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September 29, 2008 | by  | in Opinion |
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Victorian Thesis

Chris Aitken is studying the effects of powerlessness and fatalism in relation to climate change. He seeks to ask whether people will change their actions in an effort to prevent climate change, or whether the enormity of the problem and tragedy of the commons nature of the issue leads to individuals deciding not to make sacrifices as the problem seems too big for one person to have any effect on the outcome.

Past studies have shown the paradoxical result that, on average, the more people learn about climate change, the less they are prepared to do to stop it. This comes from the fact that those better educated about the subject understand the enormity of it, and the need for a systematic response; changes at an individual level are insignificant. Al Gore’s 2006 film An Inconvenient Truth has done much to increase awareness of the dangers of climate change, but has made very little difference overall. This sense of powerlessness is suggested as the reason.

Aitkens is assessing this by two methods. He is distributing a questionnaire, and also arranging focus groups where subjects can discuss their thoughts in more depth. The questionnaire asks how informed participants feel they are about climate change, and what steps they have taken, or would be prepared to take, in response. The key questions for Aitken, however, are the reasons they put forward for inaction.

In the focus groups, people from the general public have been invited to participate in group discussions of general questions, such as “What do you feel about climate change?” and “What do you do in your everyday life to fight climate change?”

Another reason for inactivity comes from the psychological study of group behaviour. The larger a group is, the less each individual member of the group feels they need to contribute. “If you get a group of like four or five people, the chances of everyone acting on something are pretty strong. But once you get even just 10 to 20 people, the chances are that people won’t [take] any action. And once you get the whole world involved…”

Further explanations come from the cleavage between the catastrophic effects climate change is posited to potentially have and the steps advocated to mitigate them. “You see pictures of New York underwater, and things like that, and then it’s like ‘You can stop this by changing a lightbulb or taking a bus,’ and it just seems like a bit of a mismatch… It doesn’t really add up in people’s minds.” By understanding the reasons why people respond negatively to messages about climate change it is hoped that ways around powerlessness may be uncovered nad action to prevent climate change can be encouraged.

Chris Aitken holds a BSci in environmental studies from Victoria University of Wellington.

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