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How Donald Trump affects climate change perceptions

LiveMint logoLiveMint 07-06-2017 Biju Dominic

President Donald Trump withdrew the US from the Paris climate agreement. How will this decision affect the attitude and behaviours of individuals across the world towards climate change?

Will citizens around the world now become more determined to help save the future of planet earth? Or is this the beginning of the end of all the good work that has been done to build a more sustainable environment?

In his book, Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired To Ignore Climate Change, George Marshall explains why getting individuals to accept the reality of climate change is one of the most intriguing behavioural challenges. In this book, Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman explains a few of the cognitive barriers that prevent a person from accepting the reality of climate change. According to Kahneman, climate change lacks salience. It is not a threat that is concrete, immediate and indisputable like an out of control car that is coming towards you. By contrast, climate change is abstract, distant, invisible and disputed.

The second problem, according to Kahneman, is that climate change requires that people accept certain short-term costs and reductions in their living standards in order to mitigate much higher, but uncertain losses that are far in the future. This is a tall order.

The third reason for Kahneman’s pessimism is that information regarding climate change seems uncertain and contested. As long as the uncertainties remain, according to Kahneman, “people will score it as a draw, even if there is National Academy on one side and some cranks on the other”.

Climate change no doubt is a complex issue. Trump’s decision has added further complexity.

The real effects of climate change are happening in Antarctica, thousands of miles away from the ordinary citizen’s eyes. Other than scientists, not many really know what is happening out there or the consequences of that on a far-away shore. The physical distance from the point-of-action and the inability of a common man to understand the science behind those events have created high levels of uncertainty. This has further clouded the real truth and reduced the chances of ordinary citizens understanding the real dangers of climate change.

This facet is clearly evident in an article in The New York Times about the residents of Kiribati islands in the Pacific ocean. According to climate change experts, these islands will be the first landmass to go underwater due to global warming.

The government of the Republic of Kiribati has even bought over 6,000 acres of land in the Fiji Islands to relocate citizens in case global warming submerges the islands. But, according to the NYT article, the common refrain in those islands is, “We don’t believe that God could have given us this world and (will) take it away”. This is proof that even individuals at the very epicentre of the climate change problem do not believe that climate change is a reality.

For the common man on the street, earlier the uncertainty scale on climate change stretched between “not sure of the ill effects” on one end to “sure the ill-effects are already visible”, on the other end. Thanks to Trump’s decision the not so sure leg of the scale has now got further stretched to “it’s all a conspiracy” belief, a complete dismissal of the event, further widening the horizons of uncertainty. This increased uncertainty will make it difficult for a lot more people around the world to believe that climate change is not a reality.

As the levels of uncertainty rise, various biases creep into the human decision-making process. Confirmation bias, the tendency to seek and interpret evidences in ways that are partial to existing beliefs will surely set in. The echo chamber nature of the social media makes sure that we tend to listen to what we want to hear and this will only strengthen the confirmation bias among ordinary citizens. In the face of opposing thoughts, one tends to hold on to one’s beliefs with higher vigour. The decision of Trump will lead to hardening of the beliefs among both sides, climate change believers and climate change sceptics.

According to The Politics Of Climate study, 2016, by Pew Research Centre, only 48% of Americans believed that global climate change was due to human activity, 31% believed it was due to natural causes and 20% believed there is no evidence for global climate change. So the scale was already tilted in favour of the non-believers even before Trump’s decision.

In any human behaviour issue, there is a huge gap between what people say and what people do. So only a small percentage of the people who say they believe climate change is a man-made disaster will do something to prevent it. Their actions involve an extra effort. They are giving up the little comforts of today to help build a more sustainable future. “Is there some truth in what Trump says?” This question about Trump’s decision will make even the climate change believers question their extra effort.

By pulling the US out of the Paris climate agreement, the Trump decision has planted not just a seed but a full-grown tree of suspicion as far as global warming is concerned. The increased uncertainty about the climate change issue has done irreparable damage not only to all the good work that has been done in the past but also to all the future efforts too.

Getting a citizen to segregate his household waste to help save the future of earth has become bit more tough.

Biju Dominic is the chief executive officer of Final Mile Consulting, a behaviour architecture firm.

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