We took action to stop COVID-19. So why can't we act on climate change?
April 2021
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Hi there,

It’s Earth Day—and I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling kind of weird about it. Let me tell you why.

For starters, even as some countries begin the gradual return to “normal,” I’m finding it difficult to switch my focus from one crisis to another. Pre-pandemic, I was very much in the grips of what the kids are now calling “eco-anxiety,” spending much of my time fretting about rising temperatures, extreme weather events, and the moral implications of putting almond milk in my coffee despite the negative environmental impacts. But now? After a year of worrying about the coronavirus, it almost feels like climate change has been put on the back burner. It’s not that I’m not still concerned—it’s that my attention is elsewhere, and it’s hard to yank it back.

The past year has also brought a lot of psychological whiplash on the climate front, and it’s left me unsure of how to feel. For a time, it appeared that there was reason to be optimistic: after the world went into lockdown, carbon emissions experienced the largest drop on record, and many were hopeful that COVID might actually usher in an era of lower CO2 consumption. Now, researchers are saying that this dip in emissions won't have much of a sustained impact—and the International Energy Agency (IEA) is forecasting a major emissions boom after the pandemic.  

Simply put, it’s been a disorienting 13 months for climate activism. So in this newsletter, we’re taking a look at the behavioral science of the climate crisis: why we registered the threat of COVID more than we do the threat of global warming; how we’re coping (or not coping) with the bigger crisis still on the horizon; and what we can learn from the pandemic about mobilizing against climate change.

Until next time,
Katie and the team @ TDL

1. Behavioral science in the climate crisis
+ Why did we respond so quickly to COVID-19 and not climate change?

COVID-19 showed us we’re capable of undertaking drastic change. So why do we still hesitate to act on climate change? In part it’s because, for most of us, climate change still feels like a distant threat, and we’re wired to prioritize short-term reward over long-term payoff.
Source: The Decision Lab

+ We have finite attention—even for major crises
Climate change researchers have long been concerned about the “finite pool of worry”: the idea that people can only be stressed out about so many things at once. Research during the COVID-19 pandemic found that this wasn’t the case: people stayed worried about the climate, even as they felt increasingly worried about COVID. The same isn’t true for attention, though: the more people were focused on the pandemic, the less they were focused on climate change.
Source: Sisco et al. (2020)

+ Businesses take note: It pays to reduce your carbon footprint
Corporations are the biggest polluters, with just 20 firms responsible for a third of all carbon emissions. It’s clear that this situation needs to change—but doing so isn’t necessarily bad for the bottom line. Original research conducted at TDL found that consumers have higher opinions of—and are more likely to do business with—companies that are proactive about reducing their carbon footprints.
Source: The Decision Lab

2. Salves for the eco-anxious

+ Michael Mann on conquering climate despair
The scale and gravity of the climate crisis can often be overwhelming—and as awareness of climate change increases, the biggest drivers of pollution are all too eager to play up this “it’s-too-late" climate doomism. This conversation with Michael Mann, professor of atmospheric science at Pennsylvania State University, touches on overcoming climate anxiety, as well as how to fight back against both climate alarmism and climate inaction.
Source: Michaela Barnett for Behavioral Scientist

+ Therapy for the end of the world
Many existing therapies for anxiety focus on challenging irrational beliefs. But what can we do about climate anxiety, which is founded on entirely rational fears? Psychologists are only just beginning to understand how to approach eco-anxiety in their practices.
Source: Britt Wray for The Walrus

3. If you don’t feel like reading

+ The tribe that's moving earth (and water) to solve the climate crisis
Indigenous peoples make up 5% of the world’s population, but their territories cover 22% of Earth’s land surface—and contain 80% of the planet’s biodiversity. This episode of “How to Save a Planet” looks at how the Yurok tribe, who live in what is now California, are making their territory more resilient to climate change by combining traditional land management practices with Western economics.
Source: Gimlet

+ Is it too late to stop climate change?
Did you know Bill Gates and actress Rashida Jones have a podcast together? Well, now you do. In this episode, they talk to journalist Elizabeth Kolbert about what needs to change in order to stop the climate crisis—at the governmental and societal levels as well as in our individual lives.
Source: Gates Notes

4. Opportunities in behavioral science

+ Work with The Decision Lab
We are currently looking for bright, capable, and curious candidates to fill a number of roles on our team, both remote and Montreal-based. Check out our open positions and see how you can help us democratize behavioral science.

5. Get involved

Interested in having your voice heard? Join us on our mission to change the world through better decision-making. We're interested in articles that get us thinking about human behavior so we can better understand why we do what we do. To learn more, visit our content submissions page.

6. Feedback

We would love to hear about how we're doing and what you would like to see from us. How can we help you use behavioral science to make an impact in your role? To give us feedback, simply reply to this email. We look forward to hearing from you.

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