Why Isn't the Public More Worried About Climate Change?

04/11/2015 15:11 GMT | Updated 04/11/2016 09:12 GMT

If the world's most reputable astronomers at our most prestigious scientific institutions announced tomorrow that an enormous meteor was on a collision course with Planet Earth and that the impact would kill tens of millions of people, cause the extinction one-quarter of the planet's plant and animal species and dislodge enough debris into the atmosphere to alter the climate for centuries to come, there would be an overwhelming public outcry for action. Nations would join forces in efforts to destroy the comet before it reached the Earth and urgent steps would be taken to prepare populations for the consequences if their efforts failed.

Ironically, this is precisely the threat we face today with respect to climate change but, as a new poll released this week by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research points out, without nearly the accompanying sense of urgency. Despite the fact that our best scientists have documented that we are changing the climate, that rising global temperatures will in a matter of decades radically alter our planet--storms, drought, floods, famine, tens of millions of deaths, an explosion in the number of "climate refugees" and the mass extinction of plant and animal species, fewer than one in four Americans are extremely or very worried about climate change and the highest percentage of those polled - 38 percent - are not too worried or not at all worried. And an earlier global opinion poll by the Pew Research Center found that only about half of those surveyed believe climate change is a major threat.

At least three factors explain this lack of urgency. First, unlike in the example of the meteor in which there is a clear all-or-nothing moment to prevent the disaster (by destroying or diverting the meteor), there is no defining moment in the climate change crisis. Essentially, the longer it takes governments to reduce greenhouse gases, the worse the problem will become. Climate change scientists have warned of the risk of climate "tipping points," such as the sudden, massive release of methane from thawing permafrost, but there is still much scientific uncertainty surrounding the timing and magnitude of these impacts. Without a clear defining moment for action it is extremely difficult to focus, mobilise and sustain public attention.

Second, mobilising action and creating a sense of urgency is easier when the crisis involves an external "enemy". As political scientist Ioannis Evrigenis has documented in his award-winning book Fear of Enemies and Collective Action, having an enemy helps otherwise disparate and competing coalitions transcend barriers to collective and sustainable action. In the case of the meteor, the external "enemy" is the meteor itself, but with climate change we are the enemy, as the crisis is a direct consequence of our fossil-fuel-based pattern of development and pursuit of affluence.

The third factor that undermines the sense of urgency and opportunities for political action is that the science of climate change is complex. It has made it easier, for example, for special interest groups funded by the fossil fuel industry to confuse the public by disseminating bogus climate science in order to undercut the scientific consensus.

Climate change campaigners have responded to these various impediments to urgent action in a variety of ways. They have tried to compensate for the absence of a defining moment in the crisis by creating symbolic moments--such as rallying political action around the goal of limiting warming to less than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. They have singled out the fossil fuel industry's disinformation campaigns and political influence as the key external threat in the climate change fight and have countered with a major global campaign promoting divestment from fossil fuels and are rallying action around the notion that the industry's reserves of fossil fuels are "stranded assets" that can never be used if we are to avoid dangerous climate change. Campaigners have also worked closely with scientists on public communications to de-mystify the science of climate change and separate the facts from the disinformation.

These various efforts have certainly contributed significantly to building support for action. The key question is whether the sense of urgency will build rapidly enough to head-off the disaster. The commitments made by Governments ahead of a December meeting in Paris to agree a new climate change agreement currently fall well-short of what is required to prevent dangerous warming. Unlike in the case of the meteor, we have growing, tangible evidence of the crisis on an almost daily basis in the form of record-breaking heat waves, floods, droughts and wildfires. The public has a short memory when it comes to historical changes in the climate, so an additional key task of campaigners and scientists over the months ahead will be to ensure the public understands that these extreme weather events are not normal, but are the early warning of the disaster before us.