. Even though this analysis seems pessimistic, it announces a change in the nations’ normalcy: politicians are under the international and national social pressure to act, or at least publicly acknowledge the problem.
Pride, prejudice, and more pride
Don’t think we are at the mercy of our normalcy. The Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who used to deny climate change issues, stated in 2021 that “behavioural change […] is the most powerful way to fight [environmental] challenges”. The increasingly normalised behaviour tends towards productive acknowledgement of the problem, shock that some countries can be so inactive or even deny the problem, and social and political pressure towards action – like France’s condemnation for climate inaction The transition to undertake is allowing those who deny to catch up with us and use our anxiety to keep the cogs in the machine running.
We can henceforth start normalising ecology, because the environment is not an ideology; it’s a system that can provide us with greater good if we respect it. Dr Ilan Kelman’s review “Axioms and actions for preventing disasters” teaches us that measures should be relevant for all, a good investment, continuous, and even… sexy. As a mere example, I myself went from being the bacon and cheese provider at every outing to veganising my alimentation, but pollution was only my main reason: my health, my bank account, and – mostly – my cooking skills thanked me deeply for this choice.
Our challenge today is to learn from different normalcies and find a model that can be generalised and normalised. Behavioural science teaches us that experimenting on a small territory can lead to finding more global-scale solutions. Nordic countries for example show a very different normalcy than other regions of the world; for I once came across a Norwegian job offer which most important criterion was emotional intelligence. And I fell in love with Bordeaux in France at the sight of its Maison écocitoyenne (House of eco-citizenship), that uses culture and pedagogy to reach all citizens on topics like urban transition and our way of life.
“Cooperative minds make fairness and trade”
This title from the CNRS anthropologist Pascal Boyer’s Minds Make Societies – How Cognition Explains the World Humans Create (2018) implies that our perception of justice and our economic system, built thanks to our cooperative instincts, define each other in more complex ways than we realise. Normalising climate action will not be a simple process, because there is no Atlas carrying the weight of climate. We need to start viewing social and environmental responsibility in companies, governments, and consumers as a bare minimum requirement – like fidelity in a couple, or dough in a pizza – which means we need laws, actions, results, and awareness campaigns. A generational change can also help induce intuitive change. Renewing politicians and heads of companies, as well as leaving behind the biases of gender and ethnic discrimination to remove the obstacles to collaboration and respect, will help accelerate change. Herewith, the choice of Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala to lead the World Trade Organisation is a concrete symbol of progress.
Cooperation is also essential because of the intrinsic interdisciplinary characteristics of environmental sciences: finding a common ground to tackle such complex challenges require different kinds of experts, from different horizons, but with the same goal: behavioural scientists, economists and geologists could systematically work together, in research, industries and governments. The study “The role of trust in citizen acceptance of climate policy: Comparing perceptions of government competence, integrity and value similarity” published in Ecological Economics teaches a lot about how these three components to implement a great collaboration: more than optimism and utopia, this is a call for intelligent action.
In today’s internationalised system, we have the possibility to share and cooperate. Noam Chomsky and Robert Pollin urge for a Global Green New Deal. Collaboration and financing by richer countries can help handle negative externalities of degrowth and investments in the necessary sectors, but the other cogs will have to follow.
Empower and educate
The more incompatible our current “normal” lifestyle is with environmental challenges, the more we want to hang on to it. Identifying normalcy biases will take international action from governments and companies to raise awareness, engage degrowth and increase energetic efficiency. In this context, climate inaction is not a fatality, but it’s the turning point of the transition that we rapidly need to take advantage of, to switch the focus from global economics to more individual-centred concerns like health, solidarity, and security in identity. By achieving this, we can both empower and educate our citizens and our leaders, and allow them to find their new normalcy, while preserving and healing our environment.
Note: A full list of sources included in this article can be found on page 67 of Global Voice magazine #18.
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