It is part of mainstream understanding today that in order to adapt to and mitigate the effects of climate change, we have to rethink our resource-exploitative lifestyles and consumption habits (Moser & Kleinhuckelkotten, 2017). This kind of social learning follows the premise that, in light of receiving new knowledge, we have the capacity to reflect on it and accordingly change our behaviours, which alters the way society is organised (Burgess, 2013). The phrase “Think global, act local” is permeating climate change discourse (e.g., Hoff, 2015, Hui, Smith, & Kimmel, 2019; Dwivedi et al., 2022), and stems from this concept of social learning. If enough individuals, for example, understand the gravity of the climate crisis, and switch from a diesel fuel engine to an electric car, it could have a cascading effect on the rest of society and therefore enact systemic change. It sounds simple enough, but it is becoming increasingly difficult to apply this kind of social learning to climate change discourse. Why? Because of information culture in modern society (Burgess, 2013).
On one end of the spectrum, modernity is characterised by the rise of ‘expert’ knowledge which has downgraded the reliability of ‘ordinary’ knowledge (Burgess, 2013). On the other end exists a mistrust in our ‘experts’ because of dangerous biases and vested interests intrinsic to the objectives of institutional platforms (Bugden, 2022). The influx of information available from various sources in mass media, academic publications, and government reports surrounding the climate crisis has distorted our ability to actually grasp the concept of climate change (Bowden, Nyberg & Wright, 2021). The information society we live in today has made it so that climate change is becoming increasingly out of our reach — any understanding we may have of it is immediately buried under new information, both verified and not. Adding to this struggle, climate change concepts seem intangible: we cannot locate one grounded problem without ten more popping up. Do we focus on greenhouse gas emissions? Ocean acidification? Industrial pollution? People are moved by what they can see, and if our line of sight is too crowded, we become dangerously blind. So how can we effectively reflect — and act on — new knowledge? We don’t know who to believe. We don’t know who to trust.
This leaves the bereft public increasingly disillusioned on what steps to take toward obtaining a more sustainable future in light of the climate crisis. Social learning strategy is based around the idea that if people receive “the ‘right’ information in the ‘right’ way”, then they will alter their behaviour in response (Burgess, 2013:308). We can see how this reasoning is reductive in the context of modern information culture. The sheer amount of information available to us makes climate change seem very uncontrollable, almost like nothing we can do would make a difference in the grand scheme of things. It makes us feel lost. Without giving people a sense of direction that persuades them that their actions, however small, will have impact, they will feel they have no agency in any outcome (Burgess, 2013). That’s a very powerless feeling. The uncertainty on which course of action to take can be psychologically fatiguing, which prevents an effective individual change in behaviour (Lu, 2022). A lack of institutional transparency thrown in the mix is the icing on the proverbial cake. Individuals are less likely to alter their behaviour if they don’t observe a concurrent change in institutional operations, both in governmental and private sector systems (Burgess, 2013). Greater political accountability and corporate social responsibility (CSR) are necessary to enact systematic change, and although these have been on the rise, we are still nowhere near where we should be. We’re at a promising starting point, however, with the historic deal of compensating lower-emission countries in COP27, to the greater transparency of corporate supply chains as part of CSR strategies. Things are looking up.
There are new, exciting emerging technologies of knowledge verification (like blockchain technologies) being invented, all based around the idea of decentralised control and a decentralised society (Mathew, 2016). Still, coincident with the proliferation of these technologies, is a huge gap in public understanding on how to effectively utilise them. These technologies offer a way to ground climate change discourse and bring it back down to Earth. The influx of information available to us no longer becomes overwhelming, but manageable. Now we have ways to filter out biassed knowledge. Now, we can decide on which behaviours we need to change on a local level to act more sustainably. The global impact comes later, when individual behaviour is translated to collective behaviour over time (Pinheiro, Santos & Pacheco, 2016). The shifts we’re observing in institutional operations, coupled with a collective behavioural change, have the potential to enact sustainable systematic change in our modern information society.
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Bugden, Dylan. “Denial and Distrust: Explaining the Partisan Climate Gap.” Climatic Change 170, no. 3–4 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10584-022-03321-2
Burgess, Jacquie. “ Environmental Knowledges and Environmentalism.” Chapter. In Introducing Human Geographies, edited by Paul Cloke, Philip Crang, and Mark Goodwin, 2nd ed., 298–310. London: Routledge, 2013.
Dwivedi, Yogesh K., Laurie Hughes, Arpan Kumar Kar, Abdullah M. Baabdullah, Purva Grover, Roba Abbas, Daniela Andreini, et al. “Climate Change and COP26: Are Digital Technologies and Information Management Part of the Problem or the Solution? An Editorial Reflection and Call to Action.” International Journal of Information Management 63 (2022): 102456. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijinfomgt.2021.102456.
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