Low turnout at climate rallies highlights the huge disconnect between the evidence for catastrophic climate impacts and a sense of urgency for action
Last Saturday, with its sunny skies and cool temperatures, was a beautiful day for a rally. More than 150 people showed up for Peterborough’s “Rise for Climate” event to listen to speakers, enjoy poetry and join a New Orleans-style funeral march with a banner featuring Tahlequah, the orca, holding her dead calf above the water. The message was the extreme gravity of the climate crisis. This was one of more than 900 rallies held worldwide demanding more serious climate action from politicians.
Forcing political action is a numbers game. If there had been a couple of thousand people at the rally, politicians might react, but 150 can be written off as a special interest group. It was also clear that probably half of the participants were the same faces as at previous climate change rallies. Most, too, were 40 years of age or older. I couldn’t help but wonder why more and different people didn’t come, and why younger people were largely absent. Weren’t this summer’s record wildfires and heat waves enough to inspire people?
Despite the science on human-made climate change being absolutely conclusive, there is still a huge disconnect between the evidence for catastrophic climate impacts and a sense of urgency for action. As Barak Obama said in 2015 ” No challenge – no challenge – poses a greater threat to future generations than climate change.” Why don’t severe climate-related events and disturbances resonate more with people, given their huge financial, social and ecological impacts? Why doesn’t the evidence motivate governments, corporations and individuals to take immediate serious action? How could Ontarians elect a government that campaigned on getting rid of cap and trade and other mitigation measures without promising anything to replace them?
I do believe that most people care about climate change, but being concerned is not the same thing as taking action. The climate crisis is still near the bottom of people’s concerns when compared to other societal problems. This week and next, I will present some thoughts on this disconnect from reality.
The Five D’s
Per Espen Stoknes, a Norwegian psychologist, examined several hundred peer-reviewed social science studies and was able to isolate five main barriers that keep climate messages from engaging people. They are what he calls “the Five Ds”: Distance, Doom, Dissonance, Denial, and iDentity. I would highly recommend his Ted Talk, entitled “How to transform apocalypse fatigue into action on global warming”.
1. Distance – For many people, climate change is seen as something far away in space and time. When climate models talk of 2050 or 2100, it seems like eons from now. When we hear about the loss of Arctic sea ice or see polar bears on melting ice floes, it might be disturbing but we struggle to see any bearing on our day-to-day lives.
2. Doom: Climate change is usually framed as an impending disaster, so our brains want to avoid the topic altogether. As one observer said, “After 30 years, we’ve become numbed to collapse porn.” That being said, the jury is still out on how much fear serves as a motivator or demotivator for action. It appears to resonate with some people but not all. It all causes a great deal of grief, too. As my daughter, Julia, told me, “It makes me so sad to know that the polar bears in the books I read to my girls will probably be gone from the wild when they are adults.”
3. Dissonance: When we think about taking action on addressing climate change, there is an inherent conflict between what most of us do on a regular basis – drive, eat red meat, fly, lead a high consumption lifestyle – and what we know we should do – greatly reduce all of these behaviours. Consequently, dissonance sets in, which is felt as an inner discomfort. It makes many of us feel like hypocrites, myself included. To lessen the dissonance, our brains start coming up with justifications. “My neighbour has a much bigger car than me. What difference does it make if I’m the only one to change my diet? How can I visit friends and family or go on a winter vacation if I don’t fly?” This last excuse always creates feelings of guilt and hypocrisy whenever I fly.
4. Denial: For some, the uncomfortable feeling of dissonance makes them turn to denial and to say things like “the climate is always changing”. For others – maybe most of us – we simply avoid thinking or talking about the issue, largely because we feel powerless to make a difference. As my daughter said, “Bringing up climate change with friends and family is a conservation stopper. The room goes silent.” We therefore take refuge in leading a kind of “double-life”, both knowing the science but shutting it out.
5. iDentity: For some, cultural and political identity override the facts. A conservative-minded voter might say, “I believe in lower taxes, minimal government involvement in my life, and the right to drive as big a car as I want.” Someone on the left might say, “Government should be more involved in solving society’s problems. I’m fine with paying higher taxes, and we should all be driving smaller cars.”
Other factors, too, help explain our lack of engagement with climate change and point to the overwhelming size the problem. Many of these are strongly linked to the five D’s above and all are inter-related.
1. Our brains – Maybe the biggest reason why humans struggle to come to grips with climate change lies in the very nature of our brains. Like the frog in the proverbial pot of boiling water, we have trouble reacting to slow motion phenomena like a gradually changing climate. This is sometimes called “shifting baseline syndrome”. For example, we quickly forget how much colder winters used to be and how countless species were so much more abundant.
We also deal poorly with future threats and to threats that are characterized by a degree of uncertainty. Although scientists are 100% certain that human-generated greenhouse gases are the main cause of climate change, they usually cannot say with certainty when the worst impacts will occur. Ironically, these impacts seem to be happening earlier and with more intensity than originally predicted. To make matters worse, gratification for action now is in the future. We therefore struggle to address issues that don’t necessarily impact us today. It’s not even clear if our brains allow us to care deeply about the generations to follow.
2. All seems fine – For the most part, life in 2018 seems normal. We enjoyed a warm, sunny summer, albeit with four times as many 30+ C days as usual; our economy – on the surface at least – appears healthy; stores are overflowing with food and consumer goods; we don’t see much blatant poverty; and human thriving across the planet is probably at an all time high. In many ways, we live in the best of times, so why go to rallies or spend time worrying about climate change action?
Although we live in the worst of times when it comes to the environment, the immediate, visible impacts of problems like climate change are subtle (e.g., new species, earlier springs, later falls) and often only apparent to people who are really paying attention such as naturalists or anyone tracking weather data. There’s an absence of perceived change. There are also long gaps between extreme events such as Peterborough’s flood of 2004. This allows us to downplay the urgency of tackling climate action. Not enough people have seen it impacting their lives or the activities they enjoy doing.
3. Day-to-day life: Many, if not most of us, struggle to meet the demands of everyday life. People have enough trouble simply making ends meet. Understandably, there is not much energy left to devote to the abstract future. Parents with small kids have little brain space and energy left for things outside of parenting. Many individuals are also dealing with mental health issues, poverty, social injustice and both job and personal insecurity. We therefore shouldn’t be surprised that climate change seems too overwhelming and too abstract.
4. Optimism bias: People often overestimate the likelihood of positive events happening to them and underestimate the likelihood of negative events. In some ways, this is advantageous, because it reduces stress and anxiety about the future. The bias derives partly from a failure to learn from new undesirable information like climate change stories. It also makes it awkward to talk about climate change with family and friends for fear of accusations of being a worrywort or overly negative. It seems that climate change, like politics, religion and death has entered the domain of topics that are not discussed in polite conversation. If the topic does come up, it’s often dismissed by statements like “It won’t affect us personally, we’ll find a technological solution and really it will only be a problem for future generations.” Large numbers of people – in fact, many people I know – have developed unconscious cognitive strategies that allow them to remain optimistic despite evidence to the contrary. The problem, however, is that threats like climate change really must be considered with great urgency, and optimism bias can have significant negative consequences when it comes to discounting serious risk.
Next week, I’ll share more ideas on this theme, including distrust of experts, the impact of social media and the scant attention paid by traditional media to climate change. I would like to thank the many people who contributed their ideas for this article via Facebook. The response was extraordinary.