Answering this is the most important paper I've read this year. Cognitive and Behavioural Challenges in Responding to Climate Change" by Kari Marie Norgaard. It has a classically dry title, I'd have called it something like "Climate Change: How we justify inaction to ourselves".
There's four existing explanations of why we fail to act. All are wrong:
- "If only people knew" - yet we know more about climate change science than ever before
- "If only people cared" - yet concern about climate change continues to increase
- "People care about more immediate needs" - yet for most people in affluent societies, needs are social constructs
- "Everything will be fine" - yet people place less trust in the governments or technologies that might solve climate change
Instead, inaction is a consequence of denial at both a personal and social level. It's not denial of the science (except for some nutters) or of the threat. People are deeply concerned and care about the future. However, they also "work to avoid acknowledging disturbing information in order to 1) avoid emotions of fear, guilt and helplessness, 2) follow cultural norms, and 3) maintain positive conceptions of individual and national identity".
People do not like to feel threatened by problems that are out of their control. They do not want to face large-scale problems that have no easy solutions. They do not want to feel guilty that their actions are contributing to the problems. They do not want to see themselves as bad people. All of which adds up to inaction.
Her recommendation for enabling action is to provide a "sense that something can be done" and accurate information about effective action. The approach to personal action should focus on media information campaigns and opportunities for effective actions "that build on a favourable view of the self".
An example of this approach could be the UK's 10:10 project:
"10:10 is an ambitious project to unite every sector of British society behind one simple idea: that by working together we can achieve a 10% cut in the UK's carbon emissions in 2010... Cutting 10% in one year is a bold target, but for most of us it's an achievable one... It's easy to feel powerless in the face of a huge problem like climate change, but by uniting everyone behind immediate, effective and achievable action, 10:10 enables all of us to make a meaningful difference... Let's get started."
Their approach is positive, personal, uniting, and enabling. Go them.
If you're not keen on reading 68 pages of wonkery, then here's a clear comment on the paper What retards action on climate change? and a Wired interview with her: The Psychology of Climate Change Denial. (Just don't even glance at the comments, it's a disheartening parade of the kind of denial that she's talking about).
(So I could go back to the first paragraph of this article and completely re-write it to avoid the doomyness. Then again, I'm a scientist who grew up in the cold War - I'm entirely happy with doubt and doom. But I recognise that few people have that kind of approach to reality.)