Stop Worrying About Climate Deniers – We Won’t Escape Extreme Warming Unless we Deal with Climate Apathy

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Climate science denial is actually pretty rare, so why do we keep talking about it? asks Leo Barasi, author of the new book, The Climate Majority. Instead, he argues, let’s focus on a much more widespread problem: climate apathy.

We should stop talking so much about climate denial. That might seem a surprising message from the author of a book on public opinion about climate change, but I’m convinced it’s the right answer for those of us who want more action to cut emissions.

Look at the news and climate denial seems to be everywhere. It’s common in the media, as Newsweek readers and UK radio listeners have recently been reminded, while its grip on the White House seems stronger than ever.

But among the public, denial is quite rare. As I show in my book, The Climate Majority, in comparison with the proportion that think climate change won’t be a threat, Americans are more likely to think 9/11 was a US government plot, more Brits think Princess Diana was assassinated, not killed accidentally, and Canadians are more likely to say Bigfoot is real. Those are fringe conspiracy theories, and it’s right they’re treated as such.

Climate Apathy

And yet we still get distracted by climate denial, when our real target should be climate apathy. Many people, perhaps half the population, understand that climate change is real and a threat but just don’t think about it very much and don’t understand why they would need to change their lives to deal with it. If that apathy isn’t tackled, the world will face dangerous warming.

As the world looks at the emissions it needs to cut, some parts of the job are easier than others. Most progress so far has come from closing and cancelling coal power plants. Doing that hasn’t really had to draw on public support. It’s distant from most people’s lives and is the kind of thing that governments – or markets – can do without paying all that much attention to what the public think.

But it won’t be long before the world exhausts easier changes like that. When that happens the remaining emissions cuts will have to come from activities that directly affect many people’s day-to-day lives. Two of the most challenging are flying and eating meat. The world is going to have to radically cut emissions from both – but in the two areas, emissions look set to increase. Without action, either could effectively make it impossible for the world to prevent dangerous warming.

In areas like these, public opinion will be crucial, yet it’s unlikely that widespread support would be forthcoming so long as so many people are apathetic. The Climate Majority looks at the causes of apathy and what can overcome it.

Explaining Apathy

Human psychology is part of the explanation. Several factors make climate change poorly suited to capturing most people’s attention – like the physical distance and time lag between activity, emissions and effect, and the slowness and complexity of the process.

That might make climate apathy seem inevitable, but I don’t believe it is. The ways that climate change is often talked about reinforce apathy, ignoring the lessons from studies of psychology and political campaigning. This includes the failure to show most people – particularly those in rich and high-emitting countries – what extreme climate change would mean for their own lives, and the reliance on abstract small numbers that are not well understood (for example, on average, the UK public think the threshold for dangerous warming is 8°C/14°F rather than 1.5°C-2°C).

On top of this there’s the political polarisation of climate change. It’s widely seen as an issue that concerns liberals more than moderates and conservatives, particularly in the US. This puts off those who don’t identify with the left and so they don’t see climate change as something that people like themselves are interested in.

There are no magic words that will make everyone care about climate change but, as I outline in the book, there are ways of dealing with these causes of apathy. We can get much better at showing how the consequences of extreme warming would affect the people we’re talking to, and we can address the perception that it’s solely an issue of the left.

Bring on the Controversies

But what of the deniers? While they’re not the focus of the book we can’t just ignore them, nor should we deny the success they’ve had in delaying action. Their goal is to cast doubt on the reality of climate change to slow action and, while they’re now losing, they haven’t given up.

Part of the answer is to keep pulling off the veil to show what’s really going on – exposing the money trails, hypocrisy and vested interests, so fossil fuel-funded lobbyists can’t keep influencing decisions from the shadows. 

But another part of the answer is to show that the climate deniers are far less interesting than they seem. They get media coverage because they provide controversy for stories about climate change, but they’ve only got one argument to make. There are many other interesting and contentious issues about how we deal with climate change, about which the deniers have nothing to say – for example, on questions about how the burden of cutting emissions should be shared.

If we want to win over the apathetic, we should bring on these controversies, not shy away from them. Resolving the emission-cutting challenges to come can only be done in plain sight – it’s time we started embracing that.

The Climate Majority: Apathy and Action in an Age of Nationalism by Leo Barasi is published by New Internationalist on 21 September 2017.

Photo: John McQuaid via Flickr | CC2.0

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