The problem of climate boredom

No one’s interested in the things I say. No one wants to listen to you, either. It’s cool, don’t worry – there’s nothing wrong with us. Apathy is a pretty unsurprising component in which issues come to prominence in a society. We don’t care about something unless there’s a good reason to care.

Our default lack of concern about stuff plays a big part in why climate change hasn’t managed to carve out a serious chunk of public discourse in 2016. It played no serious part in public discourse during a recent referendum in the UK, in which the country voted to leave the European Union, and date, it hasn’t played any role in the uniquely insane 2016 US presidential election

The lack of climate discourse in these big, world-changing moments is closely linked to how much change we see in generation technology. Bloomberg New Energy Finance says it’ll take an extra $5.3 trillion of investment in clean energy before 2040 (in addition to the expected amounts below) to avoid a 2°C warming scenario. To see a change of this magnitude manifest on a global scale, you need strong support from people, and the machinations of geopolitics means we all need to consider this issue a priority, for this kind of investment to be unlocked.


Perhaps the people just don’t accept the science? Essential have been running a poll on this for some time, and the results are pretty clear. There have been recent increases in the public acceptance of the core theory of this issue: that human-caused carbon emissions are the key component in a climate system tipping towards serious hotness.

This uptick comes after a down-swing that began in early 2010:

2016_06_30 - Chart1.png

60% might seem kind of low, but consider that in 2013, an Australian Academy of Science (AAS) survey found only 70% of Australians think evolution is occurring. Right now, the same number of Australians think climate change is caused by humans as the number of people who, in 2013, knew it takes one year for the Earth to circle the sun:


Here’s the thing. Increased acceptance of the fact we’re definitely contributing to this serious and immediate risk hasn’t created a change in our priorities. When asked to rank important issues at an election, climate change hasn’t travelled up the ranking, as acceptance of the science has increased:

2016_06_30 - Chart2.png

These two measures of belief and priority are utterly decoupled. We’re happy, now, to accept that our species plays a major role in tipping the fine chemical balance of our gaseous habitat, but this issue is still dwarfed by things like the economy, healthcare and Australian jobs.

This goes against the general wisdom that the only thing stopping strong, immediate global climate action is general ignorance, or misinformation campaigns. Though climate change denial has faded into irrelevance (sort of), we’re still far from cognisant of the scale of this problem, and the immediacy of the threat.



This isn’t all that surprising. Climate change is not the type of threat that we consider threatening. We’re better at detecting risks that manifest as big single events, with rolling media coverage and relatable victims. Things that are mathematically more likely to harm us, but don’t fit these criteria, are under-considered. An example – some German professors estimated that after 9/11, an additional 1,595 people died on American roads, due to a new-found (and somewhat understandable) nervousness around domestic air-travel. 

It’s also become increasingly prevalent that what we believe about climate change isn’t a reflection of an assessment of evidence – it’s a reflection of ourselves. Identity is closely linked with climate change beliefs. Technical and scientific knowledge doesn’t always help – it can even serve as an effective tool for reinforcing existing beliefs. Which is terrifying, but important. Consider this study, that looked at what  happens when you present parents with information on vaccination:

“Corrective information reduced misperceptions about the vaccine/autism link but nonetheless decreased intent to vaccinate among parents who had the least favorable attitudes toward vaccines”

My suspicion is that our current ranking of priorities will flip as climate change starts to impact the issues at the top of our list. Human health, the economy, Australian jobs, equity and fairness will all be affected, directly and indirectly, by climate change. We’ll start to care, because row item 13 on the list of priorities in our head has an enormous, unmistakable impact on rows 1 to 12, and 14 and above. 

By then, it’ll be far too late to prevent serious damage – which leaves us with the frustrating challenge of pushing climate change further up the priority list, and working towards cost reductions in new technology. Either way, we’re still having serious difficulty coming to terms with the vast gulf between acceptance of climate science, and a decreasing desire to do something about it. This isn’t fine.


Header image via the Gun Show Comic

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