Why is there such apparent disinterest and even apathy amongst people when it comes to responding to messages about climate change? Is “climate change fatigue” a real phenomena? This post is based on an email I contributed to an internal CSAG discussion. The discussion was prompted by a journalists comment that there is a real lack of interest in the latest IPCC report within the media (and probably within the general populace as well). Whereas several years ago, the release of an IPCC report would have made headlines, now it struggles to make it into a sidebar. And even within the circles of the public that most of us operate in, there is very little reaction to climate change messages. Even those who completely trust the science (arguably not always a great idea), are not activated by it, despite the projected consequences. As climate scientists we see the projections, we study the potential impacts, and we are often surprised people aren’t more interested!
But lets consider another scenario involving a potentially large global “problem” on similar time scales. In fact lets consider a scenario that is even more extreme than climate change. Imagine that NASA (assuming they still have funding) figures out that a massive meteorite is likely to hit earth in 60 years time that is big enough to wipe out half of mankind. And they can even ascribe a probability to it hitting earth. Say 50% probability, “even odds”. So not a Bruce Willis (we have two days) scenario, but a relatively long time horizon event. Firstly, how would people react? For the majority of people on earth I imagine that once the initial shock was over there really wouldn’t be much they could do differently. They would still need to live out their lives, go to school, go to work, etc… Governments would still need to operate, build roads, provide water, win and lose elections. Half the current population will be dead for other causes before the meteorite even hits.
And how would it be reported in the media? After the initial media explosion, what would happen? As the journalist referred to previously commented, there are only so many times you can tell people the same news. I suppose every now and again you could report that the meteorite is now a bit closer and yes, its still very probably going to hit earth and wipe out mankind… “and in other news, actor Jane Plain has divorced her sixth husband.”
Now of course the comparison with climate change is not perfect. For one thing, the impacts of climate change are mostly expected to be gradual rather than the rather sudden impact of a meteorite strike. For another, there is something mankind can do to at least constrain the long term impacts. But in terms of public interest, its a helpful analogy to help us think about what sort of reaction we really expect from people when we talk about climate change.
Serendipitously, the day after the aforementioned discussion, a paper was published in Nature that comes quite close to describing climate change in terms of “event horizons”. The paper, Mora et al. (link) identifies dates in the future when the projected mean climate moves outside of observed ranges. For example, at what date in the future will coolest year be hotter than any year we have experienced since 1860. As expected the results vary significantly over the globe with the tropics typically reaching this point earlier than the poles because they naturally experience less variability. But one significant result is that approximately 5 billion people currently live in areas where the climate will depart from observed ranges by 2050, which is only 37 years time. Added to this is that majority of those 5 billion live in low income countries.
Now of course this is all statistics and of course no one is suggesting that the specific years identified are particularly significant. They are merely indicative of the kind of time horizon we are looking before we see changes that are “truly significant” (whatever that means). But what is our reaction? What kind of reaction do we expect?
Beyond the distortion lens of the media there are actions taking place. Governments are thinking about this, development agencies are engaging with it, development banks are very interested in it. Policy, law, practice. These are all being influenced and guided by the science. Though arguably more present concerns such as US debt and the next election tend to dominate. But this isn’t the kind of activity that sells newspapers or sells advertising on websites. This is the stuff that we at CSAG and our colleagues around the world are grappling with day to day. But generally even our significant others don’t find it that interesting!
I guess, to wrap this up, the question that emerges for me is whether this is good enough? Is it enough that in our personal capacities we remain apathetic? That we continue to live lifestyles that we know to be unsustainable (that should prompt some discussion), that we continue to use more than our “fair share” of resources. That we continue to avoid personal sacrifice and merely delegate responsibility for the problem to governments and development agencies? That we continue to complain when the cost of petrol, electricity and water rises, rather than acknowledge that historical costs were unsustainable and the true costs of such resources should be even higher still? I’m being purposely provocative here because I want to prompt discussion and if possible, introspection. I think that deep down I’m uncomfortable with my own apathy. Is our belief about something evidenced by what we say, or what we do?
How about you?