Why isn't cli­mate change a big­ger con­cern?

Low turnout at ral­lies, events won’t at­tract gov­ern­ments’ at­ten­tion

The Peterborough Examiner - - Arts & Life - DREW MONKMAN Drew Monkman is a re­tired Peterborough teacher and co-au­thor of The Big Book of Na­ture Ac­tiv­i­ties. Reach him at [email protected]­geco.ca. To see past col­umns, re­cent na­ture sight­ings and his other books, go to www.drew­monkman.com.

Last Satur­day, with its sunny skies and cool tem­per­a­tures, was a beau­ti­ful day for a rally. More than 150 peo­ple showed up for Peterborough's Rise for Cli­mate event to lis­ten to speak­ers, en­joy poetry and join a New Or­leansstyle fu­neral march with a ban­ner fea­tur­ing Tahlequah, the orca, hold­ing her dead calf above the wa­ter. The mes­sage was the ex­treme grav­ity of the cli­mate cri­sis. This was one of more than 900 ral­lies held world­wide de­mand­ing more se­ri­ous cli­mate ac­tion from politi­cians.

Forc­ing po­lit­i­cal ac­tion is a num­bers game. If there had been a cou­ple of thousand peo­ple at the rally, politi­cians might re­act, but 150 can be writ­ten off as a spe­cial in­ter­est group. It was also clear that prob­a­bly half of the par­tic­i­pants were the same faces as at pre­vi­ous cli­mate change ral­lies. Most, too, were 40 years of age or older. I couldn't help but won­der why more and dif­fer­ent peo­ple didn't come, and why younger peo­ple were largely ab­sent. Weren't this sum­mer's record wild­fires and heat waves enough to in­spire peo­ple?

De­spite the sci­ence on hu­man­made cli­mate change be­ing ab­so­lutely con­clu­sive, there is still a huge dis­con­nect be­tween the ev­i­dence for cat­a­strophic cli­mate im­pacts and a sense of ur­gency for ac­tion. As Barak Obama said in 2015 "No chal­lenge – no chal­lenge – poses a greater threat to fu­ture gen­er­a­tions than cli­mate change." Why don't se­vere cli­mate-re­lated events and dis­tur­bances res­onate more with peo­ple, given their huge fi­nan­cial, so­cial and eco­log­i­cal im­pacts? Why doesn't the ev­i­dence mo­ti­vate gov­ern­ments, cor­po­ra­tions and in­di­vid­u­als to take im­me­di­ate se­ri­ous ac­tion? How could On­tar­i­ans elect a gov­ern­ment that cam­paigned on get­ting rid of cap and trade and other mit­i­ga­tion mea­sures with­out promis­ing any­thing to re­place them?

I do be­lieve that most peo­ple care about cli­mate change, but be­ing con­cerned is not the same thing as tak­ing ac­tion. The cli­mate cri­sis is still near the bot­tom of peo­ple's con­cerns when com­pared to other so­ci­etal prob­lems. This week and next, I will present some thoughts on this dis­con­nect from re­al­ity.

The Five Ds

Per Espen Stok­nes, a Nor­we­gian psy­chol­o­gist, ex­am­ined sev­eral hun­dred peer-re­viewed so­cial sci­ence stud­ies and was able to iso­late five main bar­ri­ers that keep cli­mate mes­sages from en­gag­ing peo­ple. They are what he calls “the Five Ds”: Dis­tance, Doom, Dis­so­nance, De­nial, and iDen­tity. I would highly rec­om­mend his Ted Talk, en­ti­tled "How to trans­form apoc­a­lypse fa­tigue into ac­tion on global warm­ing".

1. Dis­tance - For many peo­ple, cli­mate change is seen as some­thing far away in space and time. When cli­mate mod­els talk of 2050 or 2100, it seems like eons from now.

When we hear about the loss of Arc­tic sea ice or see po­lar bears on melt­ing ice floes, it might be dis­turb­ing but we strug­gle to see any bear­ing on our day-to-day lives.

