Yesterday I caught a speedy summary of the climate vulnerability of Nigerian cities that included a glimpse into public perceptions there. Felix Olorunfemi of the Nigerian Institute of Social and Economic Research surveyed 300 people door-to-door in the city of Ibadan and found that awareness of climate change was low, that it was seen as a complex and abstract problem, and that knowledge of such environmental problems wasn’t correlated with action taken to address them.
What was striking about this ‘not our problem’ attitude was that it also cropped up in another case study during the same session. Research presented by Johanna Wolf from the Tyndall Centre at the University of East Anglia revealed it among people whose lives may in fact be directly at risk from global warming: elderly English pensioners.
Wolf and her co-workers designed their survey with one eye on the 2003 heat wave that killed tens of thousands, including a large proportion over age 75, and another on projections that summer heat will begin hitting the UK harder and more often. But they found that the over-75s most at risk didn’t see heat waves as a problem worth preparing for, because Britain is not exactly famous for its scorching sunshine. They would wait to change their behavior until the heat was on and they were already in danger. And the pensioners’ spouses, children and other social contacts, surveyed separately, were found to be reinforcing these beliefs.
(The wizened participants didn’t even see themselves as elderly, necessarily. Wolf says that many interview subjects identified ‘old people’ as a group at risk from heat, but then by way of clarification would describe ‘old people’ as ‘people in wheelchairs’ or ‘people who can’t take care of themselves anymore’ – a quite different type of ‘old’ from themselves.)
It’s one example of how adaptation may need to begin at home – and with the tweaking of personal beliefs and social norms as climate change shifts familiar risks.