“Small majority believe there is still time to avert climate disaster – survey”
I was quite shocked to read this headline in The Guardian yesterday. It’s taken from a recent survey by Mintel – in their own words, the world’s leading market intelligence agency – as part of their Sustainability Barometer 2021. A small majority are hopeful? In fact, it’s even worse than the headline would have us know. The consumer opinion surveyed, which corresponds to The Guardian headline is in fact worded as –
“If we act now, we still have time to save the planet”
And to this prompt, on average just 54% of respondents believe there is enough time. The other 46% presumably believe that time’s up (perhaps there are also some ‘don’t knows’ but the data doesn’t tell us). The planet is beyond rescue and by implication, the future of humanity is over. This is a deeply disturbing thought. Eco-anxiety, a chronic fear of impending environmental doom, according to the American Psychological Association (APA) is very much a real thing. I find it really demoralising to think that so many people feel powerless to save the planet. But is it really all that bad?
I try to be a glass half full type of person but I, for one, would rather believe that we have better odds considering that my survival and the survival of everyone I know (and don’t know) is at stake. If this survey really is representative of the collective human conscience, then why are warning sirens not blaring in every community across the globe on the order of some epic Hollywood disaster movie? It may be that I simply don’t want to believe that the figures are as drastic as portrayed; that it’s easier to deny this, as otherwise I would become paralysed. And so, I would like to raise a number of concerns I have with the survey
- Fifteen out of sixteen countries surveyed belong to the G20 countries (Thailand is the exception). What about the opinions of less developed nations?
- The sample size is made up of just five hundred internet users. This sounds particularly small, especially when you consider that the sixteen countries surveyed have a combined population of more than 3.5 billion people.
- I would also be interested to know what steps were taken to verify that an internet user is in fact a “real person”. And whether it was a sample representative of the entire population.
- The survey only includes those over the ages of 16 or 18 years old. Surely the opinions of young people who are most likely to be affected by climate change and who have significant purchasing power are also worth knowing?
- What was the exact wording of the question given to respondents? The figure in the report simply states – “If we act now, we still have time to save the planet”. Perhaps people have a different understanding or interpretation of what this means to them according to culture, worldview, attitude to risk etc. In my mind, I’m imagining the “point of no return” – the equivalent of a catastrophic meteor hit. But surely the responsible thing is to qualify what this means instead of creating even greater anxiety and feelings of powerlessness?
- And what does ‘if we act now mean’? What actions precisely? And at what scale?
“My behaviour can make a positive difference to the environment”
Most disheartening of all is the sense of hopelessness amongst many respondents. Just 35% of Japanese believe we can still save the planet if we act now. And it doesn’t get much better when they were asked if their behaviour can make a positive difference – a depressingly low 15%. It would seem as if the Japanese have pretty much given up and resigned themselves to future annihilation. Then again, Japanese audiences reportedly find Godzilla, the sea monster, to be a sympathetic character. Still, I struggle to believe that the average Japanese person has just rolled over. Even if their long and painful experience with earthquakes and the deadly tsunami of ten years ago have coloured their opinion on what lies within their control when it comes to the immense forces of our planet. On the other hand, Canadians and Italians are quite optimistic for the future in terms of time to save the planet and making a positive difference. But I wonder what the average Canadian thinks today in the wake of devastating wildfires and almost fifty-degree Celsius heat across British Columbia (the Mintel survey was taken in March 2021). Hopefully, they feel more motivated to take positive action, not more discouraged.
Both survey statements are interrelated. If you believe that we have no more time to save the planet, then logically, you are also going to believe that there’s nothing you can do to change that. On the other hand, if you simply believe that your behaviour cannot make a positive difference, then you are leaving open the possibility that the planet could still be saved – just not by your actions. This sense of disempowerment is precisely where the right intervention can make a difference. After all, we’re talking about beliefs, not facts here. And beliefs change all the time. We can challenge unhelpful beliefs that are no longer in service to us by asking ourselves the right questions with the help of a coach.
A poll commissioned by the APA at the end of 2019 found that 68% of American adults in the U.S. have “at least a little eco-anxiety”. And 7 in 10 Americans say they wish they could do more to combat climate change, which indicates that the desire for action is there. But 5 out of 10 simply don’t know where to start. The APA survey was conducted among 2,017 respondents – significantly more than the Mintel one – and presumably more representative. So what steps could American consumers take to empower themselves? It all starts with small positive steps – buying palm-oil free products or volunteering in our local community or becoming a climate activist or advocating for fossil fuel divestment with our local government or employer. It all starts with a belief. These small actions create a sense of our own power to make positive change on an even larger scale.
A part of me wants to avoid reading such headlines as the recent one in The Guardian. It’s easier to turn a blind eye. It’s also why I now have such a strong desire to question the accuracy of the survey. Feelings of overwhelm can lead to people suppressing their emotions; numbing themselves to the pain that inevitably surfaces when we allow ourselves to experience an emotion. Suppressing difficult emotions is perfectly understandable, especially when we want to avoid becoming overwhelmed by the shocking realization that the world as we know it could end. However, this is unhealthy for us and it also holds us back from taking positive action to heal the planet. Honouring our pain is a prerequisite before we can go forth and see with new eyes, according to Joanna Macy’s long-established and well-respected spiral model in the Work that Reconnects.
What’s the message I’m trying to make in this post? First of all, it’s worth taking the trouble to question the statistics and the interpreted conclusions before accepting them as facts. They may not be quite so grim as you thought. That said, I do believe that climate change is the greatest threat humankind has ever faced. But we still have time to influence whether the degree of warming is 2 degrees Celsius or 4 degrees Celsius, for example (it’s already too late for ‘only’ 1.5 degrees warming in my opinion). And I’m not talking here about the content of peer-reviewed scientific literature that meets the highest of professional standards. Rather it’s more about news articles that may misinterpret (inadvertently or not) data or seek to sensationalise findings.
Secondly, we humans have a built-in negativity bias, a legacy of our evolutionary development that has outgrown its usefulness since we’re no longer threatened by predators on a daily basis. This means that we need to actively seek out good news to balance the bad that we’re naturally drawn towards. Otherwise a sense of hopelessness and powerlessness can envelop us. This can take the form of a self-care plan where we proactively take responsibility for our emotional well-being and regulate our consumption of news and social media.
And lastly, eco-anxiety, climate grief, rage, depression are all very real emotions that are, unfortunately, on an inexorable rise. We should allow ourselves to express these emotions in a safe and supportive environment rather than suppressing them. One way of doing this is to join a Work that Reconnects workshop. I intend to offer one myself in the near future. One exercise that forms part of the workshop is known as “Breathing Through”. By breathing through the bad news, rather than bracing ourselves against it, we can let it strengthen our sense of belonging in the larger web of being. It helps us remain alert and open rather than being overwhelmed or numbed out. We are more resilient than we sometimes know.