The issue is risk normalization

July 24, 2018
Andrew Harris
PhD Candidate - Biophysics
University of Guelph

Unfortunately, we are not past the discussion period. We need to continue to convince others that the climate is changing and that their actions do have an impact. Typically, when presented with the extent of the damage to our environment, people minimize the risks associated with rising temperatures. There is a name for this type of rationalization: “risk normalization”. It is a sort of coping mechanism that has been well studied in the context of climate change and the results are surprising. In a study that surveyed more than 46,000 people from 33 different countries, it was found that nations with high carbon dioxide emissions per capita also had low risk perception related to climate change [1]. In other words, those countries which emit high levels of carbon dioxide (Canada, United States and Norway) tend to be less concerned with the health and environmental dangers associated with climate change than those countries which emit less. Predictably, this risk normalization effect was most prevalent in individuals who scored low in environmental concern.

In addition to a tendency to ignore the risks associated with climate change, individuals seem to attempt to absolve themselves of any wrongdoing by minimizing their individual impact. There is guilt associated with assuming responsibility and making lifestyle changes is difficult. You may have heard it from a friend or colleague when they say “what difference can one person make?” While it may be tempting to place blame on large corporations, the data suggest that consumers are actually responsible for the majority of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. In fact, in 2007, household consumption contributed to 60% of the total GHG emissions and were responsible for between 50 and 80% of the total resources consumed [2].

If we can convince individuals to become environmentally concerned, then risk normalization rates will decrease and consumers will make environmentally sustainable decisions. But how do you convince others to become environmentally concerned? I think that it begins with your own personal lifestyle choices. Make the environmentally responsible choices in your own life and then educate others so that they may make positive environmental decisions in their own lives. The time has long since passed for us to have difficult conversations with our friends and family about environmental issues and consumption. It seems that once we start someone down this path, they tend to continue to improve. Research has shown that individuals who start composting become more aware of sustainable choices and tend to make positive environmental choices in other aspects of their lives [3]. This is a sustainability snowball; good decisions lead to more good decisions.

While the situation does look grim, don’t let your cynicism or the cynicism of others dictate what is possible. Let’s listen to the experts, for instance Dr. Veerabhadran Ramanathan who is a professor of Atmospheric and Climate Sciences at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California. He has stated: “It is still not too late to limit the warming. Staying below 2°C requires social, financial and technical actions by 2020 on a global scale.” There is still time, but we need to make environmental protection a priority.

We have to consistently make responsible choices, and trust in our neighbours to do the same. In those situations where you see a friend or family member (or stranger if you are feeling particularly adventurous) make poor or uninformed choices about their consumption, have the uncomfortable conversation with them. At this point, it is not enough to not be part of the problem; we have to be advocates for environmental sustainability. We should never aim to be rude or disrespectful. There are individuals who have good intentions but are not aware of aspects of their lives which may be unnecessarily wasteful. I’m sure there is more that I could be doing, but I am continually trying to improve and to educate others. You may never personally achieve a carbon neutral lifestyle, but that shouldn’t deter anyone from taking steps to reduce their footprint.

An additional benefit of this long term and sustained battle against environmental disrespect will be the effect it has on the choices that our governments make. When the majority of citizens support climate protection, the government will not be afraid to implement aggressive environmental protection policies. Let’s continue to learn, listen, and teach for the sake of future generations.

[1] Luís, S., Vauclair, C. M. & Lima, M. L. Raising awareness of climate change causes? Cross-national evidence for the normalization of societal risk perception of climate change. Journal of Environmental Science and Policy, 80, 74–81 (2018).
[2] Ivanova, D. et al. Environmental Impact Assessment of Household Consumption. Journal of Industrial Ecology, 2015; DOI: 10.1111/jiec.12371
[3] Sintov, N., Geislar, S., White, L. V. Cognitive Accessibility as a New Factor in Proenvironmental Spillover: Results From a Field Study of Household Food Waste Management. Journal of Environment and Behavior, 2017; DOI: 10.1177/0013916517735638