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Climate change and other environmental problems are fast becoming daily news items in the media. As our awareness of environmental problems increases, many strong emotions can surface. But climate change doesn't need to be faced with dread. It also needn't require missing out on things, or living a less pleasurable life. There is a lot of information available about what we need to do to combat environmental problems, and many changes are very easy to make. Change can also mean we end up living better.

This information booklet is aimed at helping people cope with the many environmental threats facing us. It offers suggestions for dealing with distressing feelings when learning about environmental problems. It also provides tips for people who want to do something about environmental problems, but may be having difficulty getting started. Finally, the booklet aims to help people work out how to talk with others about these issues, and how to encourage others to join in making positive changes.

Common reactions to learning about environmental problems

It is common for people to experience a range of emotions and psychological reactions when faced with information about environmental threats and predictions of an uncertain future. People may feel anxious, scared, sad, depressed, numb, helpless and hopeless, frustrated or angry.

Sometimes, if the information is too unsettling and the solutions seem too difficult, people can cope by minimising or denying that there is a problem, or avoiding thinking about the problems.

Being sceptical about the problems is another way that people may react. The caution expressed by climate change sceptics could be a form of denial, where it involves minimising the weight of scientific evidence/consensus on the subject. Or it could indicate that they perceive the risks of change to be greater than the risks of not changing, for themselves or their interests.

Another common reaction is to become desensitised to information about environmental problems. Stories and images relating to climate change flood our daily news. People can become desensitised to the stories, and mentally switch off when the next one comes. The fact that these problems are not easily fixed, and seem to go on and on without resolution, increases the chances that we will tune out, thus minimising our stress and continuing with business as usual.

Once people believe that they cannot do anything to change a situation, they tend to react in all sorts of unhelpful ways. They may become dependent on others (i.e., by believing that the government or corporations will fix things, or that technology has all the answers), resigned ("if it happens, it happens"), cynical ("there's no way you can stop people from driving their cars everywhere - convenience is more important to most people than looking after the environment"), or fed up with the topic.

Managing the feelings climate change can generate

Although environmental threats are real and can be frightening, remaining in a state of heightened distress is not helpful for ourselves or for others. We generally cope better, and are more effective at making changes, when we are calm and rational.

Be optimistic about the future

It can help to remind ourselves that the future is not all bleak. There are millions of people all over the world who share our concerns and are working on protecting the environment, helping others to change their behaviour, and finding other solutions. We already have a lot of information about what we need to do (like reducing greenhouse gas emissions), and what we need to stop doing (like wasting water), and there are tremendous advances in technology being developed every day to help us live sustainably and well.

The power of the individual - taking action

The other good news is that a lot of desirable goals are easily achievable by people simply making changes to their personal life. These changes don't need to be difficult, nor do they need to involve giving up a lifestyle that we enjoy. When everyone makes a commitment to purchasing green energy from renewable sources, reducing petrol use, and making sustainable choices as consumers, then whole communities and nations can drastically reduce their emissions, reduce the pollution of air and water, and develop sustainable ways of living.

Reminding ourselves that there is a lot that we can personally do, and starting to take action to manage the environment better, can help us move from despair and hopelessness to a sense of empowerment.

Coping with distress

Sometimes taking a news break can be helpful. Turning off the radio or TV, and having a break from the newspaper for a few days can be a welcome relief. Taking a deliberate break is quite different from becoming desensitised.

It is also important that people don't over-react and start behaving as though catastrophic change is imminent. Lasting change requires sustained commitment, and fanning short-term panic can have the opposite effect.

Spending time with loved ones can also be helpful in keeping yourself grounded and energised. Enjoy friends and family, and make sure there are at least one or two people with whom you can share your concerns when feeling dispirited.

How to change your own behaviour

Because most environmental problems are the direct or indirect result of human behaviour (i.e., the behaviour of groups, organisations and nations as well as individuals), we need to change our own behaviour to begin to solve these problems.

It helps to understand that there are a few stages that we usually go through when we are learning a new behaviour. People are often surprised to find that changing behaviour can be harder or take longer than they expected.

