In the last three years the impacts of climate change have accelerated and worsened. More and stronger hurricanes. Massive wildfires and a wildfire season that is almost year-round. Flooding in some places and water shortages in others. Intense summer heat waves.
You’d think people would be more concerned than ever. You’d be wrong. An Associated Press poll found a significant drop in the percentage of Americans who are extremely or very concerned about how climate change might impact them personally. When the AP asked that question in 2019, 44% said they were very concerned. This month it was only 35%. Meanwhile, the percentage of us who say we’re not concerned at all jumped from 25% to 32%.
So, what gives?
Well, the AP poll didn’t provide an obvious answer, but, oddly, they asked climate scientists for an explanation. That’s odd because you wouldn’t think that climate scientists would have any special expertise in public opinion. But, for what it’s worth, their answer was that people are overwhelmed by more immediate problems, like inflation.
Maybe. But there were plenty of more immediate problems back in 2019, including a President who was setting off firecrackers under your chair pretty much every hour. And, as I mentioned above, climate change impacts have only become more dramatic since then. So, the ‘more immediate concerns’ explanation leaves me cold (bad pun, sorry).
My candidates for what appears to be a growing nonchalance about a big problem are adaptation and fatigue.
Let’s start with adaptation. The old saying is that you can’t change the weather. Yeah, I know. Climate is different from weather, but weather is what people experience on a day-to-day basis. Climate is abstract while weather is real. And, in fact, we can’t do anything about it. You can’t stop the rain, but you can grab an umbrella. So, people have accepted the reality of extreme weather and they’re adapting while they go about their lives.
That’s consistent with another finding in the poll: fewer people think their personal actions can impact climate change. In other words, they don’t think they can do much about the huge, global problem of climate, so they’re adapting to the immediate personal experience of weather.
Of course, they’re right. A single individual’s actions will have no effect on climate. It would take mass actions among millions of people to make a difference. That’s why the poll found that most people look to governments and corporations for answers. Makes sense.
So, I’d say adaptation to the reality of climate change is one explanation for the decline in worry about it. The other explanation I’ll offer is fatigue. How many times have you heard some breathless report that “time is running out!” and we “must take drastic action now to save the planet!”?
Castastrophication (new word invented here) has been a common problem and a strategy in the environmental movement forever. To hear GreenPeace tell it everything is going to hell and only your $50 contribution today can save the planet now. So, yeah, some of this is about raising money. But I know a lot of enviros. Most of them are like this. They are not cynical. They are not trying to manipulate you. They are extremely earnest. To a fault. They truly believe everything is going to hell. It’s who they are. It’s what they do.
So, along with the documented increase in climate-related disasters has come an increase in the shrillness of the message. The finger-wagging among climate warriors has become even more furious. Most average people respond by shutting them down. Most people don’t respond well to being lectured at, shamed and being told how to live their lives. Weird.
But here are two pieces of happy news. First, you know that government action people are looking for in lieu of making personal changes? It’s finally happening with Pres. Joe Biden signing a big bill this week that spends hundreds of billions on the problem.
In truth, I’m skeptical that all that money will speed up changes that were already happening in the marketplace commensurate with the cost. U.S. greenhouse gas emissions have already declined to where they were 30 years ago and, since the population has grown over that time, emissions per capita are down 20%. And all that progress was made in the absence of any big government program. But all those billions are likely to produce at least some marginal improvement over what would have happened anyway. Worth the money? I don’t know, maybe not. But progress is a good thing.
And the second happy thing is that, while people might see their personal efforts as futile, they’re doing good stuff anyway. Even while fewer people say they’re worried about the climate, more people are actually doing things that will reduce greenhouse gasses. More people are turning off lights, buying efficient appliances, driving less and other things. Even the massive F-150 pickup truck, the most popular vehicle in America, is going green (light weight aluminum and electric) and that happened long before the climate change legislation passed. Folks are doing these things for practical reasons, mostly to save money. They are not doing them for the abstract, seemingly out of reach cause of saving the planet. But who cares? It gets us to the same place.
Which brings me to my basic point. To cool the planet, I think we’d be better off cooling the rhetoric. Concentrate instead on encouraging people to do things that save them money. Focus on the nitty and the gritty and the personal bottom line, not more breathless, whiney, self-righteous preaching from people like (God help us) Greta Thunberg, the grim teenager of doom.
I’m actually optimistic for Greta’s generation thanks to the good things my generation is doing for hers. (You’re welcome, kids!) We solved acid rain and the hole in the ozone layer and we’ve dramatically improved air and water quality. The problem with gray wolves is no longer extinction, but how to manage their growing numbers. Population didn’t turn out to be a “bomb”, but more of a bust. The concern now isn’t a crowded planet but an aging population with not enough young people to pay the bills. Almost all environmentalists’ claims of impending disaster over the last half century did not come to pass. We tend to figure stuff out.
The AP poll found that, while fewer of us are concerned for ourselves, most of us are more worried for future generations. I feel just the opposite way. Nothing can be done in the remainder of my lifetime to reverse the ravages of climate change. It’ll get much worse before it gets better and by the time it gets better I’ll be much worse (as in dead). But for Greta’s generation it’s pretty certain that greenhouse gas emissions will be all but eliminated and carbon sequestration will work on a massive scale. And for Greta’s children the problem will be all but solved so they can focus on getting everybody else to pay off their college loans.
Things are getting better and they’ll get better more rapidly if we don’t encourage people to get their backs up by harping at them all the time. As is usually the case, liberals can do themselves a favor and help their own causes by just backing off with all the preaching already.