Sadly, in many areas of the world, climate change is still only a debate, rather than being a fact. This is due to a variety of factors ranging from a lack of education, a lack of access to education, or campaigns of misinformation. As a result, climate change is not even on people’s radar of issues to prioritise.
Many people do understand the general idea of climate change and how it is shaping our future. However, climate change still isn’t always at the top of their priority list of issues to worry about. Why is that?
Psychological approach to climate change
PAIN is a psychological acronym coined by Harvard social psychologist, Daniel Gilbert. The acronym stands for: Personal, Abrupt, Immoral/Indecent and Now or similar versions thereof. Unfortunately, climate change has no consistent face that everyone can tangibly attach to it. Climate change is going to continue to affect different regions of the globe in different ways. In some regions, climate change may represent more frequent and more severe droughts. In other regions, it will represent more frequent and more severe flooding. Climate change is hot and it’s cold; it’s wet and it’s dry. It’s all of these things and that’s tough for people to visualise/comprehend.
The changes in climate don’t necessarily happen immediately either. Climate change has been a relatively gradual progression into what we see now. But we live in a day and age where “shock and awe” results in a greater reaction from people. Climate change also isn’t something that is inherently wrong or something abhorrent that goes against our moral or ethical codes.
Finally, people look at climate change as something that is in the future rather than something that is happening in the present. Many humans aren’t wired to worry about losing something that is in the future. You hear some politicians say “We have to look at cost/benefit analysis; we can’t have a lot of short-term costs for long-term goals”. This just lends credence to the idea that there are currently more pressing issues. The issues we worry about the most today typically fall into one or more of the categories that is in Daniel’s acronym. The more categories the issue falls into the more likely we are to care a lot about it. Unfortunately, from many people’s perspectives, it seems climate change falls into none of them.
We as humans really only have a finite pool of worry for the aspects that are at the top of our priority list. These can be family, friends, work, health/age, and issues related to crime and the economy. We also find ourselves developing a case of compassion fatigue. This is when people start to feel an indifference towards charitable issues or people who are suffering because they experience a high frequency of appeals for help on a consistent basis.
The reality is that the environmental problem of climate change is only one major issue we currently face. There are so many more issues related to equality, poverty, civil rights, hunger, and so on. Each of these asks that we do something to help make them better. Just have a look at the United Nations 17 Sustainable Development Goals, pictured below.
With all these other issues that humans have to factor in, if climate change isn’t having a direct negative influence on a person’s daily life, then it really is a case of “out of sight, out of mind”. Phrases such as “it’s not that bad yet” or “we’ll get to it later” usually come from people who obviously have yet to experience climate change directly influencing their life in a negative way. However, if you ask local fishermen in the Philippines or a local fruit farmer in California or a researcher who studies corals, their attitude towards climate change will be vastly different. They have seen the devastation of prolonged droughts or prolonged periods of increased ocean temperatures first hand.
Social conformity is another major contributor as to how we view climate change. If your group of friends are doubters of climate change, you may find yourself slowly but surely starting to agree with them. You want to “to fit in” instead of risking to say what you really feel out of fear of being cast out of that group. People don’t want to feel like a social outcast, especially within their niche of friends, their school or their community.
This can be commonly seen in the realm of politics as well. If you are in a party that has a strong belief against climate change you can’t necessarily voice a loud opinion on it, out of fear that you will receive a reprimanding from people higher up in the party. You may find yourself having trouble getting re-elected or implementing a policy for which you previously thought you had support. As a politician you may not want to voice your opinion on a certain hot topic, especially if the majority of the people in the state, province or county you are running in are against your opinion. Maybe had you kept quiet, you would’ve been able to move up the political ladder.
This is oftentimes the case with hot topics or issues up for debate. If you voice a very strong opinion for one side or the other, you’re more than likely to see ramifications regardless of what side you choose. Climate change right now is certainly a hot topic.
Another idea I’d like to briefly touch upon is that of optimism bias. This is when a person believes they are less likely to experience a negative event or feel the negative impacts from an event as compared to others. This is typically seen in people from the developed or Western world. We think that climate change is not a threat to our way of life because we feel we are more advanced technologically or have more resources. We feel that we are less vulnerable to climate change. Maybe there is some truth in that. However, Mother Nature has shown throughout history that no city or country is immune to environmental disasters. Sometimes we need to remember that even the biggest and strongest civilisations of the past fell abruptly, usually as a result of hubris. We are not less vulnerable.
Prioritising climate change
The point of this blog wasn’t to say that other issues are less important than climate change. All those other issues are very important. It’s critical we sort them out in order for us to continually evolve as a society and move forward in a positive direction. However, I do want to mention that climate change is one of the factors (along with rising human population) that can make all the other issues worse. The environment is literally tied into everything we do: what we breathe, what we drink, what we eat. It is our life source and a critical aspect for our quality of life. Finance, economics, society, health, immigration and emigration: these are all aspects that the environment ties directly into. Climate change has the capability to expedite other issues, reaching a “boiling point” that can lead to chaos.
I just want people to understand that maybe we should prioritise climate change a little bit more. We should be wary of falling into the biases I listed above. It’s important that people educate themselves about climate change. Hopefully, they will then educate their friends and family on the issue. I don’t want people to be afraid of voicing their opinion on climate change; it’s good to have a healthy debate about it. Finally, I don’t want people to treat “doubters” of climate change with disrespect. Try to understand their point of view and try to understand which reasons they may have for doubting. Try your best to find a way to help them understand. We will need as many people to be together in order to tackle the problem.