SAN DIEGO — From hurricanes to heat waves to the recent “polar vortex,” the public is fascinated — one might even say obsessed — by the weather. Yes, it was cold. Very cold. But did it really deserve to be headline news around the world?
More to the point: Why are so many people deeply captivated by tomorrow’s weather, while remaining oblivious to today’s climate?
Climate change is not a topic for the far future. It is happening here and now. The consequences include major threats to agricultural productivity as rainfall patterns change and as heat waves, floods, droughts and other weather extremes worsen. People and infrastructure along shorelines and in low-lying areas are threatened by sea-level rise. River systems fed by glaciers are directly threatened. For the military and the intelligence community, climate change is a threat multiplier, one that can create millions of environmental refugees and destabilize governments. An ice-free Arctic is a potential hot spot for global conflict. Most reasonable people know all this, yet the majority of the world has failed to make meaningful progress to mitigate human-caused climate change.
There are reasons for the lack of action. Attacks on climate science are often disguises for opposition to policies that might be undertaken if climate change were considered to be a serious problem. People who intensely disapprove of governments levying taxes will not support carbon taxes. Those who most admire free and unregulated markets will be unenthusiastic about cap-and-trade regimes. Others who distrust ceding national sovereignty by signing international agreements will oppose instruments such as the Kyoto Protocol. And then some people either are scientifically illiterate or reject science when it conflicts with their core values or religious convictions.
Outside politics, however, something even more fundamental seems to be at work here: Many people are just deeply fearful of learning bad news. A clear example of this fear is that millions of people refuse to take widely available medical diagnostic tests. These tests, such as mammograms, Pap smears, and colonoscopies, can help determine whether an individual is at risk for certain very serious diseases. They can lead to mitigating actions and lives saved. Yet not only do many people reject taking these tests, but many who do take them do not return to learn the results. Psychologists have termed this behavior “health information avoidance.”
It appears that a parallel phenomenon may be widespread in modern society, which we might call “climate change information avoidance.” Although 97 percent of climate scientists most actively publishing climate research agree that human-caused climate change is real and serious, only 54 percent of the public sees it as a global threat to their countries — and only 40 percent of Americans do. That means a substantial fraction of the global population simply does not understand or accept the reality and seriousness of the problem. In the United States, almost the entire national leadership of the Republican Party rejects mainstream climate science.
For many people, it can be scary to consider what they might be required to do if they take climate change risks seriously. Lifestyle and identity are tightly intertwined, and a threat to someone’s lifestyle — say by a steep rise in the price of oil — may be perceived as an attack on that person’s self-image. Religious convictions can play a major role too, and the idea that puny human beings can somehow affect the global climate by adding heat-trapping substances to the atmosphere seems highly implausible to many people who may ascribe climate changes to divine causes. It is noteworthy that natural disasters are often referred to as “acts of God.”
If I am right — and there indeed is climate change information avoidance — then both the medical profession and communication experts may have much to teach those climate scientists and others who would like to see the world take more meaningful action on mitigating climate change. Priming patients to appreciate the value of medical diagnostic tests has been shown to make them more likely to take these tests and then act on the results. Parallel research might shed light on effective ways of reducing the widespread resistance to taking climate change seriously.
Ignorance is not bliss. Climate change does involve serious threats, but information can bring hope.
Somerville is a climate scientist at the University of California, San Diego Institution of Oceanography.