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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?

7 Responses to “Climate Change Apathy”

  1. Glenn Ashton

    There are a number of reasons the story is not covered in the mainstream media.
    First, it is depressing – and there is enough non-sunshine journalism out there, as we are reminded.
    Second, the media relies on advertising – cars, upward mobility, stuff. Climate change articles run against the grain of this building block of media.
    Third, there is a massive industry of denial that is well funded and which works on sowing doubt – read “The merchants of Doubt” if you doubt me. As a consequence scientists are loath to go head to head in the debate around climate change as it is a no win situation for them and they gain no academic credibility and more worryingly, can suffer indirect reputational loss, a big bad for scientists.
    Then there is the media itself which feels it has to give equal weight to both sides of the argument when for all intents and purposes there is no longer a debate, the science is cut and dried.
    This takes me back to my initial point – the whole issue is too depressing so instead people remain distracted on celebrity culture, buying stuff, living the aspirational life (and sport – the ultimate distraction!) as we speed to our collective doom…

    Which is even more depressing.

  2. Erica

    Thanks for the interesting post (and thanks Joe for mentioning my Weather article! – by the way, it has been getting much more attention this year than it did when published, which I take to be a good sign).

    I wonder if any of you reading this might be interested to attend a virtual conference on reducing the carbon emissions of research, happening online this week:

    I am chairing two sessions tomorrow (Tuesday) and I believe the talks will be online to view afterwards, although of course it will be more fun to interact with it in real time if you are available then.

  3. Claire

    Unfortunately its not just climate change people (including myself) are apathetic about. It’s difficult to convinve people to save for their own retirement fund (i.e. reducing your living standards a little now in order to manage in the future) – its difficult trying to convince people who live for the present that they should change the way they live their lives for the sake of OTHER people in the future. Many do not have the means to save for their own future, never mind make changes in the way they have always done things for the sake other people. We all suffer from some form of shortsightedness.

  4. Stefaan Conradie

    Also, something that interests me quite a lot is, in how well-positioned are natural scientists working on climate placed to make statements about adaptation and mitigation? I think this is particularly interesting in the light of how often denialists are dismissed on the basis that, though they may be leaders in their own, sometimes loosely related field, they lack the expert knowledge and insight of those engaging actively over a prolonged period in the field. It’s a tricky situation, about which I feel very much divided.

    One matter about which I am often concerned about regarding climate scientists’ comments regarding mitigation is the apparent obsession with transport emissions. Certainly, this sector is responsible for a significant proportion of our carbon footprint and there are ways in which it could be significantly reduced. However, another sector which also contributes significantly (comparing the two is extremely difficult because it’s particularly difficult to fully determine which sector is responsible for what emissions) is often ignored — the livestock sector. There are of course many different arguments against the eating of meat and other animal products — Brendan knows much more about this than me — but the matter does also have particular relevance for climate change mitigation.

  5. Stefaan Conradie

    Thanks for the post Chris – it’s certainly thought-provoking. I suspect that a lack of media (and general public interest) in AR5 is probably linked, as the journalist from your piece said, the fact that it’s hard to sell the same sort of story again. And it does appear that AR5 is, in broad terms, saying the same sort of thing as AR4. What does this mean for the IPCC? In one sense, one could probably interpret it as meaning that the main message of the IPCC has been brought across. Does this mean that the role of the IPCC needs to be rethought? Does it mean people are waiting (possibly in vain) for robust regional information? Does it mean mitigation and adaptation are the spheres that now “really” matter? Does it mean that the ball is now in our court, as individuals?

  6. Joseph

    Thanks for posting this Chris. I too am uncomfortable with my own apathy but I am probably even more uncomfortable with the prospect of changing my lifestyle to a more sustainable path and as a result, apathy wins out! I like to think I live a reasonably modest lifestyle. But in reality, compared to the average global citizen, I probably do “live it up”. I comfort myself in knowing that I do my best to recycle, I don’t spend much on unnecessary luxury goods and I use the bus to get to work – of course using the bike would be even greener but unlike most Capetonians I don’t enjoy cycling up steep hills! But all of these gestures pale into insignificance when I decide to fly to a conference.

    Being in South Africa is not particularly helpful when wanting to engage in the international research community. There is a pressure/need/desire to travel and most trips are long-haul. But even internal flights to Johannesburg or Durban are a problem. Can we really justify traveling 2,000 kilometres for a day-trip?

    Erica Thompson at the LSE wrote a very interesting, and challenging piece on this topic for the journal Weather back in 2011. It is available here. In the article she writes “If I, as a climate scientist, choose nevertheless to fly halfway across the world for a holiday, I would not blame friends for inferring that I do not worry about climate change and they should not either.”

    So based on the fact that I plan to travel back to the UK for Christmas, does that mean a) I don’t worry about climate change, or b) I am simply taking advantage of my current privileged ability to use the world’s dwindling resources for personal benefit at the expense of future generations. I would have to answer the latter. Does that make me a bad person? Probably. But I know most people would do the same in my shoes. And I think that is the point, unless other people sufficiently frown on our activities, and until the cost of flying reflects the true environmental cost, we are unlikely to change, even as “informed” climate scientists. I believe in leading by example but currently I choose not to set the example so I am certainly in no position to lead. I do hope this changes one day, but what I really hope is that they discover alternative energy sources making it guilt free to fly!

    It’s difficult being human.