2. Doom: Cli­mate change is usu­ally framed as an im­pend­ing dis­as­ter, so our brains want to avoid the topic al­to­gether. As one ob­server said, "Af­ter 30 years, we've be­come numbed to col­lapse porn." That be­ing said, the jury is still out on how much fear serves as a mo­ti­va­tor or de­mo­ti­va­tor for ac­tion. It ap­pears to res­onate with some peo­ple but not all. It all causes a great deal of grief, too. As my daugh­ter, Ju­lia, told me, "It makes me so sad to know that the po­lar bears in the books I read to my girls will prob­a­bly be gone from the wild when they are adults."

3. Dis­so­nance: When we think about tak­ing ac­tion on ad­dress­ing cli­mate change, there is an in­her­ent con­flict be­tween what most of us do on a reg­u­lar ba­sis drive, eat red meat, fly, lead a high con­sump­tion lifestyle - and what we know we should do greatly re­duce all of these be­hav­iours. Con­se­quently, dis­so­nance sets in, which is felt as an in­ner dis­com­fort. It makes many of us feel like hyp­ocrites, my­self in­cluded. To lessen the dis­so­nance, our brains start com­ing up with jus­ti­fi­ca­tions. "My neigh­bour has a much big­ger car than me. What dif­fer­ence does it make if I'm the only one to change my diet? How can I visit friends and fam­ily or go on a win­ter va­ca­tion if I don't fly?" This last ex­cuse al­ways cre­ates feel­ings of guilt and hypocrisy when­ever I fly.

4. De­nial: For some, the un­com­fort­able feel­ing of dis­so­nance makes them turn to de­nial and to say things like "the cli­mate is al­ways chang­ing". For oth­ers - maybe most of us - we sim­ply avoid think­ing or talk­ing about the is­sue, largely be­cause we feel pow­er­less to make a dif­fer­ence. As my daugh­ter said, "Bring­ing up cli­mate change with friends and fam­ily is a con­ver­sa­tion stop­per. The room goes silent." We there­fore take refuge in lead­ing a kind of "dou­ble-life", both know­ing the sci­ence but shut­ting it out.

5. iDen­tity: For some, cul­tural and po­lit­i­cal iden­tity over­ride the facts. A con­ser­va­tive-minded voter might say, "I be­lieve in lower taxes, min­i­mal gov­ern­ment in­volve­ment in my life, and the right to drive as big a car as I want." Some­one on the left might say, "Gov­ern­ment should be more in­volved in solv­ing so­ci­ety's prob­lems. I'm fine with pay­ing higher taxes, and we should all be driv­ing smaller cars."

Other fac­tors

Other fac­tors, too, help ex­plain our lack of en­gage­ment with cli­mate change and point to the over­whelm­ing size the prob­lem. Many of these are strongly linked to the five D's above and all are in­ter-re­lated.

1. Our brains - Maybe the big­gest rea­son why hu­mans strug­gle to come to grips with cli­mate change lies in the very na­ture of our brains. Like the frog in the prover­bial pot of boil­ing wa­ter, we have trou­ble re­act­ing to slow mo­tion phe­nom­ena like a grad­u­ally chang­ing cli­mate. This is some­times called "shift­ing base­line syn­drome". For ex­am­ple, we quickly for­get how much colder win­ters used to be and how count­less species were so much more abun­dant.

We also deal poorly with fu­ture threats and to threats that are char­ac­ter­ized by a de­gree of un­cer­tainty. Al­though sci­en­tists are 100% cer­tain that hu­man­gener­ated green­house gases are the main cause of cli­mate change, they usu­ally can­not say with cer­tainty when the worst im­pacts will oc­cur. Iron­i­cally, these im­pacts seem to be hap­pen­ing ear­lier and with more in­ten­sity than orig­i­nally pre­dicted. To make mat­ters worse, grat­i­fi­ca­tion for ac­tion now is in the fu­ture. We there­fore strug­gle to ad­dress is­sues that don't nec­es­sar­ily im­pact us to­day. It's not even clear if our brains al­low us to care deeply about the gen­er­a­tions to fol­low.

