The evidence grows stronger by the day. Most people now accept that it is happening. It could put millions of lives at risk, yet many are still reluctant to act upon it. According to Dr Alexa Spence of the University of Nottingham, psychological distance is a big part of the problem: “Climate change is an abstract idea; you can’t see it, it’s not the weather, it refers to change over a period of time. I think that’s really important in how people understand climate change and are prepared to act on it.”
Dr Spence led a study investigating how psychological distance affects public attitudes towards climate change, published in this month’s Risk Analysis journal. The study, on a representative sample of the UK population, found that people were more concerned about climate change if they felt closer to it.
So what does it mean to feel closer to the issue of climate change? Psychological distance is a subject that’s been studied for years, but Dr Spence and colleagues were the first to apply the concept to climate change in a major study. The distance can be geographical, a social distance, a distance in time or simply uncertainty.
Geographically, the study found that over half of the respondents, 53%, agreed that climate change would affect their local areas. Socially, 45% agreed that climate change affect people like them. 41% of the sample said that Britain is already feeling the effects of climate change. In terms of uncertainty, 47% believed that climate change is caused by a mixture of human and natural processes. 31% believed it to be mostly caused by human activity, and only 18% thought it to be mostly down to natural causes.
These results were welcomed by the Department of Energy and Climate Change. A spokesman told I, Science: “This is a helpful contribution to the debate on climate change. It shows us that most people in the UK accept that climate change is happening and it is being caused by human activities.” Yet these results alone do not give the full story, as percentages don’t show the complex relationships which Dr Spence and colleagues were able to tease out of the data.
The team found that people who believed climate change would strongly affect them – in all of the distance measures – were significantly more concerned about it than those who felt it would have little impact on them. On top of this, respondents were more likely to act to reduce their carbon footprint if they also believed it would affect developing nations. “Developing countries are often feeling the brunt of the effects, but are less able to deal with them,” explains Dr Spence, “it’s primarily about the magnitude of the problem.”
So how can environmental groups and policy-makers use these results to further their message? “I think it’s very important that things that people can see are related to climate change,” says Dr Spence. “When we’re seeing early flowers in the spring, unusual weather events or decline in species, it should be communicated that that is because of climate change – people should be less scared about saying that.”
It’s not as though climate change isn’t expected to affect Britain. According to a DECC spokesman, the government is “coordinating the development of a National Adaptation Plan to ensure that our towns, cities, countryside, infrastructure and our businesses can adapt to changes in the climate expected over the next decades.”
Encouraging action against climate change can be a tough sell. Yet this study shows that by making the issues more relevant to people’s lives, we can help to significantly change behaviour for the better.
Image: flickr | cheltenhamborough