Climate apathy, not understanding what needs to change is a bigger problem than climate denial

September 22, 2017

Excerpt from The Guardian

Climate science denial is actually pretty rare, so why do we keep talking about it? asks Leo Barasi, author of the new book, The Climate Majority. Instead, he argues, let’s focus on a much more widespread problem: climate apathy.

Among the public, denial is quite rare. As I show in my book, The Climate Majority, in comparison with the proportion that think climate change won’t be a threat, Americans are more likely to think 9/11 was a US government plot, more Brits think Princess Diana was assassinated, not killed accidentally, and Canadians are more likely to say Bigfoot is real. Those are fringe conspiracy theories, and it’s right they’re treated as such.

And yet we still get distracted by climate denial, when our real target should be climate apathy. Many people, perhaps half the population, understand that climate change is real and a threat but just don’t think about it very much and don’t understand why they would need to change their lives to deal with it. If that apathy isn’t tackled, the world will face dangerous warming.

As the world looks at the emissions it needs to cut, some parts of the job are easier than others. Most progress so far has come from closing and cancelling coal power plants. Doing that hasn’t really had to draw on public support. It’s distant from most people’s lives and is the kind of thing that governments – or markets – can do without paying all that much attention to what the public think.

…The ways that climate change is often talked about reinforce apathy, ignoring the lessons from studies of psychology and political campaigning. This includes the failure to show most people – particularly those in rich and high-emitting countries – what extreme climate change would mean for their own lives, and the reliance on abstract small numbers that are not well understood (for example, on average, the UKpublic think the threshold for dangerous warming is 8°C/14°F rather than 1.5°C-2°C).

On top of this there’s the political polarisation of climate change. It’s widely seen as an issue that concerns liberals more than moderates and conservatives, particularly in the US. This puts off those who don’t identify with the left and so they don’t see climate change as something that people like themselves are interested in.

There are no magic words that will make everyone care about climate change but, as I outline in the book, there are ways of dealing with these causes of apathy. We can get much better at showing how the consequences of extreme warming would affect the people we’re talking to, and we can address the perception that it’s solely an issue of the left.

…Part of the answer is to keep pulling off the veil to show what’s really going on – exposing the money trails, hypocrisy and vested interests, so fossil fuel-funded lobbyists can’t keep influencing decisions from the shadows.

The Climate Majority: Apathy and Action in an Age of Nationalism by Leo Barasi is published by New Internationalist on 21 September 2017.