How to slay the environmental ‘dragons of inaction’

Four reasons why we resist taking positive action against the climate crisis and how to overcome them

"Dragons of inaction" are psychological barriers that we all must overcome to take positive action against the climate crisis, one of which is the perception that what we do individually won't make a difference. You can slay this dragon by taking personal responsibility for your own actions, such as by choosing reusable metal or glass water bottles instead of single-use disposable plastic bottles. (Photo courtesy of GreenUP)
"Dragons of inaction" are psychological barriers that we all must overcome to take positive action against the climate crisis, one of which is the perception that what we do individually won't make a difference. You can slay this dragon by taking personal responsibility for your own actions, such as by choosing reusable metal or glass water bottles instead of single-use disposable plastic bottles. (Photo courtesy of GreenUP)

Climate change is huge and will impact every aspect of our lives. Considering that impact, why do we struggle to change even the smallest aspects of our lives for the benefit of the environment?

According to Robert Gifford, professor of psychology and environmental studies at the University of Victoria, there are two kinds of barriers to taking climate action: structural and psychological.

Structural barriers can be things like a lack of good public transit and protected bike lanes that keep us reliant on cars. Overcoming these barriers often requires co-ordinated action from multiple government and industry stakeholders.

The second kind of barrier to climate action is psychological. Gifford has identified 40 of these psychological barriers, calling them the “dragons of inaction”.

Unlike some structural barriers, these psychological barriers are largely within our power to control as individuals.

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You may be thinking, ‘Well, this doesn’t seem too difficult! I think I can change.’

The challenge, however, is that humans are in many ways hard-wired to prioritize short-term pleasure over long-term goals or collective good. We tend to hedonistically focus on immediate gratification and ignore the negative future consequences of our actions.

Here are descriptions to help you recognize four of the dragons of inaction and figure out how to overcome them.

1. Perceived lack of self-efficacy

When it comes to fighting climate change, if we all take small actions, they can add up to a big difference. Property owners in Peterborough can reduce their impact on the environment and climate change by making smarter use of their space. Installing a rain barrel can reduce use of drinking water. With GreenUP's Sustainable Urban Neighbourhoods Planting Guide, residents can also learn how to design gardens that need less water and reduce flood damage. (Photo courtesy of GreenUP)
When it comes to fighting climate change, if we all take small actions, they can add up to a big difference. Property owners in Peterborough can reduce their impact on the environment and climate change by making smarter use of their space. Installing a rain barrel can reduce use of drinking water. With GreenUP’s Sustainable Urban Neighbourhoods Planting Guide, residents can also learn how to design gardens that need less water and reduce flood damage. (Photo courtesy of GreenUP)

This dragon argues “Climate change is a huge, global issue. As only one individual, your actions are too small to have any noticeable impact on the world. There is no point in trying.”

This is the most dangerous dragon. To fight this dragon, point out that only you can be responsible for your own contributions to climate change. You can take responsibility for your contributions, or you can deny your responsibility and continue to be part of the problem.

As Canadians, we have a greater responsibility to reduce our individual impacts than individuals in many other countries. Canada, Australia, and the U.S.A. are collectively responsible for nearly 20 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

“That is a massive climate impact for only three countries that make up about five per cent of the world’s population,” points out Dr. Brett Favaro in his book The Carbon Code.

Our actions as individuals do have a significant impact globally, especially as residents in Peterborough and Canada.

It may seem pointless to plant a tree or bike instead of drive. Trees will still be cut down. Other people will still drive. Do not let this dragon make you feel too small to make a difference. A journey of a thousand kilometres starts with just one step.

Your actions reduce your impact, and that matters locally and globally.

2. Optimism bias

Rather than ignoring environmental problems in the hope someone else will fix them, you can take personal actions like cleaning up litter and reducing how much garbage you produce to help reduce your impact on the environment and climate change. In partnership with GreenUP's Sustainable Urban Neighbourhoods program, approximately 100 students and staff from King George Public School in Peterborough organized a clean-up of Armour Hill on April 5, 2018 in celebration of Earth Day.  (Photo courtesy of GreenUP)
Rather than ignoring environmental problems in the hope someone else will fix them, you can take personal actions like cleaning up litter and reducing how much garbage you produce to help reduce your impact on the environment and climate change. In partnership with GreenUP’s Sustainable Urban Neighbourhoods program, approximately 100 students and staff from King George Public School in Peterborough organized a clean-up of Armour Hill on April 5, 2018 in celebration of Earth Day. (Photo courtesy of GreenUP)

This dragon argues “Just keep a positive attitude. Ignore evidence and consequences that threaten your positive attitude. Those threats and consequences will go away.”

