Change ourselves to save ourselves

What the climate crisis is teaching us about change

The facts are frightening. By 2030, climate change could be irreversible. Our oceans are dying. And a child born today will experience seven times more extreme weather in their lifetime than anyone living now – even if the emission targets are met. So, as world leaders meet at COP26 in a last-ditch attempt to stop the climate crisis that is building with catastrophic momentum, why the stall with shifting ourselves to action?

Well, the psychology behind failure to change is a fascinating, frustrating, and occasionally fatal one. From the Titanic’s captain shrugging off seven iceberg warnings to the UK’s initial Covid response – remember singing happy birthday while washing your hands? – ignoring danger doesn’t make it go away. But fight or flight are not the only paths people can take, and in fact, 80% of us will freeze when faced with catastrophe, becoming confused and passive. But it’s the icebergs that need to freeze, not us, so just how do we change effectively in the face of such an existential threat?

Evolution’s error

Firstly, it’s not totally our fault. We survived as a species by paying attention to short-term, immediate dangers – the lion on the plain, the food that smells bad, the stranger at the door. Threats that build up over time can be discounted only until we can’t ignore them any longer – and the sinister crescendo of climate change has been decades in the making. Add into that such cognitive biases as hyperbolic discounting (the present is more valuable than the future), the bystander effect (other people will fix it), or the sunk-cost fallacy (the more we’ve invested into something, the more we stick with it even if it’s no longer working; maybe you’ve tried to put the brakes on a failing project only to be met with pushback from those writing the cheques?), and it’s easy to understand why embracing change at this level can be so difficult. But there are ways around our wiring that will help us behave differently.

Individual action IS systemic change

Okay, so walking to the shops is probably not going to save the planet on its own, even less so when certain superpowers are still staying schtum on when they’re going to cut their own carbon emissions. But while we need companies, countries – and maybe a few notable celebrities – to change their ways as a global priority, individual action is still what makes for systemic change. To think of the two as mutually exclusive is a false – and disheartening – dichotomy. Think of the Kaizen approach, where ongoing positive changes, however small, grow to become continuous improvement; the consistent decisions we make as individuals will build together in force and fury over time, too. Think of the seismic shift against racism – it all started with one woman refusing to give up her seat on a bus. Speaking at an event for Forum For the Future, Paul Polman, Chair of the International Chamber of Commerce said it best when he said, ‘We can all make a difference, that’s what we must unlock in every one of us.’

Collaborate to innovate

That the climate crisis is a genuine emergency means it’s mandatory that we pitch in together, rip up the rule-book, and start sharing knowledge, experience, and ideas to spark new and disruptive innovations. As well as individual action, technological advances, structural changes, environmental policies, the vast resources of the financial sector, social media, government, and cultural attitudes all have a seat at the table. So it’s by working with unfamiliar sectors that you’ll discover different perspectives and, in time, solutions. And don’t forget that you can also demonstrate your commitment to collaboratively tackle climate change by signing up to an organization set up to help you do just that. Business In The Community, TheClimatePledge, or the BusinessClimateHub are all worth a look.

Frame the positive

The situation is dire and so are the headlines. But the only problem is that they just don’t motivate people – bad news never does. So, to encourage people to change, remember this canny psychological trick; when given a challenge, people respond best to one that is framed positively, whether in business or otherwise. So, ‘you’re all going to die if you don’t separate your recycling properly,’ will be much more poorly received than ‘your street will receive a renewables grant to get free solar panels if you separate your recycling properly.’ People want to know what they can aspire to achieve, not battle to avoid, and too much doom just shuts down people’s capacity to believe that things can change. And this is a lesson for general change, too; communicate that it’s positive and beneficial, and people will feel that way about it, too.

Personalize the problem

Imagine a climate change expert comes to your town. You listen to them speak along with 5,000 other people, but a few weeks later you’ve not implemented anything they recommended. Now imagine that they came to your street and talked directly to you. That you’d implement far more of their suggestions – and tell other people about them, too –  is a given. And why? Because when people feel they have more ownership of a project, they feel they can influence its outcome more, too. And if you act, those around you become more likely to act, too, because of the ‘endowment effect,’ – the idea that if we own something (even simply an idea), we value it more. So, while not particularly glamorous, a local litter-pick is more likely to galvanize people than the world’s richest man telling us what to do. Impact production company, Exposure Labs, used this very principle in South Carolina to help mobilize communities to effect change by showing films that started conversations around the personal impact of climate change. These relatable stories triggered practical actions that eventually changed the narrative, both socially and politically. So, if you can create change at a meaningful, manageable, micro-level – and you most definitely can – then you’re joining a domino effect that will build upon its own momentum.

Just one ask

That we’re faced with a critical need to change means that we’re going to ask you to remember – and to share – just one fact; change is not an external thing – it’s just you making different choices. Put even more simply; things don’t change, you change. And whether you choose to make small changes or big changes, they will, if practiced consistently, create a genuine, transformative momentum. And once you’ve got people moving together, those tiny steps will become increasingly bigger waves, until those waves become the ultimate change, as people’s decisions to choose differently become decisions to live differently. And maybe, just maybe, that will help save us all.


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