How People in Society Think About Climate Change
Illustration by William Joel / The Verge
Being raised conservative was difficult for me, especially upon entering my teenage years where I was consistently bombarded with ideas and issues that did not align with what I had always known. My parents were always avid Fox News fans, watching the shows that all spewed what we know now as “infotainment,” filled with invalid statistics and erroneous claims that really held no truth, or at the very least, half-truths. I was given a book as a kid, by my also very staunchly conservative uncle, which was written by Bill O’Reilly, called “Kids Have Rights, Too.” Little did he know, me reading this book really did plant deeply into my head the idea that kids do have rights, and rights to think the way they want ideologically without consideration of the views of their parents. Granted, being that this book was written by O’Reilly, it certainly had a conservative spin on it, discussing how “good kids” who were brought up conservative or religious were being looked down upon in America, but the main message I took from this text was the fact that I had a mind of my own and could ultimately think for myself. Thus, this book was a catalyst for me to begin to question everything, especially through high school while still being bombarded by the propaganda Fox spat out at my family daily, through the vitriolic rants of Rush Limbaugh that my dad ironically listened to at home while jobless because of the economic downturn we saw before Obama became president.
During high school, I took a lot of classes that involved learning about society, how people think and interact, science, and even classes on personal finance and economics. This is when I really started to question my political leanings, seeing as I was learning a lot of contradictory information to what I had been exposed to for the entirety of my childhood and adolescence. I learned about how people think, how they develop psychological biases in one way or another which causes them to be set in their ways. I learned about society; about gentrification, about redlining in real estate, about the unfair treatment minority groups received not just through person-to-person racism but also the systematic discrimination that took place. I learned about our economic downturn in the United States, why it occurred, and about how corrupt corporate America is and just how much politicians are involved with these corporations, having them in their back pocket. This is ultimately the time when my political beliefs made the shift from conservative to liberal, because I was so sick of being in denial of the state of affairs in our country and figured the first step towards doing something about making it better was to denounce the political beliefs given to me by my parents and instead develop my own. The transition to college only helped to further serve this purpose, allowing me to think for myself and really develop my own ideas about our society in America as well as the world as whole, about how humans should interact versus how they actual interact, and about how it is important to have compassion for our fellow citizens as well as compassion for our planet.
But what mattered the most to me, being that I am interested in anything that is remotely science related, was the fact that our environment on Earth is something that politicians aren’t entirely concerned about. Our home here on Earth is currently the only home we have in the universe, and we treat it so poorly across the board, especially in America. I’ve always been a major proponent of taking care of our space and reducing my carbon footprint, but it is increasingly becoming apparent that I am in the minority in America. For example, Klein states in her book that “A 2007 Harris poll found that 71 percent of Americans believed that the continued burning of fossil fuels would alter the climate…In June 2011 the number was down to 44 percent – well under half the population” (Klein, 35). This aligns with my own anecdotal evidence, being that few people take climate change seriously, and those that do, don’t always do something to help reduce the impact they may have on the environment when it can even be as simple as shutting lights off when leaving a room, making the decision to carpool to an event rather than drive separately, or throwing their plastic bottles into the recycling bin at school rather than the trash. These are all conscious decisions I try to make myself, and sometimes it can be difficult to think about because I wonder if I actually make an impact or not. But this is troublesome way of thinking, considering if everyone thought this way, nothing would actually be done to help our planet and our efforts thwarted. It is increasingly apparent that my small contributions toward a cleaner Earth are much needed and very much so helpful toward the environment because I am one more person trying to do something to lessen my effect on the changing climate, and there are a lot of people like me out there that do the same.
Furthermore, as I graduated high school and went to college, the impending feeling of doom about climate change only strengthened as more and more data came out about the warming of our planet. Particularly of interest as well as frightening, is the rate at which our coral reefs, including The Great Barrier reef, are dying due to something called coral bleaching, which is a process that scientists are not sure whether the reefs can recover from or not. Coral bleaching occurs when the temperature of the water becomes too hot, and the reef excretes zooxanthellae, algae which it shares a symbiotic relationship with (Stone). In this process, the coral reef loses its ability to feed itself and ends up starving or being more prone to disease. This is a problem, because coral reefs are home to nearly a fourth of all marine life. Marine life is unable to adapt to this rapid warming, which foreshadows how difficult it could potentially be for humans to adapt to climate change. A lot of the focus lately has been placed moreso on adaption to, rather than reduction of, climate change, which could lead to unwanted problems politically or ethically speaking (Adger, et al. 2009). Adger, et al. (2009) proposes that there are certain limits to adaption to climate change, which we may not foresee at this point in time. How much can we as a species possibly adapt to the very drastic changes that are likely to occur if we do not focus on trying to slow down the changing climate? These are questions that there are no clear answers to, and it feels like humanity is honestly flying by the seat of their pants on what to do about this problem. As we all know, it is difficult to convince people who are set in their ways to change their mind about issues, including climate change. People simply do not want to believe the effect we are having on our planet because it either scares them or does not interest them as they think it will not affect them.
The Great Barrier Reef, 2016. Image: ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies.