Humans are hard-wired to find information that reinforces our preferred viewpoints rather than gaining knowledge that could force us to revise or reject our preferred viewpoints.

Fighting this dragon is all about prioritizing self-control and long-term planning with clear measurements.

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For example, you could notice how much garbage you throw out each week and work on reducing that. Refuse single-use disposable plastics. Reduce food waste by making meal plans that inform your shopping. Reuse bags and containers. Recycle. Compost whatever you can.

I could go on, but more waste reduction tips and resources are available in Bea Johnson’s book Zero Waste Home and at www.wrwcanada.com/en/resources.

As another example, you could also make plans to count and reduce how many trips you make by car. Instead, walk, bike, or take transit when possible.

Commit to learning more each week and each month about how you can reduce your impact and use that knowledge to improve your plans.

3. Technosalvation

Technology already exists to help us reduce our impact on the environment and climate change, but it doesn't help if we don't change our behaviours. For example, Fleming College students conducted a waste audit on behalf of the County of Peterborough, capturing waste generation habits by analyzing contents of garbage and recycling. Results showed that 50 per cent of residential garbage bags are filled with organic waste that could be composted instead of ending up in landfill. (Photo courtesy of GreenUP)
Technology already exists to help us reduce our impact on the environment and climate change, but it doesn’t help if we don’t change our behaviours. For example, Fleming College students conducted a waste audit on behalf of the County of Peterborough, capturing waste generation habits by analyzing contents of garbage and recycling. Results showed that 50 per cent of residential garbage bags are filled with organic waste that could be composted instead of ending up in landfill. (Photo courtesy of GreenUP)

This dragon argues “There is no point in taking action right now, because technology will just come along in the future to solve all our problems.”

To fight this dragon, you can use a two-point approach. First, the timeline in which we need to act is too aggressive to expect new technological innovations alone to reduce our emissions. If we are to reduce our emissions by 45 per cent by 2030 and to net zero by 2050, we need action on all fronts, including but not limited to technological innovations.

Second, we already have technologies that can dramatically reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. They do not work if we do not use them appropriately.

For example, the transportation sector accounts for about 30 per cent of emissions in Ontario. Nearly one half of transportation emissions come from personal transportation (moving people).

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Creating safe and accessible infrastructure for cycling, walking, and other forms of active transportation could dramatically reduce these emissions. All the technology needed to make those changes is already available to us right now. For details, read GreenUP’s Bikes Can Do That series.

Another example of technology is the materials we use to build with. Builders for Climate Action (www.buildersforclimateaction.org) is a local organization that offers innovative resources for how we can use alternative building materials (like hempcrete) to store greenhouse gas emissions rather than producing more emissions.

We do not need to wait for technology. What we need are actions and plans that phase in the technologies that reduce our emissions and phase out the technologies that contribute to climate change.

4. Mistrust of information

Instead of being so overwhelmed by information about climate change that we do nothing, we can instead be positive advocates for climate action, such as by encouraging forms of transportation that do not emit C02. Evidence in Peterborough shows that investments in more bike infrastructure, such as Peterborough's first protected bike lane that was installed in 2019, can positively impact our transportation system. Geographically, Peterborough is fairly compact and an ideal city for biking. Surveys show that we travel a median distance of 2.7 kilometre per trip on weekdays, and 73 per cent of all our trips made are less than five kilometres. (Photo courtesy of GreenUP)
Instead of being so overwhelmed by information about climate change that we do nothing, we can instead be positive advocates for climate action, such as by encouraging forms of transportation that do not emit C02. Evidence in Peterborough shows that investments in more bike infrastructure, such as Peterborough’s first protected bike lane that was installed in 2019, can positively impact our transportation system. Geographically, Peterborough is fairly compact and an ideal city for biking. Surveys show that we travel a median distance of 2.7 kilometre per trip on weekdays, and 73 per cent of all our trips made are less than five kilometres. (Photo courtesy of GreenUP)

This dragon argues “You can’t trust the information presented to you about human-caused climate change. It could be false or exaggerated. There is no point dedicating time and consideration to the information.”

To fight this dragon, focus on two things: do not be paralyzed by information and be a positive advocate for climate action.

There is a lot of information out there about climate change — it is overwhelming. Keep trying to understand more about the situation from reputable sources. Do not let information overload paralyze you: doing more to reduce your impact is always better than no action at all.

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One of biggest threats to successful climate action is silence. We need to talk about climate action every day, from the smallest of actions to the most complicated of issues.

As Brett Favaro points out in The Carbon Code, it is important to be a positive advocate for climate action: “In positive advocacy, you support action, rather than arguing against something harmful.”

These four dragons are just a few of the dozens that you and I encounter every day. There are many more dragons you need to fight, and more tools to empower your battles in the resources mentioned in this article.

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