Silence about Climate change doesn’t mean practices aren’t changing

Last week I asked the audience of TEDxLake Como to jot on a post-it how concerned they were about Climate Change and Global Warming, on a scale of 1 to 10.  Two thirds of the 432 respondents wrote a number between 7 and 10.

Most people are seriously worried about climate change. In many countries more than 80% (Ipsos Mori Global Trends 2014) of the 16.000 participants polled say they are aware of global warming and even in the US (which has the lowest level of agreement on the causes), over 65% are worried about the consequences. Increasingly people fear that they will experience the effects themselves and that it is not just something that will happen in the future.

Worried but Silent

While people worry, it is rare however that climate change is a topic of conversation with family or friends. Our ethnographic research in London confirmed that even the most committed informants, rarely if ever discussed global warming with their friends. It was also seen as a topic mostly absent from their social media and seldom mentioned in the traditional media they were exposed to. This spiral of silence is explained by social psychologists Geiger and Swim 2016  as the effect of a systematic misattribution and mis-representation of other people’s level of interest in the issue. We tend in other words, to think that people around us are not concerned by climate change and thus shun the embarrassment or conflict that we feel would emerge if we brought up the topic. The consequence of avoiding a potentially controversial topic is that we speak about it less and less, only increasing our feeling that it is not an appropriate topic to discuss publicly.

Acting on the concern

The concern however is still there, quietly nagging us. The response to this fear is not hopelessness as many suggest but the emergence of a silent personal set of strategies to transform some of our daily practices. The participants in our studies all described how many of their daily decisions about what they eat, how they travel, what they buy and how they keep warm, are informed by their attempt to reduce their footprint.  From choosing local and seasonal food, to cycling and preferring trains over planes, from reducing their consumption to growing their own vegetables, they try to find ways to control their impact and regain some form of agency in a world they feel is unpredictable.  In many cases they hope their efforts have an effect and hope that others are doing the same. Interestingly the effect they elicit is not only in how much carbon they are directly reducing by avoiding meat or cars, they are also contributing to cultural changes. By changing deeply seated practices around food, mobility, housing or clothes, they are transforming something more profound that is some of our relation to consumption and natural resources.

What we are seeing is that actions are going farther than words. Climate change may not be a topic for the dinner table but it is definitely affecting what is served on it.

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