Become informed about problems and solutions

Books, news media, film and the Internet are good places for getting information about the problems. Some popular sources include The Weather Makers by Tim Flannery, A Big Fix by Ian Lowe, Al Gore's film ‘An Inconvenient Truth', and websites from environmental groups. Friends can often be a good source of information too, and can direct you to websites, books or magazines that they have found useful.

There are many useful websites that offer tips for minimising your impact on the environment, such as the Australian Conservation Foundation (www.acfonline.org.au) and www.easybeinggreen.com.

Do things in easy stages

The best way to learn new behaviour is to begin with an easy task and progressively take on more difficult tasks until the final goal is reached. Changing the things we can, and making short- and long-term plans for further change is a good starting place.

For example, you may want to reduce your fuel consumption and carbon emissions that result from driving a car. The easiest things that you can change straight away might be driving more smoothly, driving with a light load, properly inflating your tyres, and driving 5 to 10 km/h more slowly than usual.

The next step, requiring a little more organisation, might be to car pool with people who live nearby, or catch public transport to work. Purchasing and using a bike for short trips might also be considered. Finally, a longer-term plan might involve purchasing a more fuel efficient car, or moving house to be nearer to work/schools so that you are less dependent on your car.

Identify the barriers that might get in the way of doing things differently

Often things keep getting in the way of changing our behaviour. We might know that we should replace our light globes with energy efficient ones, but haven't got around to doing it yet. It is useful to ask ourselves what is preventing us from making these changes. Maybe somebody else usually changes the globes at home. Maybe we're worried it's going to cost too much, or we don't know which globes to purchase, or where to buy them.

Once we know the barriers to making these changes, we can work out how to overcome them. We could plan to ask a friend for advice on suitable globes, and where to buy them. We could find out how much the globes cost, and how many we need (and even work out the savings we will make over the long term - some websites can help). If money is an issue, we might need to replace one globe at a time, or put aside a little bit of money a week towards the globes. Breaking down a task in this way can make it a lot easier to overcome our resistance to change, and actually get the task completed.

Cue yourself

A common barrier to changing behaviour is simply forgetting. It is useful to be surrounded by as many cues as possible to remind us of the problems, and of the behaviours we are trying to change. Cues might include:

  • Posters, books, cartoons or stickers
  • Calendars with daily or monthly quotes, pictures or facts about environmental problems and solutions
  • Subscriptions to independent news magazines that provide regular coverage of world events or environmental problems
  • Email lists that send regular updates about environmental issues.

Specific cues to remind you of the behaviours you are trying to change can include:

  • A sticker on the petrol tank reminding you to check the tyre pressure once a month
  • A four-minute timer in the shower to remind you to take shorter showers
  • Signs near the after-hours exit at work reminding the last person out to turn off all the lights.

Look after yourself!

People who are concerned about the environment, and are trying to make a positive difference, need to look after themselves to keep their enthusiasm and motivation up, and to protect themselves from disillusionment or burn out. The following suggestions may help you to ‘stick with it'.

  • Associate with likeminded people to get support, ideas, reinforcement and praise. Group approval and identification is a great source of reward.
  • Do things that are intrinsically rewarding and that add to your understanding of the issues (e.g., attend talks, films and rallies with friends).
  • Stay in touch with the environment (tree-hugging optional!).
  • Make the experience of active involvement in environmental issues as pleasurable as possible (e.g., by cycling to work with a group of friends).
  • Take note of the benefits of changing your behaviour (e.g., savings from reducing your petrol use).
  • Reward yourself for successfully changing - maybe spend some of the money you save on a special (carbon neutral!) treat for yourself or the family.

Encouraging others to change

Climate change, global warming and other environmental threats affect us all. Every person who changes his or her behaviour makes a positive and significant difference. The major influences on our attitudes and behaviour are not the media, but rather our contacts with other people. Finding ways of using this influence for the good of the planet can lead to great changes in environmental attitudes and behaviour in the people around us, as they gather ideas and information from seeing the changes we have made (and of course, we might just learn some tips from them too).

Talking with others about environmental problems

Talking with others can be an excellent way of inviting them to think about environmental issues and to change their own behaviour, as well as being a source of new inspiration for your own initiatives.

