Home / Opinion / Columns /  Covid and climate change pose similar behavioural challenges

Climate-change activists should take some lessons from the mismanagement and miscommunication around the covid pandemic. In both cases, people across the political spectrum feel helpless in the face of the problem. In both cases, experts need to figure out how to get people to overcome these feelings and act.

True, these are not perfect parallels. Climate action faces a hurdle that hasn’t come up in the pandemic: a powerful fossil fuel lobby that’s been clever and influential, seeding public doubts about the science behind climate change. Still, climate-change denial is becoming rarer all the time, according to a survey released in April. It shows more than half of Americans believe human activity is causing climate change, and 64% say they are worried about it.

That study comes from George Mason University and the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, founded by Anthony Leiserowitz. He says both covid and climate change suffer from what he calls a lack of efficacy. Leiserowitz has looked at how public perception of the climate problem has evolved over the years. To keep up motivation to pitch in, he said, people need a sense that they can do something that’s effective—something that makes a true difference.

With the pandemic, people are feeling ‘done with Covid’ in part because they expended so much energy on things that, in retrospect, didn’t have much efficacy— from disinfecting their mail to keeping kids out of playgrounds to attempting to go for jogs in masks.

With climate change, the problem of emissions is so big people don’t know where to start. Everything we do and eat and buy leads to carbon emissions. “We have much more work to be done on that side," Leiserowitz said. “Even the people most alarmed about climate change don’t know what they can do as individuals or collectively."

Writing in The New Atlantis, social scientist Taylor Dotson uses the phrase “unsustainable alarmism" to describe the deflating bubbles of enthusiasm for covid or climate mitigation. “[W]hile catastrophes often demand large personal sacrifices to overcome, the public’s capacity to sustain these sacrifices has hard limits, and we should not simply treat this as a moral failure," wrote professor Dotson.

Yet, experts in both areas have been too condescending and too focused on how to manipulate people to behave, said Baruch Fischhoff, a professor of engineering and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University. “There’s very little emphasis in either domain on just getting the facts out or helping people," he said. People need more steps they can take that have a positive impact and less guilt and blame for not being perfect.

For example, think about masks. Getting scientific information on the loose-fitting masks people find comfortable still isn’t easy; the limited studies we have on universal masking to protect society have shown small effects with lots of uncertainty. I tried recently to ask an expert about the efficacy of surgical masks—since that’s what most people are wearing—and all I got was a vague answer that high-quality masks work. But should surgical masks count as ‘high quality’?

Fischhoff said that to make matters worse, experts often harp on things people already know and forget what they don’t know. With climate change, he said, experts wrongly assumed people knew that excess carbon dioxide can persist in the atmosphere for centuries, when in reality people mostly thought it would dissipate quickly like many other forms of air pollution. They didn’t see it as cumulative. And with covid, people are still unclear on which settings and activities pose people the highest and lowest risks.

In both domains, experts have been slow to admit that all mitigation measures come with costs. Many people find it hard to communicate and be understood when masks are worn all day at work or school. Likewise, measures to reduce emissions will cause more pain for some than others.

Of course, poor communication is far from the only problem. Political polarization has made it next to impossible for Americans to work together on climate. Every Republican in Congress voted against the Inflation Reduction Act, which appropriates an unprecedented amount of money to developing cleaner energy. And it didn’t take long for political fault lines to open up about covid, either. It doesn’t have to be this way. Americans weren’t always so polarized on climate change, said Leiserowitz, and there’s little polarization in Europe.

But covid has reminded us how quickly the precious resources of public concern and goodwill can be squandered. Let’s not make the same mistake with climate change.

Faye Flam is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering science

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