Despite the urgency exclaimed by scientists around the world Climate Change has languished in a sea of indifference by most of the affluent public since the 1980’s. When Dr. James Hansen, of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. tried to alert the public to the dangers of Climate Change in his 1988 testimony to Congress, he thought that would be that. He, as a climate scientist, would inform the public and they’d get going. That hasn’t happened. Except for a slight lull in greenhouse gas emissions (GHG’s) in the US because of the 2008 Recession, there has been a steady increase in carbon dioxide (CO2) over the world.
Until we recognize the kind of transformative issue Climate Change is we have no chance of actually addressing it. Too many at this point in time think Climate Change is an issue that can be put off, that other problems are more important: or, that it can be solved by environmental groups, a sudden shift to a green economy, or placed on governmental authorities--most of which the public would not support election after election if climate adaption caused their taxes to go up. Climate Change is the perfect storm of human frailties: our dislike of change, our tendency to heed mainstream thinking instead of science, our need for normalcy, and our insatiable desire to be comfortable, free from Nature’s wrath red in tooth and claw.
If Climate Change is such a transformative issue then why are the majority folks in the developed nations not alarmed? True, many are alarmed and acting; others are alarmed but somehow have been rendered impotent. Besides the fabulously rich ideologues and/or those addicted to the large profits from the fossil fuel industries, we can only speculate why the majority of the affluent public avoids this issue. Here’s my short list the US public uses to dismiss the urgency of Climate Change:
1. Our economic system, built upon the fallacy that our survival system is merely an externality, has upended our priorities. It’s like building airplane without a clue about aerodynamics—and expecting it to fly.
2. Ubiquitous propaganda that places our economic health on an even footing with (or supplants) our biological underpinnings. This is so interwoven into our politics, media ads, mainstream environmental reporting, and what’s deemed appropriate talk in polite society that we don’t even notice.
3. Adapting to Climate Change would be too inconvenient, like it is for most of the developing countries who cannot do much about the crisis we have caused.
4. There’s a tendency in human nature to continue on the same path they’re on regardless. It explains why we still love the automobiles even though they are killing over 30 million in this country each year.
5. Present day discomfort at addressing Climate Change is thwarted because we believe we won’t appreciate immediate results in a climatic system already scheduled for decades of warming. If we’re going to do good, we want immediate feedback. Altruism, which many species unwittingly practice, is sacrificing oneself for the survival of the group. (Tough to practice in a ‘Me First’ economy.)
6. Trying to reduce the impact of warming on future generations exposes us to the prisoner’s dilemma, where folks won’t cooperate to solve a common problem even when it’s in their best interest to do so.
7. We have more immediate and important things to take care of and besides it looks like the activists have stepped up to the plate on this one and, by the way, thanks for that.
8. The shift in many environmentalists’ strategy on Climate Change by framing it as a green energy opportunity has placed the burden of success on those groups pandering to an economic system based on endless growth and consumerism. [Note: Naomi Klein’s article: Green groups may be more damaging than climate change deniers]
9. Activists successes sometimes work against themselves: Efforts like those of 350.org to get universities to divest from fossil fuel is a remarkable effort. It is also limited because it only attempts to solve only one aspect of the problem (making the fossil fuel industries the enemy), and allows many in the public to sit back and think this is the entire problem.
10. Shifting baseline syndrome, where we fail to notice change beyond our particular life spans, blinds us to longer-occurring events. Climate Change, though it is warming our atmosphere at an unprecedented rate in human times, is unfolding slower than we are used to noticing in our daily lives. This defect in our ability to observe multi-lifetime-long events was supposed to be one of the reasons why we studied history, so we can follow the implications of our actions beyond our own lifetimes. History has failed us on Climate Change because mostly it has been interested in wars and cultures and violent leaders.
11. Many environmental efforts are evangelical (marked by militant or crusading zeal) in their construct, as this way of getting large groups of people to act en masse on issues historically has worked well. [Note: women’s suffrage.] The problem with this strategy is that the activists get to own the problem and take all the heat for trying to solve everyone’s failures. Though all women and men have benefited from the 19th Amendment, only a relatively few of the entire population actually fought this for this issue.
12. We encourage media that blinds us to the reality of Climate Change by continuing to support their editors, reporters, and corporate owners who pander to our desire for denial. Hence the plethora of mind-numbing minutiae that is now local media and very little about important survival information so we can properly plan. (Why your dog wags its tail should not be headlines.)
13. Some brainy folks think humanity is in our adolescent stage and we’ll outgrow it. Well, some adolescents don’t make it to adulthood.
14. Humans are a part of nature so everything we do is natural and good. The lunacy of this line of reasoning is exposed by mountain top removal that destroys ecologies, streams, and communities’ livelihoods to warm the planet up even faster.
15. Because we are not actually desperate for our next meal (as millions in the world are) we tend to believe that we are living in the best of all possible worlds, but forget it’s not the best for everyone. [Note: see the film The Fever]
16. Alarm on Climate Change is like someone yelling ‘Fire!” in a crowded movie house, but nobody moves because nobody else is moving. Our species tends to look around at each other for appropriate responses to stimuli--mainstream thinking. This might explain why many passersby avoid getting involved in reporting on raping or mugging incidents in a crowded area.
17. Most folks need to feel that their efforts will matter. Making money has magically (despite the morality of what one actually does money for) solved this inherent human motivator. Solving Climate Change doesn’t pay all that well. In fact, some, the Arctic 30, are suffering in a cold Russian prison because they took on the role of protectors of our planet’s refrigerator.
18. We feel trumped by the argument that excoriating fossil fuels makes us hypocrites, as we all use fossil fuels to heat our homes and power our gas guzzlers. Well it’s true and get over it. We didn’t get born in 1491, America. We have to metamorphose the system we have been delivered to a system that is sustainable.
19. Many favoring the ‘wait and see’ approach will enjoy this new report this week from the BBC “Report suggests slowdown in CO2 emissions rise.” It suggests that if we drag our feet long enough some study will come out and stop all the worry. I wouldn’t bet on it.
20. The ‘I just don’t give a damn about Climate Change’ excuse, the mother of all excuses. There aren’t many deniers in the drought-stricken regions of Australia, or waterlogged Bangladesh, or sinking Maldives. [Watch: The Island President.] Only those not experiencing these disasters have the luxury of such an excuse.
None of these excuses will change the physics of Climate Change. They are merely a partial list of the possible excuses that many use to avoid the Climate Change issue. Some of these excuses may or may not offer clues to solutions. Some of these excuses may be the bailiwick of various fields of expertise--engineering, psychology, sociology, political science, and philosophy. But one thing is for sure: none of them are offering solutions on scale that will matter.
A couple of more Hurricane Sandy’s in a row would accomplish what an auditorium full of so-called experts on human motivation cannot do. But the point of addressing Climate Change is to adapt to the warming before we get to the point that we cannot solve them. Figuring out how to get a majority of folks on this planet to do just that should be (but are not) paramount in any strategies to address it.