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Psychology of Climate Inaction

“I find it really hard to get worried about 1.5 degrees of warming. I just don’t know what that means”.

Dr Kate Jeffrey, a University College London professor, is talking about why she has historically been ‘relatively unconcerned with the ecological crisis”. The thing is, while Jeffrey is a scientist, she is “not a climate scientist”.

Jeffrey grew up in New Zealand, born into a medical family. Looking down over “what we called a city” you could see hills, and beyond the harbour, the Pacific Ocean. Her holidays were outdoorsy, spent in the mountains, swimming in lakes and rivers. At university she studied medicine, but pre-emptively counters any hero narrative I might have wanted to construct: She likes science, and even at a young age was pragmatic enough to question the feasibility of a science career in a small city. She initially aspired to be a physicist, though the humour of medicine as a back-up career is not lost on her. She is preoccupied with big questions, growing up immersed in books about the universe and its complexities. Her “good solid science degree”, formed the basis of decorated career in neuroscience.

Her friend Dave was early to environmentalism: cycling to work, monitoring his consumption. At the time she thought it was a waste of time, “but that did plant a seed”, and after her first baby and reading Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, she committed to cloth nappies trying to be eco-friendly. After her second baby her energy wavered, “I buried it”, and she went back to a high-carbon lifestyle. She likens her engagement to an outboard motor sputtering when you pull on the string.

Al Gore’s 2006 movie, An Inconvenient Truth, was another tug on the string, leading her to start an environmental committee at UCL. Last summer’s heat wave was the tug that really got the engine moving. The heat made it impossible to work in her office and she witnessed the scorched English countryside from one of her then frequent flights. “I’m a terrible, terrible person”. The IPCC report, Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion quickly followed, creating a critical mass.

As well as co-founding the Institute of Behavioural Neuroscience, and running her own lab, Jeffrey has co-founded numerous environmental initiatives. She gives a “psychology of climate inaction” talk and has co-founded Scientists for Extinction Rebellion, and UCL XR. She has a paper, a podcast and an upcoming book looking at biodiversity loss through the lens of complexity and evolution. She also curates the Heading for Extinction talk and a talk for young children. She firmly believes children should be told about the climate crisis, but in a “positive” way.

Jeffrey has an easy manner, self-assured but untouched by the elitism one might expect from her achievements. She is unassumingly stylish, laughs frequently.

She believes the arts have a huge role to play in solving the climate crisis, comparing the comedian Jonathan Pie getting millions of views, to her talks reaching maybe a thousand . It might be typical of teachers to underestimate their impact, just as her friend Dave who died a few years ago would never know his impact on her.

Her actual reach, between talks, views and Twitter followers is tens or hundreds of thousands. It’s no surprise. Her online presence is peppered with natural wonders, optical illusions and funny videos. Recent highlights include a video of a dad trying to dress his twin toddlers before they wander off the edge of the bed.

She didn’t post this video as a metaphor for the climate crisis, but it actually might be a good one. We are the toddlers…But we could also be the dad. The dad probably doesn’t feel qualified to handle this hairy situation, but he makes it work, and this is what is striking about Jeffrey. We are all unqualified to fix the climate crisis. It is vast and complex and not one of us has ever done it before, but Jeffrey approaches it as many other things in her life, as a scientist. Science is steeped in uncertainty and failure, it is iterative, consultative, and you are always standing on the shoulders of giants.

“I don’t know who knows the answers to all of these things, I have the same questions”

This uncertainty is where Jeffrey shines. In an uncertain world, Jeffrey’s talks reveal the obstacles and potential keys to our success:

On the one hand we are not the rational beings economists once believed. Holes in our perception lead to global uproar about whether a dress is blue and black or white and gold. Our biases make us value what we have over what we stand to gain, especially when that gain is distant in time. We’ve also evolved to notice fast rather than gradual change. She cites the parable of the frog which jumps out of boiling water but stays in the pan if the water heats up around it.

On the other, she posits our social nature, our capacity for altruism and our ability to organise as reasons for hope. Since we are influenced by our peers she believes social contagion has a big part to play. We need “to plant little seeds of contagion…virus particles in as many places possible so that it’ll spread”. Jeffrey certainly has done. Her initial environmental committee wins the green award every year, everyone in the department has become vegetarian, she has spoken to Parliament, XR scientists give teach-ins on the street, and her shift to veganism has been contagious in her family.

But will that be enough?

We talk about the growth imperative: where populations and economies grow beyond the resources of their “petri dish”, the end result of which is “ultimately collapse”. She likens our situation to “a giant pyramid scheme” where “we just borrow from the future to pay for today’s growth” and emphasises the need to use our intelligence to intercept that biological and psychological imperative.

The ”good solid science degree” she mentioned reminds me of high-school and parental narratives designed to help children secure their future. This expectation has shifted for people of Greta Thunberg’s generation- who now skip school questioning what future they have to be educated for.

I ask if she thinks we need to change our relationship to achievement.

“Yeah, yeah I do…Everything we do is driven by the growth philosophy”

In her world it is the expectation of more papers, more citations, more students.

“You’re not considered to be successful unless you’ve taken something and made it bigger”

She doesn’t pretend it will be easy. “Decarbonising our economy is like chemotherapy”. She emphasises the need for a psychological transition to climate awareness as well as a technical one away from carbon. But in a world where change results from crisis or great leadership, Kate Jeffrey is an example.

The hope we need may be in a return to the parable of the frog. When someone ran this experiment in real life, in both situations, the already boiling water, and the water heating up around it, the frog jumped out...

Maybe so will we.

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