Most of us had done the easy things before we bought our tickets for The Age of Stupid in 2009. We’ve already switched to low energy light bulbs, turned down the heating and we wash our clothes at 30 degrees C. Most of us even drive less and buy more local food. But if the makers of the climate change film were setting out to change more than that, the results of an Edinburgh survey may prove disappointing.
Two years ago I took part in questionnaires exploring the impact of the film. The results have just been published by Rachel Howell, a PhD student at Edinburgh University’s Centre for the Study of Environmental Change and Sustainability.
Rachel produced four questionnaires: the first two (Q1 and 2) were answered by willing members of the cinema audience immediately before and after seeing the film; Q3 a few months later and Q4 12 months after that.
So the results? People left the cinema feeling they must do something NOW but the film probably did little to change long term behaviour and attitudes. This is my paraphrase of Rachel’s summary but essentially the film (starring the late Pete Postlethwaite) was preaching to the converted. Most of us had already done the easy things. Even the converted can’t shift habits like flying and living in badly insulated homes with non-renewable energy when alternatives are not easily available or affordable. By the end of Rachel’s project respondents had dropped from 241 to 104. Perhaps worst of all by June 2010:
“Belief that it’s worth lobbying politicians about climate change had fallen by Q3 and fell even further by Q4.”
I went to see the film because I am concerned about climate change. I can see and feel my own small world getting warmer (despite this arctic winter) and I believe the great majority of scientists who link climate change with human actions.
If you disagree you have probably stopped reading this. If you went to see the film as a climate change sceptic you possibly came out of the cinema even more convinced that reducing ‘greenhouse gas’ emissions is unnecessary. If the world is warming it is not because we are flying, driving and consuming more. (It’s sunspots or a natural cycle. And it’s too late to change).
That’s our ‘Confirmation bias’ – people with opposing views can be presented with exactly the same information without shifting ground. Even if they wobble, as a Stanford University experiment shows, people usually return to their original stand regardless of evidence (sometimes more convinced than ever).
Floods, forest fires and blizzards rage across the warming world. Is it impossible for us to change? Luckily there are people with open and questioning minds. According to The Edge, a web magazine quoted by Saturday’s Guardian, “A good scientist is never certain”. Lack of certainty is precisely what makes conclusions about complex issues more reliable – in arguments about climate change scientists are rigorously testing each others’ theories.
So respect scientists who acknowledge uncertainty. As Rachel concludes:
“I have submitted a second paper, about the final follow-up, which is as much about the difficulties of conducting longitudinal studies of behaviour as about the results.”
Like others in the survey I try to avoid flying (the train is more fun anyway). But big changes need political leadership so, unlike others, I believe in lobbying my MP and MSP more than ever. In fact they are both actively trying to strengthen legislation on climate change. Even if they were not this is probably one circumstance where their ‘confirmation bias’ would give way to evidence of mass public support for change. That’s one certainty: politicians want to be elected.
Rachel says if you want to know more about the survey, final follow-up or a copy of the paper she has published in the academic journal Global Environmental Change, email: firstname.lastname@example.org