‘The problem is not that we don’t know how to address the climate emergency; it is that we are too greedy and selfish to do so.’

We know the global surface temperature has risen 1.18°C since the 19th century. We know CO2 concentrations are higher than they have been for the past 2 million years. We know the rate of ice sheet loss has quadrupled compared to 1990. Yet we continue to drive our petroleum-powered cars, purchase livestock raised on deforested land, and charge our devices with fossil fuel generated electricity.

There have been numerous intergovernmental endeavours at doing so such as the recent COP26, with the most significant being the Paris Agreement, which was signed by 196 countries that aims to limit the global temperature from rising more than 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels by tasking each country to devise individual long-term goals for lowering greenhouse gas emissions. However, 75% of the pledges are insufficient for keeping the global temperature rise under the 1.5°C threshold and has put the world on track for a rise of 2.7°C CO2 emissions continue to rise 1% annually.

Why are we not taking more drastic action? Why are we so reluctant to address this imminent danger?

Many view that our selfishness and greed are the obstacles to solving climate change; global emissions rise steadily even after 30 years of diplomatic efforts as countries are unwilling to undermine their economic interests, privileging themselves over others by taking the most convenient action (not undertaking any mitigation actions), and provoking harm to current and future generations by leaving climate change unabated. From an individualistic standpoint, we can also consider people who refuse to cooperate in mitigating climate change as free riders and characterised as greedy and selfish: in pursuit of comfort and material things they have privileged themselves over others by unaltering their lifestyle.

However, many would argue selfishness and greed as an explanation to why we aren’t addressing climate change the way it should be addressed paints an incomplete picture of the complex situation.

Some would argue the obstacle is not a conflict between being selfish and being altruistic, but rather a conflict between the rights of the current generation and the rights of future generations to a healthy environment. Emissions mitigations entail socio-economic costs, which in many cases lead to the deprivation of basic human rights. Developed countries defend the rights of workers employed in polluting industries as it would threaten their livelihoods if harsh economic sanctions were imposed on these industries.

The problem is not that we don’t know how to address the climate emergency, but rather we need to find a more efficient way of doing so that addresses our psychological thinking. Systemic change starts from the individual. Risk communicators need to play a role in bringing the risk closer to the individual by focusing on the local and immediate impacts predicted to occur, as opposed to global and distant impacts, such as concretely presenting the risk of coastal inundation to a coastal region. Shortening one’s psychological distance to the problem allows one to perceive it to be more proximal and concrete, reducing the amount the costs and benefits are discounted, leading to greater chance of behavioural change. Policymakers should frame mitigation solutions in terms of immediate benefits rather than focus on the future dire consequences which addresses our tendency to discount the future and circumvent fatalistic beliefs. Only then will we have the collective motivation to bring about large-scale change.

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