By Kim Robson:
Short answer: Think again.
During our very short lifespans, we generally fail to recognize the gradual effects of climate change. We forget how things were just a few decades ago. For instance, Americans under the age of 28 have never once experienced below average temperatures for more than a month. What seems normal now is actually part of an abnormally long-term warming trend. Long-term normal temperatures would seem unusually cold to people based on today’s personal experience. Even within the space of a few years, it seems as though every summer gets a bit hotter and every winter gets a bit milder. This is why we need to listen to climate scientists, who base their findings on thousands of years of physical evidence.
Despite the current EPA director Scott Pruitt’s belief that carbon dioxide is not the main cause of climate change, 70% of Americans do believe that climate change is really happening. Even more than half of Republicans now accept climate change as fact, according to the Yale Climate Opinion Maps 2.0.
So, it’s a given that we recognize the risks that come with climate change. But surprisingly, most Americans don’t feel that climate change will affect them directly, that it will be a problem for other people; that, with our privilege and wealth, we’ll figure out ways to adapt. Climate change will suck for the poor, especially those in third-world countries, and for future generations, for seaside communities, for coral reefs, for plants and animals, and for agriculture. None of which is a problem for ME, right NOW.
The study found that only 40% of Americans believe that climate change will harm them personally. Maybe they think we’ll all live under air-conditioned glass domes in the future. We see reports of worsening drought, flooding, forest fires and increasingly severe storms across the country. To believe that one or more of these potentially deadly problems won’t directly affect us in the future is to keep one’s proverbial head in the sand.
J.D. Capelouto of the Thomson Reuters Foundation asked Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication (YPCCC), about the Yale findings. Leiserowitz said that, both in terms of when impacts will come and where they will happen, “For many Americans, even those that do accept that global warming is real and important, they still tend to think of it as distant.” That means, for many people, “it doesn’t seem like a high priority.”
Why does this baffling mentality exist? Is it cognitive dissonance? Intellectual understanding but emotional denial? Short answer: People don’t like risk.
Katherine Lindeman of Researchgate asked Princeton University psychologist Sander van der Linden, “Why is there a gap between recognizing the danger of climate change intellectually and feeling motivated to address it?”
Van der Linden explained, “If we could invent one risk that bypasses all of our psychological alarm systems, global climate change would be it.” He continued, “Unfortunately, because climate change is a statistical phenomenon that cannot be experienced directly, it presents a unique challenge for the human brain. Perhaps the most powerful way for you to intuitively understand the risk of touching a hot plate is to burn your finger. Our brains are equipped with a biologically hard-wired alarm system that motivates responses to immediate environmental threats. The problem is that because we cannot readily see, hear, or experience the risk of climate change, this affective warning system is not activated.
“Moreover, our cognitive understanding of climate risks is often discounted psychologically by the fact that global warming has traditionally been conveyed as an impersonal risk that is likely to happen in other places, to other people, at some point in the distant future.”
Regardless, 86% of Americans strongly support more development of renewable energy policies. Even among base GOP voters, 72% want more green energy development in solar power, hydropower, natural gas, and wind power. We must get our heads out of the sand and recognize that climate change is a very real problem, right now, for all of us.