It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine

Last month, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released the final part of its Fifth Assessment Report, “the most comprehensive assessment of climate change yet undertaken.”

This was a pretty big deal. The IPCC, formed in 1988 (the year before that REM song came out), synthesizes the work of thousands of scientists around the world and publishes a report every six years.

Each report has been more dire than the last, though some argue that it’s nothing we haven’t heard before:  greenhouse gas concentrations are rising, the earth is getting warmer, humans are the cause, and it’s all only getting worse.

So why ARE we still doing research? The results are in, the science is clear – isn’t it time to ACT?

Well, yeah. The time to act was like, sixty years ago. So why haven’t we?

In a lot of ways, we have. The renewable energy sector is growing,  more people are recycling and driving hybrid cars, and governments are making pledges to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This very week the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change is meeting in Lima, Peru to discuss steps for moving forward. But it’s not enough. Atmospheric CO2 concentrations are still increasing, the seas are still rising, and still not everyone’s convinced.

Oxfam hungry for climate action at Durban Climate Conference. Photo courtesy of Ainhoa Goma/Oxfam [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]
Oxfam hungry for climate action at Durban Climate Conference. Photo courtesy of Ainhoa Goma/Oxfam [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0].
A 2012 study at Yale University and George Mason University surveyed Americans about their perceptions of climate change. The study grouped people into six categories based on their answers: Alarmed, Concerned, Cautious, Disengaged, Doubtful, and Dismissive. The first two groups believe climate change is happening, but only the Alarmed are serious about taking action. The Alarmed make up 16% of respondents. The largest group is the Concerned, at 29%, followed by the Cautious, at 25%.

GW Six Americas graph

These numbers are from interviews over a 12-month period. The survey is still ongoing, however, and you can take it here:

As an environmental student, I was somewhat surprised to find that I fall in the “Concerned” category, not the “Alarmed” category. Surely I must be in the group of people that cares the most about the environment? But while I obviously think climate change is one of the major problems we face today, I do have a hard time saying that I’m “alarmed” by it. And I had to ask myself, why is that? And if I’m not alarmed, why would people who care less about the environment than I do be alarmed?

When this last IPCC report came out, I didn’t hear much about it. My peers weren’t talking about it. My professors weren’t talking about it. My family and friends definitely weren’t talking about it. But it’s big news, even if it’s just another nail in the coffin. So why aren’t we alarmed?

There are a lot of possible reasons we haven’t acted: Change is hard, and inconvenient. There’s a lot of red tape you have to cut through to make widespread change. Sometimes change is expensive. But mostly, we don’t care. And pinning down why we don’t care is tricky.

One answer is that we aren’t emotionally invested. We don’t see how climate change affects us personally. The threat does not feel immediate. Climate change doesn’t hurt people we care about.

Think about issues that people get invested in, issues that people will make big changes for,  issues that people will talk to their friends about: Ebola. Terrorism. Cancer.

Those are scary words. Now think “climate change.” It just doesn’t elicit that same gut-wrenching, visceral response. Compared to those other issues, climate change is nebulous. It feels vague and far away.

So what’s the answer? More research, more graphs, more surveys? No. We need to change how we talk about climate change. We need to start telling stories. People don’t start caring about an issue when you show them numbers and graphs. People start caring about an issue when you put a face on it.

And no, this doesn’t mean taking pictures of “scared scientists.” It means showing how real people and places are harmed by the effects of climate change – sea level rise, species loss, extreme weather events.

At the recent People’s Climate March in New York, people who have lost their homes to hurricanes and rising waters put a face on climate change. They are concerned for themselves and those they love.

If we start telling these stories, we may just start to care.

People's Climate March in NYC, 2014. Photo courtesy of South Bend Voice [CC BY-SA 2.0].
People’s Climate March in NYC, 2014. Photo courtesy of South Bend Voice [CC BY-SA 2.0].