Reiterating what was previously indicated, few Americans honestly believe that they will be affected by climate change personally. This is mind blowing to me, considering it is an issue that I have in the back of my mind daily. As Alessandra Potenza discusses in her article, it is “a mixture of politics and psychology” (Potenza). She points out that a great number of Americans do not think climate change is a problem that requires such immediate attention, or worse yet, thinking that even if it is, the US will not be affected. It is a classic case of “it won’t happen to me.” It is astounding, considering the fact that climate change is not only affecting places on the planet where it is already hot, but also affecting these people directly right here where they live. Perhaps the effects are not dramatic enough to make a difference for some, but it eerily foreshadows the future we are destined for if we do not do something to remedy the issue. Extreme weather events have become more and more prevalent, and more intense, such as wildfires or hurricanes. But when one makes mention of this to someone who is in denial about the changing climate, they may hunker down and say “well, it snowed today in Michigan on October 10th, so, climate change must be a made-up government farce.” These people don’t grasp the fact that even in the case of cold-weather events, such as snow out of season in the Midwest, still indicates a changing climate. The misconception here is that “global warming” must consist of only rising temperatures, and hotter days, and that anything that deals with the other side of the spectrum must prove it doesn’t exist. Donald Trump himself, a known climate change denier, tweeted about this, saying that climate change must not be real just because it was cold outside; and this is incredibly problematic because it only further served to perpetuate this misconception (Potenza). Even my own parents are convinced by the snow we are having in April, that this must mean that the climate is not changing. But what they do not realize like other Americans, is the fact that extreme weather like having such cold temperatures in April is a consequence of the changing climate. It does not only affect the Earth in one consistent way – warming. It also affects it in other ways like previously mentioned.
The problem here, is the fact that psychologically speaking, people are going to remain stuck in their ways. Klein tells of “cultural cognition,” a phenomenon that Dan Kahan of Yale’s law school describes as being “the process by which all of us – regardless of political leanings – filter new information in ways that will protect our preferred vision of the good society” (Klein, 36-37). This a social psychological bias that plagues all humans: if we are presented with information that does not conform to our belief system, instead of considering it objectively and reasonably, we tend to reject and attempt to debunk the new information we are presented with. On top of that, Potenza adds that trying to instill fear of the issue in others backfires and doesn’t do anything to modify their behavior or thought processes. She points out that people who don’t believe climate change is occurring are likely rationalizing away the frightening news about it as being “hype,” because “if the problem was that bad, wouldn’t we be putting effort into solving it?” (Potenza). This is problematic because it just further serves to allow people to ignore the problem rather than do something to try to remedy it. Another issue is the fact that since it is such a large scale issue that the entire world must deal with, it is something many feel like they can’t or don’t have to do anything about simply because they think it is out of their hands.
Our confused ecosystem due to climate change. Credit: Lauren Kolesinskas for The New York Times
In order to get people to really care about climate change, there are a few things that can be done. As Potenza says in her article, it is imperative that we correlate climate change to something that clearly overwhelmingly affects people in their daily life, or that will eventually affect them in their daily life. For example, air pollution could be a potential contender, since it can cause a multitude of health problems, in addition to adding to the greenhouse gases that affect our climate. An example of where making this connection works, is China, where the impact of burning coal has left an impact on public health (Potenza). The impact air pollution left inspired the Chinese public to be more invested in clean energy. An obstacle to this is making the resources available for people to be more clean energy friendly, like making electric cars more affordable and solar panels more accessible. But as China shows, this strategy has worked. In America, these kinds of items are certainly becoming easier to obtain regardless of what conservative politicians like Trump want you to believe. People are also noticing the more extreme weather patterns, and polls project that even more Americans are accepting the idea that climate change is a real thing that is causing real events, such as deadly wildfires and hurricanes. These are all steps in the right direction to getting more people to recognize the warning signs of climate change, and to help them understand the stress we are putting our planet under, allowing us to make more moves toward reducing our collective carbon footprint on the world.
A map of how much economic damage climate change could do to different counties in America in the future. Hsiang, Kopp, Jina, Rising, et al./Science
However, according to the New York Times, Congress has finally taken a good leap in the right direction and approved increased funding for clean energy. For example, The Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy received a 14% increase to their budget, which is a major win considering this office is what helped reduce the cost of solar power for Americans (Plumer, Friedman, & Schwartz). This is unprecedented considering the attitude most conservatives take up with the idea of climate change and what we can do to help mitigate it and/or adapt to it. There has been an uptake in support for research on clean energy, but not necessarily because of the desire to help our planet, but because some politicians consider it a way for us to gain an advantage in innovation around the world (Plumer, Friedman, & Schwartz). Naturally, due to the nature of capitalism, anything that is seen as giving America an edge against the competition is welcome whether it be renewable energy or fossil fuel energy. This is what has helped the solar and wind power industries flourish politically, making it more difficult for dedicated deniers of climate change to demolish efforts made to promote clean energy.
On the flipside, the EPA under the Trump Administration has made efforts to minimize the clear idea that humans have majorly contributed to climate change activity. The agency has been pushing officials to talk about how there are “clear gaps” in the science about whether or not climate change is caused by humans. As Stracqualursi describes, Scott Pruitt, the administrator of the EPA, has acknowledged that climate change “is a reality, but has questioned the extent to which it is caused by human activities and the authority of his agency to regulate it,” however, he also encouraged “an open, transparent debate on climate science” (Stracqualursi). This is entirely contradictory and opaque, because the science is clear on the fact that humans do contribute to the changing climate, with the US Global Exchange describing that “it is extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century,” as well as that “there is no convincing alternative explanation” (Stracqualursi). On the contrary to this report by the Global Exchange, the EPA took down all language from their page that described the use of renewable resources for energy and all references to climate change from its website.
It is clear that climate change is occurring, and at a rate of which humanity cannot keep up. Mitigation of the effects we have on the climate are no longer the only option we have, and adaption will be necessary to ensure our future on Earth. However, there are potential limits to adaption, as well as the fact that still a lot of people, especially in America, do not want to believe the very real science behind climate change. It sometimes feels as if we take two steps backward for every step forward, considering Congress’s action on climate change versus the EPA’s reaction to climate science. Hopefully, in the years to come, humanity will begin to realize the implications of not taking care of our planet and shift the focus onto clean, renewable energy as well as take any measures possible to adapt to the already changing climate.