The current narrative of climate change is that of an inevitable development as a result of human progress that we can fix. Depending on the angle, the fixes can be found in technical solutions, entirely new technologies, policy changes, adjustments to our economic model or simply turning the radiator thermostat to a lower level. While that all might help the cause, it also camouflages what really causes climate change: It is our behaviour! It is the daily actions we take. If we really want to tackle the problem we need to tackle our behavioural patterns.
The good news is: they can change and as a matter of fact they are in a constant state of flux. We adjust our behaviours all the time since they serve a purpose. On one hand we want to achieve something with them, on the other hand we can only achieve that when we operate within the norms and values of our peer group or society at large – for better or worse.
The bad news is: the more direct something has an impact on us, the quicker our behavioural changes. If your life is at risk, behavioural changes become a necessity to survive. With climate change this direct and immediate threat does not exist. Climate change is slow and often the effects are not felt where the cause is. Living in a wealthy western country, climate change is something rather abstract that can be mitigated with better air conditioning and higher dykes. But if you live in Lagos or Bangladesh, climate change can be an immediate threat to life because floods destroy your house and heat waves directly kill people. As human beings we have an optimism problem: we tend to render abstract threats less severe than the immediate ones: ‘it is not as bad as expected after all’…
What to do? We have two choices and we probably have to choose both.
At present, it has predominantly negative connotations: We are standing at the abyss. We have to prevent mankind from becoming extinct. Climate change is the biggest threat to mankind ever… We need to change the climate change narrative and turn it into a positive one. We need to identify all the amazing things that climate change will enable us to do, achieve, create or encounter. In doing so, climate change and associated actions become part of a forward-looking undertaking, rather than the currently persisting feeling of losing something. Climate change mitigation is progress and not a move back. Designers have a crucial role in that. We are instrumental in envisioning and showcasing this progress. With the systemic changes needed, that open up a window of opportunity for us to extend our reach from making things look good to actually things being good in a holistic manner.
But next to the positive narrative we also need to strengthen the negative narrative and make climate change effects more directly perceivable by those being the biggest cause – us. While that might sound a bit odd, it nevertheless is important that we are directly confronted with the harsh reality of our actions so that we no longer can feed our optimism bias. How this can be done leaves room for imagination and design thinking – from climate change experience courses to a climate change theme park.
These are the headline items. What about the small daily actions – the things we do out of habit and where we do not really think and reflect on their impact on climate? Often we do not even link them to the climate change problem at all. Here we need to become active and adapt the tools and processes we use in our daily actions. Gyorgyi Galik, a London-based designer, has tested this in hacking Amazon Alexa to inform us about climate change relevant aspects related to questions asked by users. We can do something similar in all aspects of life. Why do we not mandate that everything is marked according to its negative climate impact. What is possible with smoking, cigarette packages and smoking related advertisements should also be possible for climate change.
If we start to more consciously tackle climate as a behavioural problem, we can come a lot further and deliver more profound change than any technical intervention ever will be able to achieve. Climate change is us and the solution can be found in us and how we behave.
by Markus Appenzeller