We all know about climate change. Most people know how it’s caused, what its effects are, and what we can do about it to help. The protests of groups such as Extinction Rebellion, and people such as Greta Thunberg have forced ordinary people and world leaders alike to confront an issue they pushed to the side for too long.

The vast majority of us engage with the climate in a passive way, thinking: “Yes, I care about the climate, I will do what I can to protect it, but I have other priorities and more important things to do”. On an individual scale at school one might be informed and knowledgeable about the climate, but unwilling to invest any time into helping it.  We have all felt this way at one point or another, so rather than throw around blame, we need to answer the question: why do we find it so hard to actively engage with climate change, even now?

Firstly, the climate change problem is peculiar. Climate change in a worst case scenario is essentially world-ending. Only, it’s not the kind we might imagine: it’s not an asteroid crushing the Earth, but invisible odourless gases. Harvard professor Daniel Gilbert noticed that we take alarm to terrorism, but much less to global warming, even though the odds of the latter occurring are much higher. This is wired into our biology – climate change simply fails to trigger the defensive system in our body the same way that a world-ending asteroid would.

According to Gilbert[1] there must be four components in a crisis to cause us to worry : 1) The cause of the threat is human. In other words, when we have a face, a person, that we can attach to the problem, it makes it more immediate to us. There is no single person causing climate change that we can blame, but rather the collective result of humanity’s activities, which makes it such a difficult problem to deal with. 2) It is short-term. Instead of being relatively short-lived, there will be gradual warming over decades. Our brains are better adapted to deal with immediate danger, rather than complex, long-term problems. 3) It is sudden rather than gradual. Rather than a sudden change in our environment that usually trigger’s a human’s “fight or flight” reaction, a gradual change is harder to adapt to, as the brain is less able to perceive a threat. 4) It has a moral component. Climate change is not an inflammatory issue like many that dominate the news. Until recently, The issue of climate change has not been an issue that inspired the same urge and outrage from people as a politician making a disrespectful remark. Whilst both issues are important, climate change doesn’t receive the same attention, and remains in the back of many people’s minds..

Also, the climate change problem is unusual in both its simplicity and its complexity. There seem to be no ethical minefields when it comes to climate change, unlike issues such as artificial intelligence. Moreover, unlike other issues in the world today, such as poverty, war, and famine, the solution to climate change is clear: reduce CO2 emissions. Admittedly, there are caveats to this, such as the question of how we can do this while maintaining normalcy; keeping everybody satisfied whilst urging them to compromise. However, in the end, it does come down to the fact of CO2 emissions. Although this seems simple in theory, in practice, there still remain a lot of misconceptions about climate change. The story of climate change, though perhaps the most important issue of our time, simply isn’t as compelling as we would like it to be in order to engage people. In other words, scientists have found a hard time convincing the public that this is an issue worth caring about. The public and governments across the world have been bombarded with facts and figures about impending climate doom for years, and yet many people still deny its existence. In recent times, climate change only came to the forefront of the public eye when the numerous droughts, hurricanes, floods and wildfires became a reality. Although facts and figures do help to spur on climate action, such is the nature of the problem, and the way our minds work, that it becomes difficult for people to truly engage with the solution.

Solving climate change will require engaging people so that they are actively part of the solution. When people invest their time into climate action  through protesting or creating changes in companies, politicians and corporations will follow when elections and profits on the line. However, this cannot happen until the majority of people, the people who care about climate change but don’t have the time to act, do so.

Many people assume that the only thing they can do is to reduce their energy consumption, such as by walking instead of driving. This does help, but there is something far more valuable that this issue demands: your time.


[1] https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5530483

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