2. All seems fine - For the most part, life in 2018 seems nor­mal. We en­joyed a warm, sunny sum­mer, al­beit with four times as many 30+ C days as usual; our econ­omy - on the sur­face at least - ap­pears healthy; stores are over­flow­ing with food and con­sumer goods; we don't see much bla­tant poverty; and hu­man thriv­ing across the planet is prob­a­bly at an all time high. In many ways, we live in the best of times, so why go to ral­lies or spend time wor­ry­ing about cli­mate change ac­tion?

Al­though we live in the worst of times when it comes to the en­vi­ron­ment, the im­me­di­ate, vis­i­ble im­pacts of prob­lems like cli­mate change are sub­tle (e.g., new species, ear­lier springs, later falls) and of­ten only ap­par­ent to peo­ple who are re­ally pay­ing at­ten­tion such as nat­u­ral­ists or any­one track­ing weather data. There's an ab­sence of per­ceived change. There are also long gaps be­tween ex­treme events such as Peterborough's flood of 2004.

This al­lows us to down­play the ur­gency of tack­ling cli­mate ac­tion. Not enough peo­ple have seen it im­pact­ing their lives or the ac­tiv­i­ties they en­joy do­ing.

3. Day-to-day life: Many, if not most of us, strug­gle to meet the de­mands of ev­ery­day life. Peo­ple have enough trou­ble sim­ply mak­ing ends meet. Un­der­stand­ably, there is not much en­ergy left to de­vote to the ab­stract fu­ture. Par­ents with small kids have lit­tle brain space and en­ergy left for things out­side of par­ent­ing. Many in­di­vid­u­als are also deal­ing with men­tal health is­sues, poverty, so­cial in­jus­tice and both job and per­sonal in­se­cu­rity. We there­fore shouldn't be sur­prised that cli­mate change seems too over­whelm­ing and too ab­stract.

4. Op­ti­mism bias: Peo­ple of­ten over­es­ti­mate the like­li­hood of pos­i­tive events hap­pen­ing to them and un­der­es­ti­mate the like­li­hood of neg­a­tive events. In some ways, this is ad­van­ta­geous, be­cause it re­duces stress and anx­i­ety about the fu­ture. The bias de­rives partly from a fail­ure to learn from new un­de­sir­able in­for­ma­tion like cli­mate change sto­ries. It also makes it awk­ward to talk about cli­mate change with fam­ily and friends for fear of ac­cu­sa­tions of be­ing a wor­ry­wort or overly neg­a­tive.

It seems that cli­mate change, like pol­i­tics, re­li­gion and death has en­tered the do­main of topics that are not dis­cussed in po­lite con­ver­sa­tion. If the topic does come up, it's of­ten dis­missed by state­ments like "It won’t af­fect us per­son­ally, we'll find a tech­no­log­i­cal so­lu­tion and re­ally it will only be a prob­lem for fu­ture gen­er­a­tions." Large num­bers of peo­ple - in fact, many peo­ple I know - have de­vel­oped un­con­scious cog­ni­tive strate­gies that al­low them to re­main op­ti­mistic de­spite ev­i­dence to the con­trary. The prob­lem, how­ever, is that threats like cli­mate change re­ally must be con­sid­ered with great ur­gency, and op­ti­mism bias can have sig­nif­i­cant neg­a­tive con­se­quences when it comes to dis­count­ing se­ri­ous risk.

Next week, I'll share more ideas on this theme, in­clud­ing dis­trust of ex­perts, the im­pact of so­cial me­dia and the scant at­ten­tion paid by tra­di­tional me­dia to cli­mate change. I would like to thank the many peo­ple who con­trib­uted their ideas for this ar­ti­cle via Face­book. The lack of cli­mate en­gage­ment is clearly on peo­ple's minds.


About 150 peo­ple turned out for the "Rise forCli­mate" rally last Satur­day at Con­fed­er­a­tion Square. Or­ga­niz­ers, how­ever, were hop­ing for many more, es­pe­cially if politi­cians are to pay at­ten­tion.

There is still a huge dis­con­nect be­tween the sci­en­tific ev­i­dence for cat­a­strophic cli­mate im­pacts and the pub­lic's sense of ur­gency for ac­tion, Drew Monkman writes to­day.

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