Psychology of Climate Change: The Low Priority

 /  June 8, 2016, 12:53 a.m.


Climate change kills between 250,000 and 400,000 people per year around the world. Both 2014 and 2015 were the hottest years on record to date. To address this growing crisis, the UN Paris climate agreement aims to limit CO2 emissions enough to keep the average global temperature rise below 3.5 degrees Celsius, which is higher than the 2.0-degree increase that scientists agree is the maximum safely allowable rise due to greenhouse gas emission.

And yet, Americans just don’t care about climate change. As a result, we don’t have the policy the science tells us we should have, and that exposes the inability of institutional political bodies to effectively allow to deal with an issue like climate change.

In 2014, U.S. public opinion polls showed that people ranked climate change 14th out of 15 issues in terms of “worrying a great deal.” Ahead of climate change came “illegal immigration” (12th) and the ambiguous “quality of the environment” (13th). “Race relations” was 15th, the only issue after climate change.

In 2015, Americans astonishingly worried less about climate change than about these five other environmental issues: drinking water pollution (55% worried a great deal), rivers, lakes, and reservoir pollution (47%), air pollution (38%), plant and animal extinctions (36%), and rain forest loss (33%). A mere 32% of people worried a great deal about climate change.

Over the past 26 years, Americans worrying a “great deal” or “fair amount” has fluctuated between 50% and 72%, with 2016 opinion at 64%. That means that one third to one half of the country has not worried about climate change.

Why is this the case? Why do Americans worry more about people entering our country illegally than a global threat that kills hundreds of thousands of human beings? There are a couple of reasons.

An unfortunate—as it’s relatively uncontrollable—answer is the wiring of our human brains. For tens of thousands of years, homo sapiens (and genealogical ancestors) spent time worrying about short-term, tangible threats in front of them, like securing food, water, and shelter, and protecting themselves from predators and other physical threats. Climate change is an extremely different kind of threat. Although climatic changes and sea level rise have already affected people, the bulk of the damage from rising temperatures will occur years and decades in the future.

We’re just not evolutionarily equipped to understand and feel threatened by long-term hazards that are described in terms that aren’t concrete enough (e.g., “a 2.0-degree temperature increase causes changes in the Earth’s climate”). We can understand a hurricane ravaging a coastal town, but by our nature, it’s far more difficult to intuitively understand the higher statistical probability that a hurricane will strike with increasing warming causing increasing probability. As a result, people still think of the issue as one that’s temporally far off: In 2014, only 65% of Americans believed climate change was happening or would happen in their lifetimes. It’s problematic that a sizable population perceives climate change as a threat that won’t harm them.

We’re also far less likely to care when the effects are primarily thought of as geographically distant. Some academic research shows that when the effects of climate change were framed as local, survey respondents were far more likely to support local climate change mitigation policies. In reality, climate change has impacted all 50 states to some extent, but not in ways that have been recognized.

In these ways, climate change is very different from something like war, which people perceive as having direct, tangible, possibly local effects. (In the same survey in which Americans ranked climate change as the 14th “most worrisome” threat, they  ranked “the possibility of future terrorist attacks in the U.S.” as 9th. Survey results are never precise truth or without errors, but the significant difference between 9th and 14th is telling. In several other polls, Americans have also reported worrying significantly more about terrorism than climate change.)

In addition to Americans simply not caring about the issue, research has shown that they aren’t willing to take certain individual steps to help combat the problem. In one survey, Americans stated that they were willing to pay only $5 more on their monthly energy bill to help fight climate change. And among those most “alarmed” about the issue, only 29% had donated to a group fighting climate change, and one third of people had contacted their representative in the last twelve months. Those figures aren’t the only ways to “do something” about climate change, but they are good indicators that people aren’t too willing to absorb a personal cost to do something small that contributes to the collective’s problem solving.

In addition to humans’ naturally local, short-term focus, another explanation for Americans’ indifference  may be the feeling of helplessness and pessimism at making any real progress to mitigate climate change. Termed “environmental melancholia,” the often seemingly insurmountable scale of the issue can understandably turn people off.

All in all, people (1) evolutionarily can’t intuitively understand the long-term, somewhat abstract, sometimes (but not always) geographically distant, harmful effects of climate change, (2) aren’t willing to do much when the issue is so massive in scale and when there’s uncertainty in the impacts of one’s individual actions, and (3) can feel helpless in the effort to solve such a massive crisis.

What does this mean in terms of practical lessons? Framing climate change in different ways to amplify the local, short term effects on human beings—and less of the statistical, scientific jargon—is one possible answer. Based on some previously cited research, framing does make a difference in public support for policy, but other research shows that different frames wouldn’t make the biggest impact, at this point in the issue’s tenure in public discourse (but for future issues, framing from the get-go might matter more).

Primarily, it means that now that we understand the evolutionary limits to our natural ability to conceptualize long-term, global issues, we can design policy tools that better correct for such deficiencies. We did this in the 1980s, when Congress created task forces to design policies to prevent ozone pollution, even when the science wasn’t settled, meaning the public didn’t need to correctly understand the issue and hold mass protests in the streets to effect legislative action. Congress created a way for the science to directly dictate policy.

A contemporary example of a policy solution mechanism like this could be an independent scientific body—possibly elected by the scientific community—that would review the research on climate change. If it reached a certain threshold of scientific consensus, then Congress would be mandated to pass some sort of legislation to mitigate the problem. A political body like this could be utilized for all scientific issues that most of us aren’t psychologically ready to handle and solve on our own.

The public’s lack of understanding and apathy on an objectively threatening issue—which manifests itself in the lack of adequate policies to address climate change—exposes the flaws in the institutional design of the government to deal with issues like this. We may need further checks on our own human limits to effectively solve self-imposed crises). But in the meantime, we simply need to get people to care more.

The image featured in this article is licensed under Creative Commons. The original image can be found here

Sam Zacher


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