Climate justice and the bystander effect

| 2nd January 2019
Selfie in smog
Jia Qing - Imagechina
Could 'the bystander effect' explain public inaction on climate change?


The world was shocked by the viral video of fifteen year-old Jamal, a Syrian refugee who was pushed to the ground and had water poured over his face. As his GoFundMe page reaches more that £150,000 in donations, the public outcry is keenly felt.

However, the question still remains, why did no one come to his aid when so many people were present at the attack?

Research into "the bystander effect" might help us to understand this phenomena in its wider psycho-social context. 

Bystander effect 

An article published in March of 1964 can shine some light. The article was printed in The New York Times and reported on the death of a 28-year-old woman called Kitty Genovese. Kitty was stabbed outside of her home in Kew Gardens, New York. The article claimed that 38 neighbours witnessed the attack but none of them contacted the police or attempted to help her.

In spite of some inaccuracies, the article inspired decades of research into what turned out to be one of the most replicable phenomena in social psychology: “the bystander effect”.

The bystander effect is the idea that the more people present at an emergency situation, the less likely people are to offer help to a victim. A study by Latané and Rodin staged a situation in which  participants heard an investigator trip and then call out that she had hurt her ankle. When individuals were alone, 70 percent of them attempted to help the woman, however when another bystander was present, only 40 percent offered support.

This behaviour pattern has since been replicated many times in modern day settings, such as when individuals are a witness to cyber bullying. Many factors have been shown to contribute to the bystander effect, such as ‘diffusion of responsibility’ - when an individual assumes that other people are responsible for taking necessary action, and ‘ambiguity’ - when there is an element of uncertainty surrounding the situation.

IPCC report

The bystander effect evidently played a role in the sad story of Jamal. However, could it also be having an impact on a disaster happening on a far wider scale?

In 2018 we witnessed flooding in India, heatwaves across Europe, hurricanes in the United States, fires in Portugal and cyclones in the Philippines. The scientific reality was spelled out 8 October 2018: the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its latest report – its stark message leaving no space for doubt and the false comfort it provides.

Climate change is often spoken about as an issue that will wreak havoc for our children and grandchildren, but the IPCC’s report revealed that if we continue on our current trajectory, we will reach 1.5 degrees of global warming as early as 2030. This level of warming would bring a high risk of floods, drought, extreme heatwaves and poverty for hundreds of millions of people.

The IPCC report outlined that if we want any chance of preventing climate breakdown we need fossil fuels emissions to peak as early as 2020 and to reach net zero by 2050.

What is clear from the report is that the threat outlined demands a response. Jim Skea, co-chair of the IPCC Working Group III, warned: “Limiting warming to 1.5ºC is possible within the laws of chemistry and physics, but doing so would require unprecedented changes”.

Climate inaction

While some climate change campaigners spoke of experiencing anxiety, depression and grief following the release of the report, the considerable majority of the UK population went about their days pretty much as usual. It will probably seem strange to our children that there was more commotion about why the singer Ariana Grande broke up with comedian Pete Davidson. 

It is possible that our inaction on the issue of climate change is the outworking of the bystander effect on a global scale.

Ambiguity has spread as the scientific consensus is watered down by many media outlets. A diffusion of responsibility has also intensified as the UK government promises to tackle the issue, while at the same time virtually banning onshore wind power, scrapping solar subsidies, promoting fracking, cancelling zero carbon homes and reducing subsidies for electric cars.

The global community of bystanders remains unresponsive, while climate change has already taken many populations victim around the world and imminently threatens to take many more.

However, now is not the time for inaction. The question we need to ask ourselves is what am I doing to tackle climate change, or are we a symptom of the bystander effect – just standing by, watching as the tragedy unfolds?

This Author

Holly-Anna Petersen has a BSc in Biology, an MSc in Psychology and a Post Graduate Certificate in LI Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. She works in the field of mental health and delivers talks on the topics of empowerment and wellbeing. Holly-Anna is a trustee of charity Operation Noah and has eight years of experience working in the social justice and environmental fields.