The Finnish Broadcasting Company recently reported research claiming that climate change, population growth and environmental damage may cause the environment to collapse in a few decades from now. More than 5,000 people shared the story on Facebook, with comments reflecting frustration and despair: why can these problems not be solved?
I have pondered the same thing while working on environmental challenges for more than 20 years. I have come to the same conclusion as many psychological studies: the problems seem too distant. People will only make changes and take action if a more tangible problem threatens their well-being or the well-being of their community. As systems sociologist Ossi Ollinaho put it, “As long as a fork works for people, it is no use trying to replace it with another piece of cutlery”.
When working as Head of Climate Change Programme at WWF Finland, I used to give politicians, businesspeople, students and officials lectures about the two-degree target, ppm concentrations, stagnant negotiations in the KP and LCA tracks of COP, CFC compounds, CCS and LULUCF as well as the IET, CDM and JI mechanisms of the Kyoto Protocol. Keeping up with the jargon was practically a full-time job. Even then, when someone in the audience asked whether the storm in the autumn or the warm winter was caused by climate change, I had to answer that there is no scientific proof.
No wonder that politicians have not yet taken appropriate action. What, then, could we do to fight climate change?
Instead of dwelling on scientific uncertainties, we should focus on making environmental issues more tangible and comprehensible. What do the dwindling oil resources mean for a family living in, say, Nurmijärvi? How much will their cost of living increase? How will their economic freedom be compromised?
We should also make reducing emissions as easy and beneficial for people as possible. Last year, thousands of Finns replaced their old oil boilers. Why was that? According to a survey carried out by Taloustutkimus for Sitra, home owners are interested in energy efficiency and renewable energy. However, making the right choice is difficult. The benefits are not certain, and the unreliability of technology and lack of one-stop services also hinder energy renovation projects in practice.
Politicians should do everything in their power to make the provision of sustainable everyday choices profitable for businesses. Moreover, these options should be financially attractive for consumers. Judging from the experiences that trailblazers have shared on HINKUmappi, an online database and showcase of environmental action, this reality is still a long way off in Finland.
I believe that better solutions could be found for climate and environmental problems if the issues were made as easy to understand and overcome for people as possible.
This article was originally published in Finnish on the www.ilmasto.org website on 18th June 2012.