Paul Vallely: Climate change - what's your excuse?

Only a psychologist can explain why most of us believe global warming is man-made yet limit our greenness to recycling
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I was putting the rubbish out the other day. Beside the green bin and the grey one I had a half-broken plastic Batman tower that been discarded in a seasonal room-tidy. As I picked it up to put it in the bin a man sped by on a bike – it had to be a bike, of course – and shouted at me: "Citizen of Planet Earth, 2011!"

I was duly stung. I like to think I do my bit for the planet, sorting into the four recycling bins and taking the batteries and fluorescent tubes to the appropriate recycling centre. But to see ourselves as others see us ....

The same thing, writ large, has been true of the wider world at the climate change summit in Durban. Outside eyes have been turned upon the ponderous attempts by world leaders to find an international agreement on how to combat climate change. Local communites, meanwhile, have been more exercised by their efforts to attract Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May to choose their city to be home to the Top Gear festival for the next three years. There's the rub. We want to save the planet but we want the thrill of fast cars and their high-octane greenhouse gas emissions.

A jaded campaigner at the summit, Peg Putt of the Ecosystems Climate Alliance, put it thus: "Countries want to turn up and say stuff that sounds all right when you skip across the surface of it, that plays well to an uninformed audience at home. But they're in no way going to take on vested interests or change direction to do anything real."

This is the real climate change conundrum. If the science is so convincing that humans are melting the ice, acidifying the oceans and making sea levels rise, why is everyone dragging their feet about doing something? And repeatedly so – remember the farce of the previous eco-summit at Copenhagen in 2009, when Hopenhagen slid into Hopelesshagen, disappointment and failure.

A chap named Geoffrey Beattie was bugged by the same question last year and wrote a book called Why Aren't We Saving the Planet?. Beattie is not an environmentalist; he is professor of psychology at the University of Manchester. He concludes that we all have explicit and implicit attitudes to such matters, and that the two do not always coincide. Politicians are no different here. Because we are social creatures we do not want the opprobrium that would go with ignoring the overwhelming scientific consensus. That's the explicit level. But we have deeper instincts, formed over time, so that we still see gas-guzzling cars as the status symbols they have been for decades, or red meat as a treat. "People cannot change their emotional valence that quickly," he says.

What the good prof has done is set up a series of experiments that focus, not on our words, but on our gestures or even eye movements as people in a supermarket pick up items which bear a carbon footprint information label. "Our eye-tracking methodology shows that people spend between five and seven seconds choosing a product," he says. "Choices are determined by implicit values. Products have an emotional impact on us."

There are psychological barriers at work. One is a straightforward lack of adequate information. We know that every time we switch on a light, get into a car or reach to a supermarket shelf we are casting an ecological vote of some kind. But most of us are confused about the relative merits or demerits of those choices.

Another problem is that we live in skewed short-term time frames. That is clear on health. When Beattie asks his students why they smoke, the women most often say it is to keep their weight down. But there is also the youthful delusion of immortality; cancer will happen to an older self who is somehow not them.

Then there is the business of free riders. Some eco-practices, such as recycling, make us feel good about ourselves. But others make us feel bad about others. China, India and the US between them produce almost half of the world's annual carbon emissions. None of them is committed to the Kyoto protocol. So why should they be given a free ride on the efforts of the rest of us to cut carbon use?

"The free rider problem creates a lot of psychological pressure," says Beattie. One of his experiments has been to cut Al Gore's climate film An Inconvenient Truth into sections and to measure reaction to them. "The clip showing the increase in the output from Chinese power stations had the reverse effect of other clips. It induces a shift of responsibility away from ourselves."

There are other complex psychological factors. Greenness can become part of your identity. Beattie has observed that by filming people's facial expressions as they recycle. But it can induce two different ways of thinking. One is that if people do small things, such as recycling, that will lead them on to bigger things, like not flying. But with others it gives them a moral licence to do the opposite: "I deserve a reward after all that recycling so I'm flying off on a city break" or "I've bought a Bag for Life so it doesn't matter what I fill it with". Most of us are adept at finding ways to let ourselves off the hook. All of these forces have been at work in Durban, with added calculations of national interest vs the common good.

The way forward is in finding ways to change those underlying implicit values. At the personal level, Fair Trade labels pioneered a way to overcome the information problem; carbon footprinting needs to do the same. Campaigners should look to their vocabulary. Global warming sounds nice and cosy, as if we are all going to live in the Med. Planetary overheating might be a better term.

We need to curb the extremes of the optimism/pessimism spectrum. Neither "It'll all be sorted by technology" nor "We're all doomed so I'm going down the pub" are helpful.

Without changes in our individual psyches there will not be real change at the political level that will turn aspirations into action. Psychology can help us to diagnose the problem; now we must bring it to bear on the solutions.