World Environment Day 2022: Facts without conviction won't spark climate action! 


June 5th, 2022, marks the 50th anniversary of the UN World Environment Day with the theme and launch of a global campaign entitled #OnlyOneEarth. The campaign calls upon international and local actors to transform policies and sets of choices to pursue a lifestyle that is cleaner, greener, and more sustainable towards the world's shared nature.

Today we know that our lifestyles are fully responsible for global warming - producing up to 51 billion tons of emissions every year from the way we live, such as the way we generate electricity, our means of transportation, choices of consumption, management of natural resources, our industries, agriculture, or the way we heat or cool our homes and public buildings. And this has led to an unprecedented change in the planet's climate leading to a further rise in global temperatures, most likely by more than 1.5 C above pre-industrial levels. This temperature rise will not only breach the goals set by the 2015 Paris climate agreement but very likely will accelerate the already increasingly witnessed extreme weather events. And with that, the devastation of livelihoods and natural habitats on an unprecedented scale.

For 60 years, scientists have been warning about global warming and the devastating effects climate change will have on humanity. Nevertheless, humans did not change their way, but they changed the Earth's climate, with some of those changes probably being irreversible. 

By now, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), only a rapid and drastic reduction in greenhouse gasses within this decade can prevent what they call a "climate breakdown".  

And as if the challenges of climate change weren't already enough to bear, the global pandemic has contributed massively to the deterioration of many of the world's woes, such as global inflation, soaring food and energy prices, disrupted supply chains - now in addition exacerbated by Russia's war on Ukraine. 

But of all the global 21st-century threats, climate change is by far the most pressing one to be addressed immediately. Sherri Goldman from the Center for Climate & Security has coined climate change a "Threat Multiplier", to already existing hazards such as famine, poverty, resource scarcity, armed conflicts, or migration. In the US, defense and intelligence agencies classify climate change as a major threat to national security on various levels.

Scientists are convinced that to avoid a complete climate collapse, we need to get to zero emissions in just under 30 years - otherwise, an increase by 2 degrees global temperatures means the collapse of life as we know it. This might be the most difficult challenge humankind has ever taken on.

Kurdistan no exception

The UN Environment Programme's Global Environmental Outlook ranked Iraq as the fifth most vulnerable country in the world to the effects of climate change dynamics and predicted that large parts of the south and central Iraq will become uninhabitable in the near future. Water scarcity, desertification, and extreme weather events are only intensifying food insecurity, forced migration streams, and dire conflicts over resources in an already struggling region.

The US National Intelligence Estimate on Climate Change made it very clear in a recent report: climate change will not only be felt most acutely in developing countries, but tragically it will be these same countries that are the least equipped to adapt.

Even in Kurdistan, which enjoys a milder climate and higher percentages of rain and snow throughout the year, authorities are worried that recent reoccurrences of droughts will have several serious impacts, including on the availability of food and drinking water. Low water levels would also reduce electricity generation. At the same time, Kurdistan is being struck by one extreme weather event after the other: Heavy floods, extreme droughts, and increasingly uncommon heavy sandstorms blanketing the entire region.

A staggering example of the scale of environmental degradation is research conducted by Salahaddin University that highlights a 50% loss of vegetation in Erbil between 1992-2014. This, coupled with a plummet of 41% in surface water, shows a severe degradation of the region's natural landscape in less than 25 years. 

Climate Inaction despite the facts, why? 

But why is it that despite all the knowledge, warnings, and flood of information over decades, we still lack a broad climate mitigation strategy or, more importantly, action? 

Blame Evolution!

For a long time, the belief was politicians, citizens, and policymakers would act with more urgency if only there was enough information about the impacts and consequences of a warming planet. However, this belief completely ignored the role of emotions and focused on the role of facts alone, assuming that humans are completely rational and unbiased beings - which probably describes more the quality of a robot rather than an actual person who not only has emotions but most of the time is led by subconscious triggers. 

Climate Scientists were especially convinced that governments would surely do the right thing when only provided with a myriad number of facts and data. But to their frustration, action on climate change was, nevertheless, slow, staggering, and often halfhearted. 

Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel Prize winner in Economics, and Amos Tversky shook up the world of behavioral sciences by demonstrating that the opposite is true. Even when facts are available, people still tend to act irrationally. And not only this, but in addition, many times, they will even make decisions that, in the end, will prove harmful to them in the long term, only because they yearned for an immediate reward or result.

A good reference might be smoking cigarettes. People know by now that smoking has many negative health effects in the long term. However, so many people still do it, partly because the danger is not imminent but also because the satisfaction due to the addiction is instant. One does not light a cigarette and immediately falls over dead while smoking it. Instead, the hazard slowly sneaks up. And in the meantime, our brain develops many excuses to deny the facts and carry on, excusing it with "who knows what tomorrow will bring" while also not being able to relate to the "abstract" future danger that it represents.

The same thing holds true with climate change, as the threats were and often still are too hard to comprehend because evolutionarily, we were not made to understand slow changes or the dangers of new, so far unrelatable, future developments. Instead, our brains were programmed to react quickly and ad-hoc to evade imminent threats like predators or current diseases. Professor Kate Jeffrey, a renowned behavioral neuroscientist, has focused on this dilemma in her must-read work about the so-called "Psychology of Climate Inaction".

From Climate Change Awareness to Climate Action!

But are we doomed? Or is there a way to overcome the psychology of climate inaction that without doubt has been universal, given the collective calamity the world, without regional exception, is facing?

According to communications specialist and news producer Kamyar Razavi, we need to rethink how we communicate about climate change—not having been able in the past to reach the masses or manage to reach people beyond their groups and social bubble, to find the common interest and concerns. The best tool he suggests to overcome this is storytelling. The advertising or movie industry has long used this tool to tap emotions and, therefore, influence decision-making. To tell stories that have the power to transform complex subject matters, like global warming, into something that feels personal, relatable, and solvable—tapping on the strongest human superpower: Resilience and Hope.

Sharing the right stories can, furthermore, not only reduce defensiveness or teach complicated concepts. In fact, it has the power to change individuals' behaviors and promote social change.

Human beings have since early on been natural storytellers, and narratives have been central to our lives for thousands of years. Stories and Narratives are needed to help us make sense of the world around us while also allowing us to communicate with others.

The stories that we tell have the potential to be an extremely powerful tool in shaping public opinion and influencing policy—creating narratives that can spark changes in the audience's thinking while also shifting difficult conversations in a positive way to create more resilient and inclusive societies.

Climate change is here. And we will not be able to stop it anymore, but we can mitigate and build climate resilience throughout our societies.  

We know by now that no policy alone, no technology alone, no innovation alone, has the power to achieve sustainable outcomes unless it is coupled with a rapid shift in our collective and individual mentalities. We need a commitment across all societal levels, starting at the individual, to become active and take responsibility for leading more sustainable lifestyles. Only then will we be also able to influence decision-makers in politics, industry, and other stakeholders to do the right thing, but also, in reverse, be able to implement policies to the grassroots of society sustainably. 

It is all or nothing. Despite the good intentions, we can't wait for our governments, the UN, or tech giants somewhere in the world to save us. We need to get involved as citizens, bit by bit, to inspire collective action, as already millions of people around the world are doing daily, with exceptional acts of resilience, unnoticed by the masses - innovating, contributing, investing in their communities - being everyday heroes. 

#OnlyOneEarth but many Stories to be told to Spark Change & Action. 

I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel. – Maya Angelou

Peri-Khan Aqrawi-Whitcomb, Prsha AbuBakr, and Kozhan Yaseen have co-authored this piece