The following strategies may assist you to talk easily and constructively about these issues.

  • Have a clear understanding of the topic and the facts so that you have confidence and authority about what you say.
  • Back your statements by citing books and other respected sources.
  • Ensure you are familiar with common arguments and useful counter-arguments that will help you respond more comfortably and smoothly. Asking a friend to role-play a sceptic, and practising how you're going to handle these different perspectives can be very helpful. Some climate change websites give examples of common counter arguments and suggestions for how to deal with them.
  • Cite well known or respected figures who are also working on climate change. People perceived to be well known and respected are very influential.
  • Remember that you don't have to know everything. Admitting that you don't know does not invalidate your concern about these issues. Instead it shows your audience that acting responsibly does not require a high degree of expertise.
  • Maintain a non-verbal as well as a verbal stance of calmness, non-aggression, confidence and interest by keeping a relaxed posture, direct eye contact and a controlled voice. Always end your conversation in a positive, hopeful way.

Present clear but not overwhelming information, and offer solutions as well

Remember, other people may well be like you and feel anxious or unsettled at learning about some of the environmental threats looming. If a message is too extreme, it can even provoke denial or defensiveness. A good message is one that presents the facts, but also provides the listener with some ideas of what he or she can do to contribute to the solutions. Even better, if you let people know that by working together with others we can have a significantly more positive effect, then they are more likely to act.

Talk about changes that you are making in your own life

Many new behaviours, like recycling, reducing water use and making our homes more energy efficient, are taken up as a result of friends, family members or colleagues introducing them to us. Find opportunities for talking with the people around you about some of the changes that you are making so that they can start thinking about making these changes themselves.

Share your difficulties and rewards

It can be helpful to acknowledge your own tendencies to ignore, deny or avoid thinking about environmental problems. Talking about this will help others to identify and acknowledge similar reactions in themselves. Talk too about the activities you have been involved in and the rewards that have resulted (e.g., increased optimism, reduced anxiety and helplessness, making new friends with similar concerns, belonging to a community with shared goals).

Congratulate people for being environmentally concerned

Where possible, help people to see themselves as environmentally concerned. Once people perceive themselves in a certain way, they are more likely to behave in ways that fit with this self-perception. A good strategy is to notice what people are already doing to help the environment, such as taking public transport instead of driving their car, and to congratulate them on these efforts.

Model the behaviours that you want others to do

One of the most effective ways of getting people to behave in more environmentally friendly ways is to model the behaviour that you would like other people to take up. People are much more likely to change their behaviour if they see others doing so. For example, if you let your work colleagues see you washing out your plastic takeaway containers, then taking them with you the next time you go for take-away, they are more likely to think about re-using their own when they go to buy their lunch. The new behaviour can quickly become a social norm when more and more people are behaving in a particular way.

Many pro-environmental behaviours are private, and take place inside your home or in your backyard. Displaying stickers on your cars, letter box, or recycling containers can be a useful way of letting your neighbours know what you are doing, for example composting organic material in your garden, watering your gardens with recycled grey water, or offsetting your car's carbon emissions by donating to an organisation like Greenfleet.

Ask questions of manufacturers and suppliers of goods and services

As consumers of goods and services we have a lot of power to influence change simply through the choices we make. When an energy-efficient, water saving washing machine is chosen over another model, we send a clear message to the manufacturer that we value products that help the environment. It can also be helpful to ask questions of the people selling goods and services that we require. And if you have stocks or shares in superannuation or managed funds, don't forget your power as a shareholder to argue for environmentally sustainable investment choices.

Make your concerns known to anyone with decision-making power

Letting the decision-makers, including MPs, governments, corporations and businesses, know that climate change is an issue of major concern to the voting, buying and investing public, is crucial. As Tim Flannery concludes in The Weather Makers, writing to a politician can change the world. If enough people do this, andkeep doing it, in time government policies can be changed. We can write to our local State and Federal politicians, or world leaders, as well as corporations and businesses, regularly asking questions about their climate change policies, or registering our concerns about a variety of related issues.