Climate apathy could mean disaster – but it isn’t inevitable

| 18th April 2018
Submerged cars

Come Hell or High Water, an art installation. Flooding will - in reality - increase as a result of climate change. 

Flickr
Public support for policies designed to reduce carbon emissions and prevent catastrophic climate change is vital. Yet people are naturally resistant when such policies mean sacrificing holidays and rewards they have earned through hard work. LEO BARASI argues there is a solution to this world-defining paradox

The problem comes when they’re asked to make sacrifices to deal with climate change – most are unwilling to do so and are suspicious when they hear about changes that would impose costs on them in the name of cutting emissions.

The European Union introduced wide-ranging rules regulating the manufacture and supply of chemicals 11 years ago.

The rules imposed significant costs on businesses but - it is hoped - will save many lives. They were passed with little media coverage with few people being aware of their existence - and have become a fact of life.

Given it’s been possible to restrict businesses and address a threat to public health without public debate when it comes to chemicals, could the world do the same with climate change? If that threat can also be tackled with rules that few people hear about, perhaps public opinion doesn’t matter.

Dangerous warming

Sadly for technocrats, this is unlikely. The challenge ahead - to meet the targets of the Paris Agreement and stop warming crossing dangerous thresholds - is enormous.

Greenhouse gas emissions have been rising steadily since the Industrial Revolution: the world will need to reverse that rise, cutting emissions at an unprecedented rate until humans stop adding warming gases to the atmosphere within the next few decades.

That means cleaning up industrial sectors that are distant from most people’s lives - like electricity, chemicals and shipping. The obscurity of shipping is reflected in the fact its crucial climate conference, happening this week, is getting almost no mainstream media coverage.

It also means cutting emissions from most people’s day-to-day lives, like the ways we travel and the food we eat.

Without cutting emissions from sectors like agriculture and aviation, the world won’t stop dangerous warming. It’s unlikely to be possible to clean up these sectors without most people noticing and agreeing to the changes.

Restricting flying

So public support for tackling climate change is essential, yet it’s far from assured. The problem isn’t climate denial: few people think the whole thing is a hoax, even in the countries where denial is loudest. A majority of the public accept climate science and believe it’s a threat that needs to be tackled.

The problem comes when they’re asked to make sacrifices to deal with it – most are unwilling to do so and are suspicious when they hear about changes that would impose costs on them in the name of cutting emissions.

Preventing dangerous warming may depend on public enthusiasm, but at the moment apathy is far more widespread. This isn’t just a problem for the future – it matters right now.

Take the UK. Its emissions are falling fast but this progress has come without confronting the emission sources that would be less popular to cut.

Plans to build a third runway at Heathrow would make the UK’s climate targets much harder to achieve, yet few politicians are prepared to acknowledge that cutting emissions probably means restricting flying.

Inherent nature

Similarly, the EU’s backing for TAP, a new pipeline that would bring huge volumes of Caspian Sea natural gas into Europe, suggests the bloc is also taking decisions now that will make it much more difficult to cut emissions in the next few decades.

If most people are worried about climate change, why does this kind of polluting infrastructure keep getting built, and why is there so little pressure for the measures that will be needed to prevent dangerous warming

Psychologists have identified a host of reasons most people avoid thinking about climate change. Among these are the way the problem seems distant – its impacts are mostly in other places, it will mostly happen in the future – and progresses slowly, and the fact it requires sacrifices now to avert problems later.

The barriers the mind puts up to avoid worrying about climate change might make the problem seem hopeless: Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman describes himself as “deeply pessimistic” about it.

But we must avoid confusing the inherent nature of climate change with the way it’s widely described and understood.

Spell disaster

For example, the fact the threat seems distant has more to do with the way its effects are described, notably the emphasis on ecosystems like the Arctic.

The consequences for polar bears aren’t enough to motivate most people, and now climate change is hitting the people whose emissions need to fall – with storms like Hurricane Sandy, which devastated New York in 2012 made more likely by climate change – it’s no longer necessary to talk about it as a distant threat.

The same applies to the idea that climate change requires sacrifices for future benefits. It may well do, and, if that’s all that most people hear about it, there’s unlikely to be widespread enthusiasm.

But there are plenty of ways in which tackling climate change can bring benefits beyond averting future problems, from cleaner air and new jobs, to better insulated homes and, perhaps, communities that jointly own wind farms and solar panels.

This is a matter of choice. Climate apathy could spell disaster for efforts to prevent dangerous warming but it isn’t inevitable.

The fact it is so widespread is a result of various ways climate change has been, and continues to be, described. That can change. It will take a widespread shift in how the issue is talked about, but it’s still possible to turn apathy into action.

This Author

Leo Barasi is the author of The Climate Majority: Apathy and Action in an Age of Nationalism published by New Internationalist.

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