How to Fight The Dragons of Inaction

February 27th, 2020

Four reasons why we resist taking positive action against the climate crisis and how to overcome them.

By Shawn Brown, Trent University Placement Student with GreenUP’s Water Programs.

Climate change is huge and will impact every aspect of our lives. Considering that impact, why do we struggle to change even the smallest aspects of our lives for the benefit of the environment?

According to Robert Gifford, professor of Psychology and Environmental Studies at the University of Victoria, there are two kinds of barriers to taking climate action: structural and psychological.

Structural barriers can be things like a lack of good public transit and protected bike lanes that keep us reliant on cars. Overcoming these barriers often requires coordinated action from multiple government and industry stakeholders.

The second kind of barrier to climate action is psychological. Gifford has identified 40 of these psychological barriers, calling them the “dragons of inaction.” Unlike some structural barriers, these psychological barriers are largely within our power to control as individuals.

You may be thinking, “Well this doesn’t seem too difficult. I think that I can change!”

The challenge, however, is that humans are in many ways hard-wired to prioritize short-term pleasure over long-term goals or collective good. We tend to hedonistically focus on immediate gratification and ignore the negative future consequences of our actions.

Here are descriptions to help you recognize four of the dragons of inaction and figure out how to overcome them.

1. Perceived lack of self-efficacy

This dragon argues that, “climate change is a huge, global issue. As only one individual, your actions are too small to have any noticeable impact on the world. There is no point trying.”

This is the most dangerous dragon. To fight this dragon, point out that only you can be responsible for your own contributions to climate change. You can take responsibility for your contributions, or you can deny your responsibility and continue to be part of the problem.

As Canadians, we have a greater responsibility to reduce our individual impacts than individuals in many other countries. Canada, Australia, and the U.S.A. are collectively responsible for nearly 20% of global greenhouse gas emissions. “That is a massive climate impact for only three countries that make up about 5% of the world’s population,” as Dr. Brett Favaro points out in his book, The Carbon Code.

Our actions as individuals do have a significant impact globally, especially as residents in Peterborough and Canada.

It may seem pointless to plant a tree or bike instead of drive. Trees will still be cut down. Other people will still drive. Do not let this dragon make you feel too small to make a difference. A journey of a thousand kilometers starts with just one step. Your actions reduce your impact, and that matters locally and globally.

2. Optimism bias

Rather than ignoring environmental problems in the hope someone else will fix them, you can take personal actions like cleaning up litter and reducing how much garbage you produce to help reduce your impact on the environment and climate change. In partnership with GreenUP’s Sustainable Urban Neighbourhoods program, approximately 100 students and staff from King George Public School in Peterborough organized a clean-up of Armour Hill on April 5, 2018 in celebration of Earth Day.

This dragon argues that, “just keep a positive attitude. Ignore evidence and consequences that threaten your positive attitude. Those threats and consequences will go away.”

Humans are hard-wired to find information that reinforces our preferred viewpoints rather than gaining knowledge that could force us to revise or reject our preferred viewpoints.

Fighting this dragon is all about prioritizing self-control and long-term planning with clear measurements.

For example, you could notice how much garbage you throw out each week and work on reducing that. Refuse single-use disposable plastics. Reduce food waste by making meal plans that inform your shopping. Reuse bags and containers. Recycle. Compost whatever you can. I could go on, but more waste reduction tips and resources are available in Bea Johnson’s book Zero Waste Home and at www.wrwcanada.com/en/resources

As another example, you could also make plans to count and reduce how many trips you make by car. Instead, walk, bike, or take transit when possible.

Commit to learning more each week and each month about how you can reduce your impact and use that knowledge to improve your plans.

3. Technosalvation

This dragon argues that, “there is no point in taking action right now because technology will just come along in the future to solve all our problems.”

To fight this dragon, you can use a two-point approach. First, the timeline we need to act on is too aggressive to expect new technological innovations alone to reduce our emissions. If we are to reduce our emissions by 45% by 2030 and to net zero by 2050, we need action on all fronts, including but not limited to technological innovations.

Second, we already have technologies that can dramatically reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. They do not work if we do not use them appropriately.

For example, the transportation sector accounts for about 30% of emissions in Ontario. Nearly one half of transportation emissions come from personal transportation (moving people).

Creating safe and accessible infrastructure for cycling, walking, and other forms of active transportation could dramatically reduce these emissions. All the technology needed to make those changes is already available to us right now. (For details, read our “Bikes Can Do That” series at www.GreenUP.on.ca/BikesCanDoThat/)

Another example of technology is the materials we use to build with. Builders for Climate Action (www.BuildersForClimateAction.org) is a local organization that offers innovative resources for how we can use alternative building materials (like hempcrete) to store greenhouse gas emissions rather than producing more emissions.

Fleming College students conducted a waste audit on behalf of the County of Peterborough, capturing waste generation habits by analyzing contents of garbage and recycling. Results showed that 50 per cent of residential garbage bags are filled with organic waste that could be composted instead of ending up in landfill.The above photo shows Fleming College students conducting a waste audit on behalf of the County of Peterborough, capturing waste generation habits by analyzing contents of garbage and recycling. Results showed that 50 per cent of residential garbage bags are filled with organic waste that could be composted instead of ending up in landfill. We have the technology to compost our organic waste, but we are not using it as effectively as we could.

We do not need to wait for technology. What we need are actions and plans that phase in the technologies that reduce our emissions and phase out the technologies that contribute to climate change.

4. Mistrust

This dragon argues that, “You can’t trust the information presented to you about human-caused climate change. It could be false or exaggerated. There is no point dedicating time and consideration to the information.”

To fight this dragon, focus on two things: do not be paralyzed by information and be a positive advocate for climate action.

There is a lot of information out there about climate change. It is overwhelming. Keep trying to understand more about the situation from reputable sources. Do not let information overload paralyze you: doing more to reduce your impact is always better than no action at all.

One of biggest threats to successful climate action is silence. We need to talk about climate action every day, from the smallest of actions to the most complicated of issues. As Brett Favaro points out in The Carbon Code, it is important to be a positive advocate for climate action. “In positive advocacy, you support action, rather than arguing against something harmful.”

For example, instead of being so overwhelmed by information about climate change that we do nothing, we can be positive advocates for climate action by encouraging forms of transportation that do not emit C02. Evidence in Peterborough shows that investments in more bike infrastructure, such as Peterborough’s first protected bike lane that was installed in 2019 (above photo), can positively impact our transportation system. Geographically, Peterborough is fairly compact and an ideal city for biking. Surveys show that we travel a median distance of 2.7 kilometre per trip on weekdays, and 73 per cent of all our trips made are less than five kilometres.

These four dragons are just a few of the dozens that you and I encounter every day. There are many more dragons you need to fight, and more tools to empower your battles in the resources mentioned in this article.

Shawn Brown is a fourth-year student at Trent University who is finishing his joint major degree in Biology and Environmental Science. Shawn has been placed with GreenUP so that he can achieve a Specialization in Conservation Biology.

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