As Halloween approaches, San Franciscans welcome scary decorations, movies and haunted houses. But there was nothing fun about the recent frightening report by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). In the report, leading scientists urged the world to make significant changes by 2030 to limit a planetary catastrophe.
The report hit those who care about a livable planet hard. Few of us in The City are climate change skeptics and many are already working to limit their impact. The feeling that all this work is still not enough has caused grief, fear and paralyzing anxiety.
“The recent UN climate change report has got me thinking and worrying,” Sasha Patterson posted in the Facebook group, Main Street Mamas. “I’d like to take some steps to lower my family’s carbon footprint but I feel overwhelmed about where to start.”
It’s wonderful that Patterson wants to act because typically, apocalyptic warnings about climate change often make people less amenable to reducing their carbon footprint. Instead, people adopt mechanisms to avoid or accommodate the problem. These deflective behaviors make it less likely that we’ll take the necessary action to combat climate change.
“It’s a really tricky situation,” Dr. Matthew Feinberg, a professor at the University of Toronto, told me. “The scarier you make climate change the more people freeze.”
But the IPCC report shouldn’t scare us away from the changes we need to make. Not only do individual choices matter, but local and state governments are helping the United States meet its global climate commitments. While it’s normal to worry and feel overwhelmed, it’s also important to move forward and make the significant changes global scientists recommend.
While getting his doctorate at University of California, Berkeley, Feinberg analyzed how dire or emotionally-charged warnings about climate change affect us. He found that, generally, the warnings backfired because they threaten people’s fundamental tendency to see the world as safe, stable and fair. Instead of prompting action, negative messages can increase skepticism.
The finding is consistent with similar research initially developed in the 1960s. Dr. Martin Seligman’s theory of “learned helplessness” explains why people may become passive in the face of negative information. They believe, based on past experiences, they have no control over their circumstances. Scary messages can provoke feelings of hopelessness.
“Why would you keep trying to improve things if you feel like the effort is pointless,” Dr. Lorinda Camparo, a psychology professor at Whittier College, told me.
But the idea of learned helplessness can be unlearned. When researchers helped identify solutions or ways people could improve their situation, subjects were less likely to be skeptical or passive, and more likely to act.
Patterson’s Facebook post received numerous responses with specific suggestions on how she could reduce her family’s carbon footprint. Mothers suggested eating less meat, using reusable containers for bulk groceries, choosing public transit instead of a car, reducing online purchases and installing low-flow fixtures to save water. Others emphasized participating in San Francisco programs, like CleanPowerSF’s SuperGreen option and municipal composting.
These and other local programs have a significant effect. The City has reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent from 1990 levels, while the economy and population have grown.
We’re not alone. According to a new analysis, San Francisco and 26 other cities, representing 54 million urban citizens, have seen emissions fall over a five-year period. Local action, in combination with commitments by states, businesses, universities and other organizations, is keeping the United States on track to meet about two-thirds of its global climate commitments according to a recent study by the America’s Pledge initiative
“We each have a lot of levers we can pull,” Carl Pope, vice chair of America’s Pledge initiative, said. “We’re socially connected in so many ways. It’s going to take the full diversity of those social connections to pull this off.”
Yes, the IPCC report is scary — for all of us. But we can face the challenge. Together, we can control our own actions and shape policies and commitments that will keep Earth habitable for future generations.
Robyn Purchia is an environmental attorney, environmental blogger and environmental activist who hikes, gardens and tree hugs in her spare time. Check her out at robynpurchia.com.