Monday, 21 December 2009

December 2009 - Copenhagen: A political or personal failure?

With crushing inevitability the climate change negotiations in Copenhagen limped to a close, and precious little substantive progress was made. Understandably, developing countries were in no hurry to sign a suicide pact, but the reality was even more stark – there was no (legally binding) suicide pact to sign. The Copenhagen negotiations did not simply fail: they failed dismally.

However, the failure of the negotiations cannot be attributed solely to a lack of political leadership. As Polly Toynbee observed in the Guardian on Saturday (, in many respects Western politicians are ‘out in front’ of their electorates, pushing for solutions to a problem that has next to zero political capital. The negotiations may have fallen victim to a political system comprised of nation states that are self-interested, reluctant to change their ways, and obsessed with the near-term consequences of their decisions. But these traits are not confined to nations – if anything, they are magnified at a personal level. The dark irony is that the ultimate ‘man-made’ existential threat seems custom built to flummox our mental machinery. At a personal as well as a political level, it feels like climate change has got us beat.

For a long time, psychologists have known that human cognition abides by some basic principles. People tend to discount risks that are far away in time and space, while simultaneously focussing on threats that have a more tangible character – it is not difficult to see why snowy driving conditions take precedence over concern for a warming world. But even among those who care deeply about climate change and the implications it will have for human suffering, learning to live a low-carbon life is hard. Our systems of production and consumption are unsustainable, yet the signals we need to make the cultural, political and behavioural shifts necessary are weak or non-existent. When an animal wanders into an electric fence, it quickly learns to avoid that behaviour. But the shocks that climate change has in store are ‘not here’ and ‘not now’. Pavlov’s dog would have never learnt to associate anything if the bell had been rung in Indonesia and his food served up in Devon – with a 30 year time gap between them.

But while these general observations about perception and learning go some way to explaining why climate change is such a perplexing psychological problem, it is our emotional architecture that finds the most powerful ways of rationalising and adapting to the threat of climate change. In a new paper published in the Journal of Social Issues and Public Policy (, the psychologists Cynthia Frantz and F. Stephan Mayer argue that when it comes to predicting how people will respond to climate change, there is a critical distinction between ‘problem focused’ and ‘emotion focused’ coping behaviour. Problem-focused coping involves taking steps to minimise the threat (i.e. reducing one’s carbon footprint). Emotion-focused coping involves ignoring or denying the threat – tackling the emotion but not the problem.
A major determinant of whether people take a problem-focused or emotion-focused approach is whether they feel in control of the threat they are facing. Previous research ( has found that when facing global issues like climate change, fostering a sense of community and collective action is an effective way of increasing perceived control.

Unfortunately, the notion of collective action is increasingly alien to the individualised consumers of the West. Our political leaders know this, and seem unwilling to challenge the sovereignty of the consumer – thus far, attempts at influencing public behaviour have tended to be limited to exhortations to ‘save money not just the planet’.

There is an unspoken consensus that taking action on climate change should have some immediate personal payoff, but if an individualistic outlook is inhibiting our capacity to face the scale of the problem, then we may be barking up the wrong tree. Whether one favours an ‘individualistic’ or ‘collective’ outlook is typically cast as a political judgment – the free market vs. the state. But if promoting individualism makes coping with climate change in a problem-focused way less likely, then perhaps we need to see past this distinction.

In the gloomy aftermath of Copenhagen, John Sauven of Greenpeace ( suggested that beating climate change will require a radically different model of politics than the one on display in Copenhagen. This seems unarguably true, but the political sphere is not the only place where a paradigm shift is required. Beating climate change will require radically different ways of thinking and interacting across the full spectrum of human behaviour. The ultimate shared resource is about to be carved up. Have we got what it takes to do it equitably?


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