BROOKLIN, Canada - The vast majority of North Americans now declare that they want action on climate change. But whether people are truly willing to embrace "carbon-neutral" lifestyles -- including giving up their gas-guzzling sports utility vehicles -- remains an open question, say experts.
Scientists have made a strong case that the only way to stave off the worst impacts of climate change -- floods, storms, wildfires, disease epidemics and sundry other unpleasant events -- is by slashing greenhouse gas emissions a whopping 80 percent from the 1990 baseline by 2050. European policy-makers are already putting plans in place to meet that target.
North Americans, whose region is by far the worst polluter, are beginning to talk about reductions, but few understand the sweeping breadth of the changes needed to reach the 80 percent target.
"The American public's awareness about global warming is extremely high, but that doesn't mean very much," said Anthony Leiserowitz, director of Strategic Initiatives at Yale University's School of Forestry and Environmental Studies
"They are not convinced they need to make any changes or sacrifices in their lives," Leiserowitz, a psychologist who has studied public reactions to climate change for nearly two decades, told IPS. "Most people think it is a very distant threat in terms of time and space."
In other words, climate change will only have an impact on remote islands in the South Pacific, or poor countries in Africa, and only many years from now.
Even the devastation and death wrought by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 has not brought the potential impacts of a warmer world home to U.S. citizens, he said.
"The predominant image of climate change in most people's minds is melting ice of Antarctica or the Arctic," Leiserowitz said.
And while a few people worry about polar bears disappearing, most simply don't see global warming as a significant threat, he said.
Leiserowitz's view appears to conflict with a March 2007 poll by the Yale Centre for Environmental Law and Policy that reported 83 percent of U.S. citizens consider global warming to be a "serious problem" -- up from 70 percent in 2004. Most dramatically, 63 percent agreed that the United States "is in as much danger from environmental hazards, such as air pollution and global warming, as it is from terrorists".
But Leiserowitz points out that public concern about global warming was also high in 2000, and then fell off the radar in 2001, notably after the 9/11 attacks.
"The current greening of Americans is broad across all sectors, but it is likely not deep," he argued.
Climate change is a complex subject for people to understand, and when weighed against other priorities -- job, family, comfortable lifestyle -- it falls to the bottom, he said.
"Society is a huge, nearly immovable entity," agreed Robert Gifford, a psychologist at the University of Victoria in Canada.
Although awareness about the need to act on climate change is the highest it's ever been, people don't like change, in their own lives or in the broader society.
Another powerful force in favour of inaction is what psychologists' called self-centred biases: "I'm a good person, so how could I possibly do bad things?"
"People like to feel good about themselves, they don't want to think that what they do or their lifestyles are bad for the planet," Gifford, who is editor of the Journal of Environmental Psychology, told IPS.
To avoid feeling bad about themselves, people will say it is up to the government to do something, or that they're not in the position to make changes or don't have enough money. At the same time, those who take action will earn scorn or worse because they make others look bad by comparison, he says.
Of every demographic, older women are the most altruistic, but for the majority of people, self-interest dominates, researchers say. And until more people are psychologically ready to think in terms of "we" instead of "me", there will be few actual changes in behaviour, Gifford said.
"Otherwise, they will only do the easy things, like changing light bulbs," he said.
The potential personal risks of climate change are also perceived to lie far off in a distant future. Indeed, an analysis published in the journal Risk Analysis found that only 13 percent of U.S. citizens think it poses any risk to themselves or their families. However, that study was based on 2003 data, and after Hurricane Katrina, the percentage is no doubt higher.
This discounting of future risks can be overcome by emphasising the other, more immediate benefits of change, such as saving money with better energy efficiency, Gifford says.
Lots of different approaches will be needed to tackle global warming. For some, concern about their children and grandchildren will inspire action, while others will be motivated by religious beliefs about stewardship, said Leiserowitz.
"The military sees climate change a threat to national security, and business as a threat to their bottom line," he noted.
Scenarios that feature images and stories about what the future could look like with global warming are a useful approach to help people understand the potential risks involved. Everyone can picture a house on fire; as a result, millions of people buy fire insurance, even though it is a very rare event, he said.
With the climate science largely settled, it is time for the social sciences to weigh in on the important issues of how we deal with climate change. However, the social sciences may not be ready to assume this new role.
"There hasn't been any funding to do this," Leiserowitz said. "I think I'm the only one doing studies on risk perception and climate change."
There are fundamental questions that need answers. Why do we emit greenhouse gases? Can we be happier and healthier without fossil fuels?
Climate scientists had the story of climate change right nearly 30 years ago, predicting that it would be one of the greatest threats of the 21st century, he said.
Now it's time for the social sciences to take over.
*This article is part two of a three-part series on natural capital and how future global prosperity and equity can be achieved through the preservation of ecosystems. Part one appeared on May 29.
Copyright © 2007 IPS-Inter Press Service.